Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | A year after Doklam, lessons not fully learnt

Doklam provided India with an opportunity to identifying its No.1 strategic threat. But India went to chase a misguided 'reset' with China

A full year has passed since the 73-day face-off between Indian and Chinese troops in Doklam ended. Last year, on 28 August, India agreed to withdraw its troops from the territory disputed between Bhutan and China in return for the latter stopping its road construction activity. A lot has happened in the last one year, including an attempt to “reset" India-China ties. This is a good moment to look at the learnings from the face-off and the subsequent course of events.

First, let us look at the face-off site itself. While the road construction there has been halted, Chinese troops remain stationed in northern Doklam. India’s ministry of external affairs has defined the face-off site narrowly and therefore sees no reason for another effort to confront the Chinese troops in northern Doklam. India’s position, as can be discerned from the depositions of successive foreign secretaries—S. Jaishankar and Vijay Gokhale—before the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs, is that as long as China can be prevented from extending their road towards the Jampheri Ridge, India need not intervene.

The extension of the road towards the ridge will have twin implications over the tri-junction point between India, Bhutan and China, and the security of the Siliguri Corridor, a tiny sliver of land that connects India’s north-eastern states to the rest of the country. Even if the status quo on the face-off site is maintained, this newspaper has expressed the concern (goo.gl/kQD4Ug) that a strengthened Chinese position in northern Doklam can carry grave implications for the face-off site too in the future.

Second, Doklam was an attempt by China to wean Bhutan away from India. On this count, China has not gained much success. Despite Chinese vice foreign minister Kong Xuanyou’s July visit to Bhutan, Thimphu has given no indication that it wants to dilute the special bilateral relationship with New Delhi. In fact, the reason India came out of Doklam with flying colours was because of Bhutan’s exemplary resilience in the face of China’s threats. Bhutan issued two statements—on 29 June 2017 and 29 August 2017—on the Doklam standoff and endorsed India’s position of returning to the status quo ante in both.

The broader Chinese project of gaining a strategic toehold in India’s neighbouring countries has, however, received greater success. Deploying its bottomless pockets and the ability to rapidly deliver infrastructure projects, China has used its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to gain entry into all the South Asian countries, except Bhutan. However, the failure of these projects to prove commercial viability coupled with lack of transparency is forcing a re-think in several capitals. However, as Sri Lanka’s example shows, failure of such projects can lead to something even more sinister—direct Chinese control over critical strategic assets in India’s vicinity.

Third, Doklam also provided India with an opportunity to come closer to identifying its No.1 strategic threat. This was, by far, the biggest lesson of the 73-day face-off, but sadly it remains the one not well internalized. A few months after standoff ended, India began a process of resetting ties with China. The motivation, it was widely speculated, was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s desire to avoid another Doklam-type situation in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Modi visited Wuhan in April for an informal summit—one which was not focused on generating outcomes but on helping the two countries understand each other’s strategic worldview. While India decided to loosen its grip on the Tibet card—a “Thank You India" event organized by the Tibetan government-in-exile was shifted out of New Delhi—China did not concede anything in return. India has also, in deference to Chinese sensitivities, become the lone obstacle to Australia’s entry into the Malabar exercises. India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific, as Modi clarified in his June speech at the Shangri La Dialogue, is “a positive one" and “not directed against any country". The Indian leadership perhaps thinks that allowing Australia into the Malabar exercises will amount to militarization of the Quad—currently restricted to being a talk shop between India, Japan, the US and Australia. India’s caution can be gauged from the fact that its ambassador to Russia, Pankaj Saran, told TASS that the Quad is “not (a) part of the Indo-Pacific region concept outlined by Prime Minister Modi in Shangri La".

To be fair, India has deepened its relations individually with its Indo-Pacific partners. It is in the final stages of negotiating a Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (Comcasa) with the US. India is also likely to sign a logistics-sharing agreement with Japan later this year. But New Delhi is hesitant to combine all these efforts into a single cohesive strategy that may be deemed as an effort to contain China. The end result is a sort of a muddled approach where India is not on the same wavelength as its partners as far as the Indo-Pacific is concerned. The difference was evident in the remarks made by Modi and the US defence secretary James Mattis at Shangri La. The upcoming inaugural India-US two-plus-two dialogue next week will be a good opportunity to narrow the differences.

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