September 1, 2017
In June 2017, a military standoff occurred between China and India as China attempted to extend a road on the Doklam plateau southwards – a disputed area. Doklam is near the Doka La pass and Indian troops moved in to prevent the Chinese from building a road that could allow Chinese troops to cut India’s access to its northeastern states. Bhutan formally objected to China's road construction in the disputed area and India deployed troops on behalf of Bhutan, with which it has a close relationship.
Doklam is an area with a plateau and a valley, lying between Tibet's Chumbi Valley to the north, Bhutan's Ha Valley to the east and India's Sikkim state to the west. It has been depicted as part of Bhutan in the Bhutanese maps since 1961, but it is also claimed by China. The area is of strategic importance to all three countries.
During the Doklam stand-off, China’s state-owned propaganda apparatus mounted an unprecedented offensive not seen in over forty years and which revealed that the Chinese Communist leadership cared little about improving Sino-Indian ties and had scant regard for Indian sensitivities.
The disengagement, which recently took place, came just before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was scheduled to travel to Xiamen in China for the BRICS summit from September 3 to 5.
The following editorial was published in the Hindustan Times, Aug. 29, 2017; written by Jayadeva Ranade. Ranade is a former additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat, Government of India and is presently president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.
The announcement in Beijing and New Delhi on August 28, 2017, of a simultaneous disengagement of Indian and Chinese troops – who had faced-off on the high altitude Doklam Plateau for three months – is a welcome first step. It came after China continuously insisted for three months that the disputed 89 sq. km Doklam Plateau is Chinese territory and made a variety of threats against India of the kind not seen in the past forty years. After a disingenuous initial statement implying that Indian troops alone had withdrawn, China later, in reply to a specific question, clarified that troops from both sides had pulled back. India separately announced that the bulldozers and earthmoving equipment brought by the Chinese had been removed, making it apparent that China has undertaken to cease building the road to Gyemochen through the Doklam Plateau, which was the main reason for India’s objection.
While China and pro-Chinese analysts will now talk of looking ahead and continuing relations as before, the fact remains that China’s unrelenting propaganda over the past three months has damaged the relationship. It has dissipated what little trust existed in the Sino-Indian relationship, rebuilding which will require a long time. More important is the need for a change in China’s attitude towards India – a point made by Prime Minister Modi in his talk at China’s prestigious Peking University during his visit to Beijing in April 2015.
China’s track record in abiding by agreements has, however, been dodgy. Ready recent examples are (1) its reneging within three years in 2008 on the agreement by which it accepted Sikkim as a state of the Indian Union; (2) backing off from the agreement on not disturbing ‘settled populations’ which pertained to Arunachal Pradesh; and (3), most recently, violating the 2012 agreement not to alter the status quo and cease building the road through the Doklam Plateau. China has not hesitated to go back on agreements with other countries either.
The Doklam stand-off has far reaching implications. It differed markedly from previous stand-offs including others that actually lasted considerably longer. During the Doklam stand-off, China’s state-owned propaganda apparatus mounted an unprecedented offensive not seen in over forty years and which revealed that the Chinese Communist leadership cared little about improving Sino-Indian ties and had scant regard for Indian sensitivities. Memories of the threats are unlikely to recede for a very long while. It ensured world attention on the stand-off at Doklam. The stand-off also triggered adverse reaction in India which, already upset at the US$ 52 billion trade deficit, has begun scrutinizing Chinese commercial activity in India.
Countries in India’s immediate neighborhood, like Pakistan and Nepal, have closely monitored developments surrounding Doklam with both, pointedly, staying silent. Both can be expected to reassess their policies towards India, while Pakistan will additionally re-evaluate China’s reliability. Islamabad will have noted China’s assessment that US President Trump’s recent announcement on Afghanistan and terrorism increases pressure on Pakistan and heralds a realignment in geopolitics of the region.
In the wider Indo-Pacific region too India will be seen as the only power to have stood up to China’s aggressive policies. Recognition is Japan’s, and later US endorsement, of India’s stand. In effect, India challenged China at Doklam and paused the seeming momentum Beijing had created to aggressively expand strategic space and territory, thereby denting Beijing’s image.
Military and political considerations have been important. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was in an untenable position at Doklam. India’s swift and robust response was unexpected and caught the Chinese unprepared. In the ten days prior to Beijing going public with news of the stand-off, there were undoubtedly deliberations in the PLA and Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s top leadership echelons leading to the decision to try and browbeat India into submission and, if necessary, use military force. India’s refusal to yield ground, or seek to compromise its way out as anticipated by China on the basis of past record, would have prompted the rethink to opt for de-escalation.
Finally, the important 19th Party Congress scheduled to be held in October-November 2017, makes Xi Jinping politically vulnerable. Xi Jinping has used ideology and nationalism as his main instruments to strengthen the CCP’s monopoly on power and boost his personal authority. He is also in the midst of implementing the most extensive reform the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has seen in its 90 years of existence, and could not afford to take the chance that in case he orders the PLA to ‘teach India a lesson’ it is unable to secure a decisive victory or suffers a bloody nose. Smarting at the setback, the PLA and Xi Jinping will in all probability look for a way to retrieve hurt pride.