Amid the Dokalam standoff, Narendra Modi meets Xi Jinping in China briefly!

Tensions-between-India-and-China. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

-Dr. Abdul Ruff Colachal
September 5, 2017

Even as the debate on who won the Dokalam standoff remains inconclusive, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to China to attend the BRICS in Xiamen and went up to Chinese President Xi Jinping to shake hands on the venue stage.

The Chinese and the Indian troops were engaged in a standoff since June 16 after the Indian side stopped the construction of a road by the Chinese Army. On August 28, India’s External Affairs Ministry announced that New Delhi and Beijing have decided on ‘expeditious disengagement’ of their border troops in the disputed Dokalam area.

Notwithstanding the Dokalam standoff, which had put ties between the two countries under strain, Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping held their first brief bilateral meeting on September 05.

Modi and Xi Jinping held their first bilateral meeting 73-day face-off between their troops in the Dokalam area of the Sikkim sector.
Modi, who attended the BRICS Emerging Markets and Developing Countries Dialogue earlier in the day, met on prior arrangement President Xi on the sidelines of the 9th BRICS Summit in Xiamen.

During their meeting, Modi congratulated Xi on a ‘very successful’ BRICS Summit. “China is prepared to work with India to seek guidance from the five principles of Panchsheel,” XI Jinping told PM Modi. Xi added that India and China are each other’s major neighbors; we are also two of the world’s largest and emerging countries. The two leaders reaffirmed the understanding reached at Astana not to allow differences to become disputes.

PM Modi, accompanied by a large team including senior officials National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, met the Chinese leader just before his travel to Myanmar from this port city. Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar said that the bilateral talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping were forward looking and constructive.
Speaking to media, Jaishankar said, “The two leaders reaffirmed that it is in the interest of both India and China to have good relations and felt that there should be close communication between the defense and security personnel of India and China… It was a forward-looking conversation and not a backward-looking one,” Jaishankar said when asked whether Dokalam stand-off was left behind by the two sides. He also said that important point made during the meeting was peace and tranquility in the border area is a prerequisite for further development of a relationship.
India says there was a forward-looking and constructive approach taken by both sides. “Counter terrorism’ related issues were addressed during BRICS; they were not discussed at this meeting. An important point made during the meeting was peace and tranquility in the border area is a prerequisite for further development of a relationship. There was a sense that if a relationship is to go forward, then peace and tranquility in border areas must be maintained.

Interestingly, Modi and Xi kept on shaking their hands almost mutually for a long time as if they want to signal to restart the standoff left abruptly owing to the summit.
The end of a standoff between India and China over a remote road on the Dokaam plateau has prompted a vibrant discussion about the lessons learned. The emerging consensus in New Delhi is that India “won” and China “lost.” it remains unclear that India “won.” India’s strategic experts talked about India’s is a willingness to challenge China and standoff is even viewed as providing a model that other states can use to counter Chinese coercion. If others stand up, China will back down.

Nevertheless, this consensus is misplaced. And the usual cricket analogy of winning and losing obscures much more than it reveals.

From India’s point of view, the status quo ante of June 2017 was restored, a victory. From China’s perspective, Indian forces withdrew from Chinese territory (also claimed by Bhutan, but not by India). Moreover, on the ground at the site of the confrontation, Indian forces pulled back first. Meanwhile, Chinese forces remain in Dokalam, even if Beijing chose not to press ahead with the road extension that sparked the standoff.

There is also no indication from Chinese or Indian statements that China had to make any concessions to convince India to withdraw its troops. China’s claims and behavior will not change, noting that China would “continue with its exercise of sovereign rights” in the disputed area. In other words, China will still conduct patrols in Dokalam and maintain the portions of the road that had been built before the standoff started in early June.

Despite the triumphalism from some voices in New Delhi, India likely learned that Beijing does not back down immediately or without sustained effort. The disengagement at Dokalam took more than ten weeks of diplomacy, much longer than previous confrontations along the China-India border in 2013 and 2014, which lasted only a few weeks.

