Doklam standoff: Options that weren't there for India

There is a realisation that neither is interested nor can afford a full-blown war.

 |  3-minute read |   16-08-2017
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Over the past two months, there has been much debate over India's reaction to Chinese road construction in Doka La (Doklam) plateau, a narrow strip of land that sits in between China, Bhutan and India.

Historically, this is an area of dispute between Bhutan and China. For India, Doklam is Bhutanese territory claimed by China. So, in this great regional war and continuing cartographic aggression by China, what were the options in front of Bhutan and for India.

I met the Bhutanese delegation in Kathmandu on the sidelines of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) ministerial meet. They refused to speak on the current crisis completely, but emphasised that the matter be resolved "peacefully" and "amicably".

The fact that the aggrieved nation does not wish to comment on this issue at all goes to show the vulnerability of Bhutan. More so, how dependent Bhutan is on India to keep its sovereignty intact.

Despite the ramifications of taking on China, India was undeterred in honouring the bilateral understanding between Bhutan and India to protect each other's national interests.

Is India prepared?

So, India went to the rescue of Bhutan even though the latest report of the comptroller and auditor general suggests that with only 20 per cent of its critical ammunition available, there is not much that the military has to fight with.

modi_081617033146.jpgChina might have miscalculated India's response.

Despite the fact that according to the same report the current defence budget has been reduced by 0.9 per cent to 1.56 per cent of the GDP, the lowest since prior to the 1962 conflict.

Why then did India move in?

A crisis with many layers but just one option. China's cartographic and maritime aggression is not unknown to the world. Changing narratives to suit the change in status quo is also not new but what is new is India's response.

That there was a realisation in the Indian security establishment that any kind of allowance in an area that could compromise the security of both Bhutan and India was out of question.

Would diplomatic engagement by India have helped matters?

Not really. The dip in India-China relations because of India's growing engagement with US and Japan is one of the major reasons why an absolutely riled China was provoking India. But China might have miscalculated India's response.

India entering Chinese territory and risking ties with the latter surely has come as a shock. But for India, there wasn't a choice to make - it was either India losing control of her Northeast, and Bhutan her sovereignty or standing up to the might of a powerful giant that is not so invulnerable after all.

A battle for hegemony

It is a battle for hegemony in the region where China bullies other nations with its military and economic might. While the military supremacy is undoubted, it is the economic supremacy where China needs Indian markets as much as India needs the Chinese imports.

There is a realisation that neither is interested or can afford a full-blown war. The only issue is how to de-escalate the standoff without losing face. In time, there could be some let-up, but doesn't seem likely for now.

Also read: China wants war with India, make no mistake

Writer

Geeta Mohan Geeta Mohan @geeta_mohan

The writer is the Foreign Affairs Editor at IndiaToday

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