Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is scheduled to visit China in April and the unresolved Doklam issue is expected to be high on the agenda. She has already started building it up, conveying a spirited message across to the economically and militarily more accomplished neighbour.
Addressing the media in Dehradun, the minister said India is prepared to deal with any “unforeseen situation” in the Doklam region, adding that the country is constantly working towards the modernization of forces. Air Chief Marshall, Birender Singh Dhanoa, has also claimed that the Indian Air Force is on a “strong wicket” vis-a-vis China.
A few weeks ago, while addressing the Rajya Sabha, the minister had revealed that China continues to build trenches, sentry junctions and helipads near the Jampheri ridge.
India and China had a 73-day standoff at Doklam from June 16, 2017, to August 28, 2017. There was no final resolution, though. The two countries merely reduced their deployment at the Doklam site.
How did it begin?
It exploded after India resisted China’s crack at extending a border road through a plateau known as Doklam in India and Donglang in China. The plateau, which lies at a junction between China, the north-eastern Indian state of Sikkim and Bhutan, is presently disputed between Beijing and Thimphu. India supports Bhutan’s claim over it,
India’s worry is simple. If China is allowed to complete the road, it will give them greater access to India’s tactically susceptible “chicken’s neck”, a 20km wide corridor that links the seven north-eastern states to the Indian mainland. PLA’s attempt to extend the “turning point” of a long-standing road just west of the river known as Torsa Nala, seeking an extension southward toward Jampheri Ridge, would strategically hamper the designs of the Indian Army.
The Indian troops objected to the road-building and succeeded in putting a stop to it. The Chinese took offence to it and retaliated by demolishing two bunkers at the nearby Lalten outpost. Ultimately, the standoff at Doklam came to an end when the troops from both India and China disengaged. The critical question of who prevailed at Doklam may appear clear on the tactical level, but the broader strategic and geopolitical picture remains murky. To say that the Indian Government proved to be a graceful winner wouldn’t be too far from the truth. It would have also forced China to re-evaluate Indian resolve in the Himalayas. One of the root causes of the whole affair at Doklam was perhaps the PLA’s miscalculation that the Indian Army would not take drastic and unprecedented action to forestall the extension of the road.
But that was then.
Xi Jinping, the game changer
The move to get rid of the two-term limit on the Chinese presidency is certainly dramatic and marks the biggest political move the communist party has made in decades, leaving the door open for Xi to rule well into the next decade, and possibly much beyond that. The removal of the term limit means the greatest accumulation of personal power by a leader in China since Mao Zedong, who founded the People’s Republic. This also means if there is another Doklam standoff, which Ms Sitharaman fears there will be, China would be more assertive and prepared to use its greater might to contain India.
Xi has not only initiated a hard line anti-corruption crusade at home, he has clubbed it with a strong expansionist policy in China’s neighbourhood. Besides altering the status quo in the South and East China Seas, it is also projecting itself as the defender of globalisation at a time when US President Donald Trump is losing his global group.
There will be more Doklams. If not in the same Himalayan region, then in other problematical spots along the 3,500-km long disputed Line of Actual Control. India, which enjoys an edge in the Himalayan region, needs to continuously strengthen its armed forces. Like the defence minister asserted, India must exhibit that it’s no pushover geopolitically and strategically.
While it’s impossible to predict exactly how long Xi will end up staying in power, one thing has become clear: China’s president has just been given immense power to lead the world’s biggest country for years to come. And that puts India in a bad situation. India is a rising power, but the revolution is taking place in the shadow of China’s even more striking ascent.
So what’s the way out?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will follow up on Ms Sitharaman’s visit in June. The suave PM will need to consider facts and prepare accordingly. The Indian strategic policy appears to be mainly responding in piecemeal manner to immediate events, like Doklam, rather than following any purposeful, long-term plan.
The Indian decision makers face a few options on how to deal with the strategic environment in Asia, according to experts: nonalignment, building indigenous defense capabilities, regional balancing, alignment with China, and closer alignment with the United States. None of India’s potential strategic choices are easy or obvious. No choice by itself will give India everything it wants. The objective should be to pick the best out of this series of imperfect choices as a primary strategy and supplement with other complementary approaches as needed.
For now, aligning with the US, which shares India’s concerns vis-s-vis China, seems to be the best available option.