China, India and the Return to Doklam

31 January 2018 Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme

Background

China and India mutually agreed to end their 73-day stand-off at Doklam in the Himalayas on 27 August last year. Beijing was undoubtedly taken aback by New Delhi’s strong stand against it. India, on the other hand, having accomplished its task of stopping the construction of a road by the Chinese in territory disputed between Beijing and Bhutan, appeared to settle for a modicum of enhanced vigilance in the region and then to forget about it.

What India did, however, was more than merely stop China from constructing a road in disputed territory. It showed the region and beyond, much to the chagrin of China, that a resolute state could indeed withstand the three-warfare strategy that China employs. It also demonstrated that China is not the unstoppable force that much current thinking would imply it is. On the other hand, it would be naïve not to recognise that China was, in its own perception, humiliated not only at being stopped, but at being stopped by a country it sees as being inferior to it economically and militarily, and one that implicitly questioned the justness of its actions.

Doklam MapComment

The reflection of impropriety does not sit well with the Communist Party of China. There could be little doubt that its leaders would have by now set out a strategy to achieve the goal it originally set out to do, albeit in a more determined fashion. That strategy would take into account India’s changed policy of crossing over into territory that it does not claim in order to protect its treaty ally’s claim. China would almost certainly call for talks to settle the border disputes it has with India but these would just as certainly be one part of a multi-faceted approach towards reversing any loss of face it might have had to endure as a result of India’s actions at Doklam. In keeping with President Xi’s dictum to “be assertive”, China will likely call upon its military to add pressure to its political and diplomatic initiatives.

That approach appears to be increasingly likely. As one source points out, there has been a:

… heavy deployment of People’s Liberation Army … personnel close to last year’s site of confrontation and hectic build-up by the Chinese in North Doklam, including concrete posts, helipads, new trenches, and a concrete observation tower less than 10 metres from the Indian Army’s most forward trench. Fighting posts have been created on almost every hillock on the North Doklam plateau … confirming sporadic media reports of Chinese troops digging in rather than leaving the area.

There has been little evidence that India, for its part, has done much to counter that build-up. The situation could be a metaphor, in fact, for India’s military modernisation in general. New Delhi allocates a mere 1.56 per cent of its budget to defence. Efforts to modernise the air force have been caught up in bureaucracy and political inertia; the years-long process to identify a fighter aircraft, the so-called Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft, that eventually settled on French Dassault fighters, is a case in point. Having identified a fighter aircraft that suited India’s requirements, India’s infamous red tape came to the fore, resulting in a decision to scrap the deal to acquire those aircraft in order to replace ageing Soviet-era fighters. The navy is not much better off, either. While it is true that frigates and destroyers have been added, the sole, much-vaunted and indigenously-designed nuclear submarine has been laid up for months now for repairs.

It behoves Mr Modi, renowned for his ability to cut through bureaucracy, to ensure the planned Mountain Strike Corps is raised and fully equipped, to prepare India for the second iteration of Doklam and for the many subsequent Doklams that are likely to ensue.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

Published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd.
Suite 5, 202 Hampden Road, Nedlands WA 6009, Australia.