I hate to be a party-pooper, and I do give credit to those who negotiated with China, but I’m afraid India is celebrating too soon. There is a fairytale quality about the apparent Chinese climb-down in the Doklam affair, after a tense eyeball-to-eyeball standoff. According to the Indian narrative, the resolute stand taken by us has forced the Chinese to the status quo ante, and they will not construct a road. I find this naive. Here are some headlines from the Times of India:
“India gives China face-saver, doesn’t contest its version of terms for peace”
“Doklam resolution: a message to China’s other smaller neighbours”
“China admits to making ‘adjustments’ on the ground but also plays to internal audience”
“Indian troops can swiftly intervene if China attempts to build road at Doklam again”
To me, this entire narrative smacks of silly triumphalism. It’s not that India ‘won’ a famous victory over China. It’s merely an agreement by the Chinese, apparently, to have agreed to stop creating ‘facts on the ground’. I wonder what their pound of flesh was.
Tellingly, according to the Chinese narrative, it is the Indians who have suffered a humiliating climbdown, by withdrawing forces from ‘Chinese territory’ [sic]. This, after massive name-calling, including a racist video, in official Chinese media, including blood-curdling threats. Par for the course: we see it on the Internet as well. Chinese are easily ‘offended’ and shout like mad until the other side gives up and gives in.
Here is what another source, the Washington Post, said. Since they tend to mirror the views of the CIA, this is presumably what Deep State America thinks: “On Monday, the two sides announced they had reached an agreement, with India saying its troops were disengaging and China saying it would redeploy forces in response. By the evening, India said both sides had almost completed their withdrawals. It was not clear from the countries’ public statements whether Beijing had offered any concessions in return for the Indian withdrawal, such as agreeing to halt construction of the road.” [Emphasis mine]
What this suggests is that the Chinese have temporarily withdrawn from their incursion into Bhutanese territory, with no guarantee that they will not do it again when the time is ripe. Hardly a famous victory. Not that Chinese guarantees are worth the paper they are written on, but that’s a different topic altogether.
There is understandable relief that a potential war situation has been averted. Indians would not like war, especially since we are vulnerable all over the Indo-Tibetan frontier in all sorts of ways. For instance, the recent, massive floods in the Northeast that have caused so much havoc are quite surprising considering it didn’t rain that much on the ground there. It is possible that there was a ‘river bomb’, with the Chinese opening up dam shutters without informing us downstream. There was a Sutlej ‘river bomb’ a few years ago when they did precisely that.
Indians do not want war now that India is at a point of inflection, ready for takeoff. Some fifteen years ago, China was at that point: you’ll be astonished to read stuff written then about that country -- it was a bit of a basket case, and you know what happened since then. India has a golden opportunity to rise exactly the same way, and that is precisely what the Chinese do not want. They want to be the only hegemon in Asia.
China will not be averse to war. It gives their generals an opportunity to try out all the shiny new hardware, and they have contempt for India, thinking this would be a walkover. There is also a deeper demographic issue: China has a lot of aggressive, unmanageable, testosterone-crazed young men who will never find a wife, as they have aborted some 20 million girl babies. These womanless men have to be killed off, and what better than send them off to war?
They remember how inept Nehru was in 1962, and they expect the same now too. They can capture all of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, and cut off the Northeast, which will instantly declare itself to be one or more Christian nations (East Timor or South Sudan, anyone?). Naturally, this will get the blessing of the Americans and the UN Security Council, couched in human rights rhetoric. Yes, there is the small matter of the mini-Bangladeshis in Assam etc., but there can be a quiet ‘adjustment’ with that country. India will be mortally wounded, and cease to be a factor in Asia. This is a total nightmare scenario.
But I sense smug self-satisfaction and complacency on the Indian side. Consider some indisputable facts:
- India always had the high ground in Doklam, so the Chinese have a terrain disadvantage
- India is vulnerable to a Chinese thrust through Sikkim to sever the ‘Chicken’s Neck’, thus cutting off the entire Northeast from plains India.
