Two months on, what does the impasse at Doklam look like, and how do India-China relations appear in light of it?
The standoff at Doklam has been continuing for more than two months. Chinese and Indian forces have been facing each other in an eye-to-eye confrontation since 16 June when Indian troops confronted the Chinese soldiers and stopped them from constructing a road on the deserted plateau.
Much water has flowed through the Ganga and the Yangtze over this period. The standoff started with vituperative and apocalyptic denunciations by the Global Times and official spokespersons of several Chinese ministries and agencies accusing India of harbouring hegemonic ambitions and of having trespassed into Chinese territory. They threatened India to withdraw, or it will have to face another humiliating defeat like 1962. India's Ministry of External Affairs responded with a measured and balanced statement on 30 June that Doklam is a disputed territory between Bhutan and China, and India was forced to intervene at the request of Bhutan, in pursuance of its Treaty understanding with Bhutan.
China issued a long 15-page document on 2 August explaining its side of the story and saying that it had informed India in advance as a gesture of "goodwill" that it would be constructing the road on its side of the border. Although the Indian authorities have not rebutted this contention, it appears highly implausible that China would have done it. China's goodwill has been evident more by its absence over the last many months than the other way around.
India has been restrained in its response. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has spoken on the issue twice in the Parliament to brief members about India's position. She along with defence minister and home minister briefed representatives of different political parties on India's stand.
China's Global Times went to the extent of calling Swaraj a "liar" because of her statement that the world is with India on this issue.
India has consistently maintained that diplomacy and dialogue are the only way to resolve the issue peacefully and that both sides should go back to positions they occupied on 16 June. While India has been discreet in speech, it has been firm and unwavering in action. It has dug in its heels and stood its ground against all objections and condemnations from China.
Several analysts feel that India's public diplomacy needs to be more pro-active and vigorous in informing its people as well as the international community about the strength and credibility of its position. Indian forces moved in, to safeguard Bhutan's sovereignty and territorial integrity as also, to protect its strategic interests. It is the view of several observers that without engaging in a wrangling tussle with China, India should put forward its position in detail and also rebut the several calumnious assertions by China.
Bhutan needs to be congratulated for the firm and principled stand it has taken notwithstanding the menacing utterances from across the border. Obviously, it would not want the standoff to spiral out of control because it will be the worst affected by it. China used a deceitful technique when one of its senior diplomats in Beijing told a visiting Indian media delegation on 8 August that Bhutan has acknowledged that Doklam belongs to China. Beijing might have presumed that Bhutan will find itself under intense political pressure that it will not be able to refute this statement. Bhutan, however, more than measured up to the challenge and within a day categorically rejected this claim by China and proclaimed that Bhutan considers Doklam to be a part of its territory.
Some analysts who appear to be favourably inclined towards the Chinese narrative rather than the Indian position suggest that a deal has already been struck between Bhutan and China behind India's back. There is no concrete evidence to support this contention, and at best it would appear to be an attempt to sow doubts and confusion in the minds of Indian and Bhutanese policymakers that the other side has succumbed to Chinese pressure. China is indulging in mind games and in psy-ops to erode India and Bhutan's resistance. China has succeeded either through threats or via its chequebook diplomacy to overcome the resistance of a large number of countries like South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia etc. on issues related to their national interests or national assets and resources. China appears to have been taken by a surprise by Indian soldiers obstructing their road building operations. It seems to have been even more surprised by the lack of any impact of its threats on India. The ineffectual reaction of a big power like the United States of America to its encroachments and construction of new islands in the South China Sea over the last several years appears to have emboldened China except that it unexpectedly hit a wall against India and failed to take a measure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's resolve.
The nadir of China's public outreach was registered on 16 August when its official news agency Xinhua released a racist, sloppily and amateurishly produced video seeking to parody Indians to project its point of view on the Doklam impasse. It does more harm to China than advance its position in any way. Ministry of External Affairs official spokesperson when queried about it responded tersely: 'I do not wish to dignify the video with a comment.''
Japan is the first country to come out openly in favour of India's stand although positive voices have been heard from across the Atlantic also. It is understandable that no country wishes to take a definitive stand at this stage. Moreover, most countries are intertwined intimately with China in economics and trade. No one would like to put these ties at risk notwithstanding the discomfort and anxiety they might feel at the increasingly assertive, belligerent and arrogant behaviour of China. China has rebuffed Japan's statement as being "uninformed" and admonished it "not to randomly make comments before clarifying relevant facts."
Till today, demand by China for India to withdraw its troops continue unabated. Although the daily spewing of venom by Global Times and others has reduced a little.
This is, however, no occasion for India to become self-congratulatory and complacent that the dragon's fire has been quelled. This is not the end of the impasse. China can be expected to stoop to any level to keep India engaged so that its eyes are off its primary objective of national development and growth. China had unilaterally and peremptorily stopped the travel of pilgrims via Nathu la to Kailash Mansarovar when the Doklam issue erupted. It engaged in a "shallow intrusion" at Pangong Tso in Ladakh on 15 August which resulted in an incident of stone throwing by the soldiers of the two sides for the first time. China has failed to share hydrological data for the Sutlej and Brahmaputra rivers this year. It might sound a little implausible to connect this action with the Doklam faceoff, but it’s difficult to dismiss the connection completely. China's actions on India's membership of NSG and Masood Azhar fall in the same category of reducing India's strategic space for manoeuvre and growth. India will now have to be on its guard with China on all fronts - political, diplomatic, security, economic.
India should also consider measures it can take to put pressure on China. In the short run, Prime Minister Modi's participation in the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China on 3 to 5 September has so far not been confirmed. It is also appropriate that India has embarked on measures to restrict the import of Chinese telecom and power systems to protect itself against cyber attacks and secure data privacy. India currently runs a trade deficit close to US$60 billion with China which is more than 40 per cent of India's global trade deficit. One year's trade deficit is enough for China to fully finance the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. It might be difficult to officially curtail imports of Chinese products because both countries are members of the World Trade Organisation. But a popular "swadeshi" movement to substitute cheap Chinese goods with locally manufactured goods will help to reduce the trade deficit as also promote the "Make in India" initiative and create additional jobs in the economy.
India should be prepared to confront a no-holds-barred assault from China. While India may make all efforts to promote positive, mutually beneficial ties with China, it should be prepared to withstand attacks from different sides. This could include incursions of the nature of what was witnessed in Depsang in 2013, in Chumar in 2014 and elsewhere. These could take place in Ladakh, in Uttarakhand or Arunachal Pradesh. India is well-placed in the Sikkim sector because of the heights occupied by it. China may hence launch an offensive in a sector where it enjoys an advantage.
Relations with China will never be the same again. China will try to impede India's growth and rise at every step. India will need to take cognisance of this new reality to relentlessly pursue and promote its security, prosperity and economic growth.