Harsh V Pant
On August 28, disengagement started at the Doklam plateau on the Sikkim border, where Indian and Chinese forces were in a standoff since June 18. According to a statement issued by the MEA, “expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site has been agreed to and is ongoing.”
The Chinese foreign ministry, for its part, suggested that “Indian forces have already withdrawn to the Indian side of the border” and that “Chinese forces will continue to patrol in Doklam region.” It has also said that its forces “will remain in the region” and continue to exercise its “sovereignty over the region.” That was China trying to put a spin on the outcome as border patrolling by China was never really an issue.
The standoff had begun when the Chinese had begun constructing a concrete road in Doklam in Bhutanese territory. Indian troops promptly formed a human chain to force the Chinese to halt the construction work, calling it a change in ‘status quo’, with serious security implications for India as the Doklam plateau overlooks the strategic Chumbi Valley.
For more than two months, Beijing continued to harangue and wage psychological warfare, sometimes by reminding India of 1962 and sometimes by suggesting that countermeasures from Beijing would be unavoidable if the Modi government continued to ignore the warnings. China also provoked India by asking what New Delhi would do if it “enters” Kalapani region in Uttarakhand or Kashmir. This was the first time the issue of Kashmir has been raked up by China at the official level.
Indian diplomacy, by contrast, was mature and the government did not lose its nerve. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj asserted in Parliament that war was not a solution and India would resolve the border stand-off with China through dialogue. But she also made it clear that India’s reasonableness shouldn’t be mistaken for weakness.
“Just because we want to have friendly relations with our neighbours, they shouldn’t cross the line. India has always wanted smooth relations with China. But the alignment of boundaries involving India, China and Bhutan has to always be finalised in consultation with all three countries,” she said, underscoring New Delhi’s resolve not to be cowed down by Beijing’s relentless high-pitched campaign.
This crisis between China and India was different from other such episodes in the past, but what makes it unique in recent memory is New Delhi’s determination so far not to concede the standoff on China’s terms. Beijing tried everything. It used its media to bully India; it threatened India officially; it used colonial-era records selectively; it tried to rally world opinion; it even tried to childishly ridicule India with its media using racist videos.
Beijing also tried to corner India in other parts of the border, with its troops crossing the Indian border near Pangong lake in Ladakh on August 15 and pelting stones at Indian soldiers. But, India did not budge.
And that, in essence, foreshadows the future of the global order. Underlying all this petulance about boundaries and territories, behind all this façade of sovereignty, the Sino-India stand-off in Doklam has been about whether the future of Asia will be one where China will be the dominant actor and dictate the terms of behaviour to other nations or whether the future of Asia will be a multipolar one in the real sense of the term. India decided to stand its ground because there was far too much at stake in not responding to the Chinese bullying.
India remains the last nation standing, a stumbling block in China’s drive for domination of the Indo-Pacific. Already, the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative has made China seem central to the evolving global economic order. Even while nations realise the folly of joining this mega connectivity initiative, they see no real alternative. New Delhi is the sole major power that has decided to publicly oppose Xi Jinping’s project.
No backing down
The other major power centres remain constrained in their policy responses to China. Japan has domestic political and legal constraints, despite Shinzo Abe’s pro-active foreign policy. Australia’s economic future is so deeply intertwined with China’s that its elites are today having to debate making a choice between the US and China.
The Modi government, in contrast, has been robust in its response to China’s rise. It quickly realised that China remains determined to pursue a unilateral foreign policy and Indian interests will suffer if New Delhi does not make a change in its foreign policy behaviour.
While a section of Indian elites continues to believe that India can shape Chinese behaviour by its policies, policy-makers have been confronting the consequences of China’s growing capabilities in multiple ways. Though a tad late, New Delhi has been focusing on building its border infrastructure and has been active in trying to reach out to other like-minded powers in the region such as Japan, Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam to shape a favourable balance of power in the region.
Ahead of the Brics summit in China and the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China, the standoff with India could have been really more damaging for Xi Jinping, who stood to lose the most if a quick resolution to the crisis was not found. And so, the two neighbours have managed to resolve the stand-off for now. But this episode marks an inflection point in India’s relations with China. India seems to have recognised that standing up to China resolutely to protect its core interests is the only option available to it. Otherwise, it will have to acquiesce in the shaping of a China-centric Indo-Pacific. And for most Indians that clearly is not an option worth even thinking about.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International
Relations, King’s College, London)
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