Did India actually prevail in Doklam standoff against China?
The dragon, however, does not forget easily and the next round could be different.
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The recent incursion of Chinese road builders in Arunachal Pradesh and the build-up across the McMahon Line are indicative of the earlier major standoff in Doklam not being a one-off incident. We need to be watchful of some endearing statements professing friendship that have recently emanated from China, as also the contrarian ones like that of the Chinese foreign minister after the recent Delhi RIC summit which categorically stated that the Doklam incident was caused by “Indian troops' illegal crossing of India-China boundary”.
These represent a wily China, used to riding roughshod over others by virtue of its economic and military power — and with the guile of a fox that thinks long term. So while the argument of "avenging" a "century of humiliation" is advanced as a rationale for its expansionism now that its economic graph is on the upswing, the same antagonism was not visible three decades earlier when the Japanese were welcomed for their investments and the South Koreans wooed to get technology for heavy industry.
The Doklam euphoria, therefore, needs to be tempered with cold logic, especially since reports confirm a large Chinese build-up of soldiers and military equipment across the Chumbi Valley and the construction of semi-permanent structures indicates a long-term cross-winter deployment.
Did India prevail in Doklam? Tactically yes, but in the long term a higher level of commitment of troops and material from our side would be required round the year. This does not imply that Chinese designs to build the controversial road should not have been pre-empted. India had the first mover’s advantage in the issue. So, to push out Indian troops the onus of using violence and starting a conflict fell on the Chinese; India was placed higher on the escalation ladder and won the war of perceptions when Beijing blinked.
Stratfor, the world’s leading geopolitical intelligence platform, wrote that “it’s possible Modi used the threat of his absence (from the BRICS summit that was to follow) as a bargaining chip to goad China into an agreement,” while the Indian media went into raptures on the "tough stand" taken.
The dragon, however, does not forget easily and the next round could be different; it may not be a Doklam but a repeat of Chumar and Depsang incidents where the Chinese had come in first and established camp, putting India in the unenviable position of negotiating to push them out — the escalation ladder would kick-in again and India would be in the difficult position of having to decide whether to take the opprobrium of being the first to use force and start a war.
Four steps, two each in the short and long term, need to be taken to avoid getting into this trap. First, relations with our neighbours need to be nurtured to offset Chinese largesse; it is crunch time for India’s diplomatic corps now. Second, the Indian tendency to get euphoric at having temporarily addressed an emergency, a la Chamberlain who bought a transitory piece with Hitler by agreeing to look the other way while the latter annexed Sudtenland, can only have long-term deleterious results. Hence, it should be made known to Beijing its incursions do not augur well for peace and India’s resolve shown earlier was not a flash in the pan. The media could be a conduit for conveying a message about our own preparedness.
Third, for the long term, the tough posture that we hereafter adopt in any transgression needs to be backed by the rapid development of the indigenous capability to manufacture arms. If there is no political bickering in the field of nuclear and space affairs, as they are considered symbols of national prestige, shouldn’t defence acquisitions be placed at the same high pedestal? In geopolitics, loss of credibility need not require reversal in a full-fledged war; India is fighting a hybrid war, in which small skirmishes modulate perceptions and the reporting of even minor tactical setbacks are enough to dent the strategic standing of a country.
Doklam, where we had the advantage of a favourable lay of land, raised our standing; but the terrain along our long borders is not favourable everywhere. It would be India’s military capability that would deter an adversary and its indigenous development needs to be a bi-partisan goal for our political class.
Finally, since military manufacturing capability cannot come overnight, strategic tie-ups like the budding India-US partnership and the "quad" need to be nurtured; it would be prudent that even as we do so, adequate insurance is built-in to avoid reversals like changes in US policy due a change in presidency — assertions of US support in its latest National Security Strategy notwithstanding. Once again, a bi-partisan approach would be necessary and the requirement is for entities on either side of the political divide to be on the same page to help build military deterrence to prevent further Doklams.