What should make us all happy is that the Prime Minister is going to BRICS Summit without having to be worried about the borders.
After all it’s always good to live to fight another day; where and how soon, only time will tell.
Authorised media in both India and China has announced that both nations have been in diplomatic engagement, as a result of which there is mutual agreement to disengage troops from the Doklam Plateau. The latter landmark, with which much of the Indian public now appears familiar, lies at the eastern edge of the Chumbi Valley and is a territory belonging to Bhutan.
In June this year, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) decided to construct a road through the plateau, which it claims as its legitimate territory, to bring its logistics reach nearer the Indian post of Doka La near the tri-junction, where the boundaries of India, Bhutan and China meet. By doing this the PLA was in effect also improving its operational and logistics capability to threaten India’s highly strategic and vulnerable sliver of territory called the Siliguri Corridor. This corridor provides India the only land access to its seven north eastern states. The PLA activated this front after an interval of time through this road construction.
However, Indian troops crossed over to Bhutanese territory and prevented further construction of the road. A 72-day standoff ensued which has had both countries and much of the international community on tenterhooks. It was a strange military standoff, where both sides maintained their balance, did not resort to any physical shootouts and apart for the initial jostling between the troops (and on India’s Independence Day a more serious exchange of stones, sticks and fisticuffs in a different area) only continued to attempt staring each other down. That was on until the announcement on 28 August 2017 that mutual disengagement had been agreed upon.
A few more issues of the background may be relevant for full public comprehension. This standoff was not anywhere on the un-demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC) of which perceptions differ and which leads to transgressions into each other’s perceived territory. This was on a third country’s territory and India has the 2007 agreement with Bhutan for mutual assistance in the event of threats to each other’s security.
The PLA has gradually increased its activities of transgression over the last 15 years or a little more. There have been standoffs in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh too, but none have had this kind of vitriolic backing of crude psychological warfare through the instrument of the official media in China; both Global Times and People’s Daily carried typical government drafted messages without any subtlety and Chinese television channels included commentaries by some analysts in terrible English. That the standoff has ended is a reflection of maturity on part of the two countries despite the fact that China had made it clear that there was no way its troops would leave the Doklam area.
It has happened before the BRICS Summit coming up early next month in the Chinese city of Xiamen, where Chinese President Xi Jinping will play host to the important club of middle powers. One of the reasons for the mutual disengagement appears to be the potential embarrassment to Xi Jinping in his stewardship of the summit. That obviously is the whole reason. I did appreciate that the standoff would probably continue at lower level of displayed energy right through to the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party where Xi Jinping’s future power and status will be decided.
Quite obviously, the PLA’s gambit had not worked and although it adopted the concept of war under ‘informationised’ conditions over two decades ago, its crude handling of psychological warfare proved ineffective. If anything, it hardened India’s resolve to risk what may be called ‘sticking it out’.
The standoff moved through some interesting strategic moments. While China expected India to withdraw forthwith due to a perception of the latter’s supposed weak military disposition, it did not have a ‘Plan B' ready that would cater for the eventuality of India deciding to stick it out. Fresh from its perceived strategic success in the South China Sea, and after defying the ruling of the international tribunal, China possibly felt it could ride rough shod over India. It hoped to appropriately send India a message by embarrassing it in a military confrontation; that message was equally for nations with whom India is in potential league for strategic partnerships, Japan in particular.
As the standoff progressed into a long stalemate, the advantage appeared to shift to India creating a situation, where a mutual disengagement through diplomatic negotiation would end to India’s moral advantage. The inability of an adversary to achieve its strategic aim is long considered a victory by the other side. However, care needs to be taken not to call this disengagement a victory for India.
The term ‘victory in conflict’ (and the conflict spectrum does classify this standoff as a conflict) is one of the most debated terminologies in military parlance. The management of victory isn’t the easiest even for the most seasoned diplomatic corps or military because it has negative spinoffs which can hardly be perceived immediately. Thus the situation may well be termed as ‘advantage India’ without spelling out the domain, diplomatic or military. While many may contest this and hawks would like to project victory for various reasons, they need to be cautioned because this is not the end of Sino-Indian confrontation. The likelihood of needling and triggering similar or near similar situations through ‘walk-ins’ across the LAC in other areas such as Ladakh, Barahoti and Arunachal Pradesh, would remain live.
India’s strategic analysts must not be drawn into the victory defining game and would do much more justice if they pressurised the government to ensure that the long-pending and slowly-progressing border infrastructure is hastened as much as the acquisition of hardware and ammunition for which sizeable recent financial allocations have been made. It must not return to business as usual in these crucial fields. What is even more important is not to be led away to believe that only quiet diplomacy succeeds.
In future situations, the possibility of the intense need for a developed and well thought through communication strategy may be a virtual compulsion. How is this to be done and which body, institution or organisation has the professional expertise to undertake this is a question mark. This time China did not use its force multipliers such as cyber warfare but possibly tested some models in the live environment. The next time this will be a crucial domain and India must step up its expertise in this through a combination of military cyber and information capability, largely manned through civilian intake. That will deliver permanence and specialisation at the cutting edge, while uniformed personnel can lend it a military orientation.
One of the earliest analyses of the Doklam standoff done by me suggested a line that China would keep India engaged at the land boundaries through unresolved border disputes and frequent standoffs. The purpose of these operations would be to lend weight to India’s obsession with continental security. The urgency with which India needs to ramp up its maritime capability cannot be over emphasised. That will have China worried especially if strategic partnerships with the US, Japan, Australia, Vietnam and South Korea are established in the maritime domain, and Malabar-type exercises get progressively enhanced in scope. After all, as they say, China is still a landlocked country; its access to the Pacific does not give it the advantage it seeks. It is the Indian Ocean that it looks at. The Indian Ocean has a distinct Indian advantage and China’s worries about its energy security and trade stem from that.
At the end of the day what should make us all happy is that the Prime Minister is going to BRICS without having to be worried about the borders. After all it’s always good to live to fight another day; where and how soon, only time will tell.