- The Chinese consistently press their dubious historical claims on any piece of territory. Exhibit A is the South China Sea.
- China has territorial disputes with 23 countries although it has land borders with only 17.
- After fifty years and 327 rounds of talks, there is no clarity on the Line of Actual Control. This suits China, so it is likely that they are stonewalling.
- China has invented a doctrine of ‘asymmetric warfare’ in which they will use anything to win. There is also a new ‘swarm’ military theory that they may apply.
- China swallowed Tibet based on utterly laughable historical claims, but have created facts on the ground by wiping out Tibetan civilisation. China-occupied Tibet is close to being Han majority now.
- China is extremely sensitive to ‘loss of face’. They almost never give the impression of being wrong or having to withdraw from a position they take.
- China is under treaty obligation to supply India with hydrological information, which they did not: otherwise, India would have been better prepared for Northeast floods.
North Korea just sent a missile flying over Japan’s Hokkaido, something they have not done for 20 years, and it is a significant escalation in aggression. North Korea gives China plausible deniability for their aggression towards Japan
I conjecture that China is annoyed with India for its refusal to accept the One Belt One Road project, and its publicly boycott of the coming-out party when even the Americans did attend. They would like to “teach India a lesson”, as they keep saying. In the light of all this, do you believe that China, out of the goodness of their hearts, agreed to revert to the status quo ante?
China believes in only one thing: brute force. They think they are the Middle Kingdom, destined to dominate the world. Based on the ease with which they have beguiled successive Indian governments, they have utter contempt for Indian strategic thinking.
Therefore I believe this is merely a tactical withdrawal by China. At a time of their choosing, they will try their salami-slicing tactics again, where they have the high ground. “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom”: India cannot afford to relax.
“Trust, but verify”, said Ronald Reagan. In China’s case, it is extremely difficult to trust, because it considers treaties merely inconvenient pieces of paper, and have a history of fabricating ‘historical documents’ that support its view du jour. For instance, there is the 9-dash line in the South China Sea, based on a single old map.
Intel’s Andy Grove said, “Only the paranoid survive”. This is definitely true in the dog-eat dog world of international affairs. Xi Jinping had no need to suffer a loss of face just before the BRICS 2017 conclave was to open in Xiamen and a few months before his grand coronation in the Communist Party nineteenth Congress. It weakens his position, and the Chinese could have indefinitely held their ground. They did a seven-month standoff in 1969 with the Soviet across the Ussuri river (the Daminsky island incident) when they were much less powerful. So why this climb-down? There was no Indian attempt at coercion or strong-arm tactics, so far as I can tell.
All this makes me suspicious: why exactly did China agree to relax tensions now? It is possible that China did not want a public relations disaster in case Narendra Modi decided to skip the BRICS conclave; Modi could also have had his reasons for wanting to attend the summit. There is a distinct possibility that the Chinese wanted to back off temporarily so that they can choose a more convenient time and location for humiliating India, which would damage Modi, and leave India with a weakened or non-credible leader.
I was thinking of the Battle of Talikota, where the aged king Rama Raya of Vijayanagara was killed, and leaderless, his army was routed, and his civilisation was wiped out. Reader @AndhraCulturePortal gave me an even earlier analogy: the Second Battle of Tarain. He said that Ghori offered a fake peace, Rajputs spent the night celebrating, and Ghori attacked at dawn. We know what happened next: Prithviraj Chauhan was defeated, blinded, and killed, with major consequences for Hindu civilisation.
No need to alarmed, but let’s not be naive either. “Put your trust in God, my boys, but keep your powder dry” best sums it up.
Rajeev Srinivasan focuses on strategy and innovation, which he worked on at Bell Labs and in Silicon Valley. He has taught innovation at several IIMs. An IIT Madras and Stanford Business School grad, he has also been a conservative columnist for twenty years.
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