The Himalayan stand-off between the two giants of Asia at Doklam has captured the attention of the people of India and China. The daily news inputs about the Doklam standoff and bellicose rhetoric and warnings, particularly from the Chinese side, add to the already tense situation at hand. The more the impasse prolongs the greater risk it generates in sparking off jingoistic fervor in both the countries.
As the deadlock continues, the Chinese leadership is busy flag-waving and showcasing an ‘invincible’ image of its armed forces to its domestic audience. The stakes has significantly risen as compared to the initial days of the standoff. It is no longer only limited to the Chinese attempt at disturbing the status-quo in the Doklam frontier but the standoff is being seen, in spirit, as the embodiment of the India-China geopolitical rivalry in the region.
Doklam Standoff: The Root and the Cause
The standoff started with the Chinese attempting to construct a road towards the jampheri ridge. The construction of the road will not only out flank the Indian position at Doka La but will also lead the Chinese right to the foothills near the Siliguri corridor which connects mainland India with the North eastern states. A strong Chinese position overlooking India’s ‘chicken’s neck’ will have serious security implications for India. Moreover the construction of the road on disputed territory will undermine the territorial sovereignty of Bhutan, with whom India shares a special relationship.
Though the construction of the road could have been a Chinese ploy to test India’s resolve in protecting Bhutan’s sovereignty but the Indian response has taken the Chinese by surprise. Unlike other standoffs between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the past, this time India has confronted Chinese encroachments against a third country. For India it was a question of India’s commitment for its friendly neighbor and also to stop Chinese army from gaining tactical hold on an area which is critical to its territorial security.
The Spirited Indian response has infuriated China because India’s actions were pre-emptive in nature and was in the defense of a third country. For China the impasse is taking place within its own boundary and, as such, if it relents then it risks loosening its claim of sovereignty on the area. Furthermore, if the Chinese give in then it will be a blow to the Chinese claim of dominance in Asia and countries in the region will reaffirm more faith to the idea of India as a counter balance to Chinese power and influence. Its prestige as a great power will take a beating and it will hamper its global and geo-strategic outreach.
For India, it has already committed itself for the defence of Bhutan’s territorial sovereignty by confronting China from Bhutanese land and if India back-pedals on its commitment, then it will not augur well for India’s position in the subcontinent. It will amount to India bowing under Chinese pressure. It will have serious ramifications for India’s relationship with Bhutan as the tiny Himalayan kingdom will be forced to accept Chinese suzerainty to protect itself.
There will be huge implications for India’s relations with Nepal, which is increasingly engaging with China after the debacle of the madhesi blockade. Overall the image of India as a rising power and a counter to Chinese expansionism will take a hard beating. So, as the standoff continues longer and more heated rhetoric are exchanged, it will become more difficult for the political leadership of both the countries to back down and diffuse the tension.
Doklam Standoff: A Repeat of 1962 War between India and China?
Though recently India has been threatened with a repeat of 1962 but war will be the last thing that both these countries will want. India is the defensive actor in the larger geopolitical configuration of the region and will try every measure to avoid war without losing face or surrendering national interests. For China, a war with India, will spell doom to its international reputation and soft power. A war will lay bare to Chinese pretensions of ‘Peaceful rise’ and shatter Chinese soft power, which has already suffered due to its aggressive posturing in the South China Sea.
Despite all that, a war may not be completely out of the picture. The Chinese armed forces have been modernising and have been reorganised to engage in quick and short wars. The idea of a quick and punitive war in the Himalayan frontier to teach the Indians a lesson, along the lines of 1962 war, may still appear tempting to the Chinese leadership; or perhaps, a small localised offensive can be a feasible option for the Chinese to assert its dominance but it risks triggering a larger conflict. The recent Chinese military exercises can point to a military build-up or, may be, the exercises were held to exert psychological pressure on India? Only in the coming days it will be clear.
As the deadlock continues, it will bring the elements of brinkmanship into play and the psychological stakes will rise. The Standoff will continue until both sides decide to withdraw and preserve the status quo in the Doklam area. A China, which has stopped adhering to the principle of ‘peaceful rise’ and believes that it is strong enough to move beyond Deng Xiaoping dictum of ‘hide one’s capabilities and bide one’s time’, will not relent easily and a rising India, which has grown in confidence and aspires for greater geopolitical role in the Indo-pacific, will not look to squander its international prestige and jeopardize its national security by submitting to Chinese coercive policies and diplomatic bullying.
As such a bilateral mechanism for conflict resolution can be pursued whereby both the sides participate in talks and confidence building measure, so as to prepare the right political atmosphere for joint withdrawal at Doklam. If India and China fail to control the tension emitting out of the Doklam standoff then it would not augur well for the global as well as geopolitical aspirations of both the countries. If war revisits the icy Himalayas then there won’t be any clear winner.