The ongoing Doklam standoff between India and China has to be seen in the larger context. The event was clearly precipitated by China’s sudden move to shift the India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction. There has been a long-standing dispute between Bhutan and China on the Doklam plateau. Tibetan and Bhutanese herdsmen have, for long, peacefully grazed their livestock on the grassy plain, till a few years ago, Chinese horsemen wearing People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tunics and with military issue binoculars, started accompanying the Tibetan herdsmen. That’s when the Bhutanese objected and it became a dispute between their militaries.
The subsequent meetings between the PLA and Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) officials in Thimphu and New Delhi have always been in the presence of Indian military officers. India has always had a special relationship with Bhutan, which is underscored by a treaty. India stations a brigade in Bhutan and substantially trains, arms and funds the Bhutan military.
India and China also have an Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the India-China Border Areas signed in 1993 by President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. This agreement specifies that both sides will not try to alter the status quo by building permanent structures. Both sides can undertake patrolling but cannot hunker down for a length of time. It is this agreement that has ensured peace, if not tranquility, on the border. This agreement implicitly applies to the Tibet-Bhutan border. China has always understood that if push came to shove, India is bound to act on the side of Bhutan, specially as its own security is vitally dependent on it.
So why did China choose to disturb the tranquility now? Clearly the impetus to this situation came from China. Suddenly raising the ante has been central to China’s diplomacy and quest for primacy, be it on land or sea boundaries, with all its neighbours. China has now coupled this creeping aggressiveness with aggressive soft power diplomacy, which has been widely seen as arguably the most important element in shaping the regional strategic environment, transforming the entire region’s dynamics. By providing large loans on generous repayment terms, investing in major infrastructure projects such as the building of roads, dams, ports, power plants and railways, and offering military assistance and political support at the UN Security Council through its veto powers, China has secured considerable goodwill and influence among countries in the region around India.
The list of countries that are coming within China’s strategic orbit appears to be growing. Sri Lanka, which has seen China replace Japan as its largest donor, is a case in point — China was no doubt instrumental in ensuring that Sri Lanka was granted dialogue partner status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. China has made major inroads in Nepal and has forged ideological and pecuniary relationships with many leading Nepalese politicians and opinion-makers. Anti-Indianism, always a given in Nepali domestic politics, is growing more legs now. Most recently China has been attempting to bring a change in India’s historical and treaty relationship with Bhutan. The Doklam incident must be seen through this prism. By coming quickly and decisively on the side of Bhutan, India has, for now, thwarted Chinese designs. If this situation is settled, there will surely be others.
The rise of China as the world’s greatest exporter, its largest manufacturing nation and its great economic appetite poses a new set of challenges. At a meeting of South-East Asian nations in 2010, China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi, facing a barrage of complaints about his country’s behaviour in the region, blurted out the sort of thing polite leaders usually prefer to leave unsaid. “China is a big country,” he pointed out, “and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.”
But history tells us again and again that victory is not assured by superiority in numbers and even technology. If that were to be so, Alexander should have been defeated at Gaugamela, Babur at Panipat, Wellington at Waterloo, Russia at Leningrad, Britain in the Falklands, and above all Vietnam who defeated three of the world’s leading powers — France, the US and China — in succession. Numbers do matter, but numbers are not all. Technology does matter, but technology alone cannot assure you victory. It’s always mind over matter. As the old saying goes: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!”
Now comes the dilemma for India. Robert Kaplan writes: “As the United States and China become great power rivals, the direction in which India tilts could determine the course of geo-politics in Eurasia in the 21st century. India, in other words, looms at the ultimate pivot state.” At another time Alfred Thayer Mahan noted that India, located in the centre of the Indian Ocean littoral, is critical for the seaward penetration of both West Asia and China.
The Tibetan desert, once intended to be India’s buffer against the north, has now become China’s buffer against India. The planner will not be looking at all if he or she were not looking at the Indian Ocean as a theatre. After all, it is also China’s lifeline and its lifeblood flows here. Now if one were a Chinese planner, he or she would be looking with concern over India’s growth and increasing ability to project power in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The planner will also note what experts are saying about India’s growth trajectory — that it is the ultimate pivot state in the grand struggle for primacy between the West led by the US and Japan, and China. What will this planner be thinking, particularly given the huge economic and military asymmetry between China and India now?
Tacitus tells it most pithily, that peace can come through strength or Si vis pacem, para bellum (If you want peace, prepare for war). India might be behind China but it must keep building strength, always be ready and never flinch....