Middle India is clearly chuffed. The prolonged confrontation with China on the Doklam plateau, which is into its third month, has provided the comforting illusion that India can stand up to its large neighbour, unlike in 1962 when the Chinese inflicted a humiliating defeat on the country.
There have been other skirmishes since then on the disputed border between the countries but for Indians, the 1962 war remains the defining point in relations with a neighbour they see as an aggressive bully, fed as they have been this view by analysts appearing on shrill and jingoistic TV channels.
Facts are almost irrelevant in this elevation of the national mood over the current stand-off. In the popular perception, Indian troops have for the first time stopped the Chinese from making yet another incursion into Indian terrain. Few care to know that the Doklam plateau, a disputed patch of land in the eastern Himalayas is in neighbouring Bhutan and that its contours have been under discussion between China and Bhutan for long. Even if some were aware of the ground realities, the geography, history and logistics of this strip make it too confusing to make a material difference. At a height of 3,000 metres, the Doklam plateau is at the junction of Bhutan, China and India’s Sikkim border and the latest stand-off erupted in mid-June when India opposed China’s attempt to extend a border road in the area. India’s worry is that the road would give China greater access to its vulnerable “chicken’s neck”, a vital strip that links the Indian mainland to its northeast.
At the expert level though, Doklam is causing anxiety, with some analysts not ruling out the possibility of war. Old China hands in particular are puzzled by Beijing’s stubborn insistence on unconditional withdrawal before negotiations can start. Former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon thinks the issue is fraught because China is attempting to change the status quo at the tri-junction. Menon was quoted in a recent interview as saying that even in 2013 both sides were talking in other stand-offs and had returned to earlier positions. What has changed now?
The Doklam stand-off has reset the South Asian strategic board with India’s smaller neighbours moving closer to Beijing.
One view is that the Modi government’s policy of persistent confrontation and rivalry has annoyed China and made it less willing to negotiate. As to what prompted India to flex its muscle just now, there are several theories. The most plausible is that India sent its troops into Doklam to forestall a final border settlement between Thimphu and Beijing that would have bypassed New Delhi. Lending credence to this is an official document issued by Beijing on August 2, which claims that the two have “reached broad consensus” on delimiting the Bhutan border. The incursion, China believes, is the handiwork of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who has been described in official media as “one of the main schemers behind the current border stand-off”. This remains a matter of conjecture.
However, China’s insistence that the Bhutan accord “has nothing to do with India” is rather simplistic given India’s genuine security concerns. India spends vast amounts to keep Bhutan in its fold – Thimphu gets the lion’s share of its foreign aid – and also maintains a permanent military presence in the country. It is unlikely to cede Bhutan to China without a fight, even if its regional hegemony has been seriously undermined. One by one, its small neighbours have become more assertive and put New Delhi on notice that they intend to follow foreign policies that are independent of its diktats. Nepal, which has been most prickly with the Modi regime, has made it clear that China is now a factor in its policy calculation. The ill-considered fuel blockade imposed by the BJP government in a fit of pique over its inability to stop Nepal’s new constitution increased the alienation of the Nepalis and practically handed the country on a platter to China. It was immediately thereafter that Kathmandu signed a transit treaty with Beijing.
Nepal has leapt several places forward in the strategic game of Chinese chequers that is being played out in South Asia – despite India’s belated attempts to make amends. Although Modi rushed his foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, to Kathmandu with a complete capitulation on the issue of the ethnic Madhesi people, which has been a major sticking point between the two countries, the policy shift came a tad late. If it was hoping to prevent Nepal from seeking an alliance with Beijing the ploy failed. A week after Swaraj’s visit, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang practically swept the board as Nepal agreed to boost bilateral cooperation under the framework of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, a project that India is strongly opposed to.
And just as India was revelling in its new-found prowess to keep China at bay, another blow was delivered by Sri Lanka. Colombo handed over a 70 per cent stake in the deep-water port of Hambantota to a Chinese state-owned consortium despite strenuous diplomacy by India to prevent it. Politically and strategically, it is a coup for China. Hambantota will not only extend its influence in Sri Lanka, it will, more significantly, enable the dragon to keep an eye on India’s maritime and naval operations in the region.
That is a major setback for India and more so for Modi, who was expected to carry forward his admiration for China – he visited the country no less than five times as Gujarat’s chief minister – into a new era of cooperation between Asia’s leading powers. Instead, the two have been constantly sniping at each other and now appear on the brink of war.
Modi’s short-sighted policies, burdened by animosities of the past, are more dangerous for ignoring the growing asymmetry with China, both in strategic and economic terms. India may still be a fast-growing economy but China’s GDP is five times larger, while its defence budget is almost four times bigger. And there is the huge trade imbalance. The BJP’s ideological parent, the RSS, which is opposed to a rapprochement with China, thinks it can get even by boycotting Chinese goods. The sad reality is that even the national flags that Modi supporters are fond of waving come from China.