Doklam standoff: Why India appears strong and China weak

One needs to understand what is Thucydides Trap.

 |  4-minute read |   19-08-2017
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Power transition puts geopolitical equations in a flux and needs delicate handling to avoid war. As China challenges US supremacy, its recent actions speak of it brooking no peer as it attempts parity. But this goes against the grain of history where unchallenged unipolarity has not been the norm for long.  

Smaller nations acquiesce to the strong or form alliances but there comes an inevitable cyclic downturn, new power centres appear and history continues. The ongoing two-month-old standoff at Doklam, where Indian and Chinese soldiers are eyeball to eyeball, and the recent "stone throwing" at Pangong Tso in Eastern Ladakh need to be viewed through this power prism. 


Thucydides, the Athenian General who took part-in and wrote the famous tome on the 5BC Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, has spawned many recent analyses on what American historian Graham Allison calls the "Thucydides Trap." These talk of a rising China challenging an existing power America that may cause either to fall into the T-trap. 

A similar situation prevails between India and China — only that China thinks it is already a power, like the Spartans, and India is the rising one a la the Athenians. The actions, however, are reversed at Doklam — a rising India wants status quo at the border but the one that has risen higher (China) has adopted a threatening stance.  

Calm and composed public statements, but resolute holding action on the ground, have marked India’s posture while China’s belligerence and provocative and undiplomatic utterances (calling India’s foreign minister a liar) require deeper analysis. 

Have the Chinese reacted uncharacteristically or is this their "new normal?" Japan arrested a Chinese trawler captain for illegal fishing and collision with a Japanese ship in 2010 resulting in stoppage of export of rare minerals for Japanese software industry; the Captain was released.  

Remember their aggressive media blitzkrieg in 2016 before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled in favour of the Philippines in the South China Sea dispute and thereafter their outright rejection of the award?

And the visit of the Dalai Lama to Mongolia in November 2016 so incensed the Chinese that they imposed crippling trade taxes on that land locked nation; the Mongolians assured them that this would not happen again.  



And now Vietnam has capitulated to Chinese threats, by stopping oil exploration in the South China Sea. 

To understand Chinese belligerence vis-a-vis India at Doklam, arguments have been advanced citing the approaching Communist Party Congress in November and the necessity of President Xi Jinping to appear "tough" and resolute; analysts, however, have missed the greater game of escalation dominance being played as part of a continuum of Chinese efforts to enhance deterrence through disproportionate actions against opposing nations.  


Only, this time it has come across a "delinquent" India that has opposed its signature Belt and Road Initiative and not budged from Doklam, hurting this attempted coercive makeover. That’s where the T-trap comes in. 

Back in 5BC, the rise of Athens caused an outpouring of nationalistic fervour, where to advise prudence and caution was to cast oneself as anti-national and a coward; it pushed its leadership to a disastrous 27-year war against the established power Sparta that brought misery to both the nations. 

Is the situation replaying, this time in China, where the press has gone ballistic with officials issuing threats and the Global Times accusing the Indian government of "being reckless" and warning Indian soldiers with "expulsion in two weeks?” 

India, like any sovereign nation, has non-negotiable national interests. It, like any rising nation, considers having a zone of influence; it is not China’s universe alone and its leadership must realise that falling into the T-trap would be disastrous for both. Actually, the reputational loss for China would be much greater since it is attempting to become a world statesman.  

Would "Doklam" spiral out and not stay localised, is impossible to forecast — but for sure, the famous Thucydides dialogue, “In the real world, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must,” does not apply to India. India has its options and Chinese leadership must ensure that honour and interests do not become deviant intoxicants in its decision making. 

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Also read: 7 boardroom break-ups that have rattled India Inc


AVM Manmohan Bahadur AVM Manmohan Bahadur @bahadurmanmohan

The writer is a retired Air Vice Marshal and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.

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