China also had other reasons to seek de-escalation, none of which can be attributed to India’s intervention. An active confrontation would have cast a pall over the upcoming BRICS summit that China is hosting in Xiamen in early September. Russia, the leader of the BRICS, would have asked China not to escalate now and China obliged. And on the eve of the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping likely wanted to avoid any dangerous escalation that could affect the significant transfer of power that will occur. Once these events pass, however, China may be less constrained and more willing to tolerate risk on the border with India.

The Indian intervention also does not offer a “model” that other states can apply elsewhere for countering China’s assertiveness. India enjoyed tactical superiority at the site of the standoff, leveraging its well-developed forward position at Doka La and reserves of much larger forces based permanently in Sikkim. These advantages likely played a role in limiting China’s response.
Moreover, even if India scored a tactical win by thwarting China’s road extension, it may have lost at the strategic level. Ironically perhaps, India’s actions underscored to China the importance of enhancing its military position in the Dokalam bowl. Before the standoff in June, China’s permanent presence in the area had been quite limited. China had maintained a road in the area for several decades but did not garrison any forces. In contrast, India has managed and developed a forward post at Doka La adjacent to Dokalam.

India justified its action based on its commitments to Bhutan under a 2007 treaty. India has chosen to confront China at Dokalam and China may well seek to rectify this tactical imbalance of forces by bringing in forces. In fact, China began to station forces (zhushou), to troops deployed to Dokalam after the standoff began. China would likely build facilities farther away from India’s position at Doka La, making it more challenging for India to intervene and block China next time. When India challenged China’s construction crews in June, it only had to move its forces a hundred meters from the existing border. But in the future, India may be faced with the uncomfortable choice of risking much more to deny China a greater presence farther inside Dokalam or accepting it. So, even if India won this round, it may not win the next one.

China may have achieved some of its political objectives, whose importance overshadows the standoff over the road. Bhutan, always worried about being caught between its much larger neighbors, may become more reluctant to test China on territorial issues to avoid being drawn into a conflict between India and China.

If China seeks to address the tactical imbalance in Dokalam in the future, India may be less successful using the same method to deter China again.

Take, for example, the Dokalam “model” would suggest that if China sought to build a permanent presence on the reef Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, the USA could stop Chinese land reclamation by intervening on behalf of the Philippines to block Chinese dredgers. Unlike India’s open support of Bhutan’s claim to sovereignty over Dokalam, the USA maintains a position of neutrality on the sovereignty of the contested land features in the South China Sea and around the world. The Indo-US strategic partnership is not reliable.

Faced with finances for all its terror wars, USA is cautious about intervening in China’s territorial disputes directly, especially if states opposing China in territorial disputes actively seek greater material support from Washington. China would view such a change in US policy as a significant challenge to all its territorial disputes with neighbors and react harshly to probe U.S. resolve, perhaps even taking limited military action to deter the USA from carrying out its new policy.

The narrow definition of the issue permitted troops to disengage without letting the more complicated problems prevent de-escalation. China and India – two nuclear-armed powers – avoided letting a small confrontation escalate into a much wider and more dangerous conflict. So the frame of winning and losing is misplaced.

The genius of the Dokalam disengagement is that diplomats defined it in narrow and specific terms, focusing only on the forces at the “face-off site.” Larger issues, such as the location of the tri-junction between China, India, and Bhutan, along with China and Bhutan’s competing claims to Dokalam, were left off the table. By not disclosing the terms under which the standoff ended, diplomats also allowed each other to save face.

Given that China will continue to press its territorial claims against India and Bhutan, as well as in the East and South China Seas, policymakers should be wary of learning the wrong lessons from the disengagement at Dokalam.

The focus should now shift to how diplomacy can be employed to avoid military confrontations and reduce opportunities for conflict.

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