Written by Abhijnan Rej.
Since the middle of June 2017, Indian and Chinese forces have been in the middle of a tense standoff in the Doklam region of Bhutan, near the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction. It has been termed the “most serious such confrontation in more than 30 years,” by the Chinese ambassador to India. While it is not uncommon for the two armies to face off one another across the Line of Actual Control – the de-facto yet disputed border between the two countries – it is relatively rare for them to contest in this particular area. The Sino-Indian tussle for control in Doklam assumes further significance given the area’s proximity to the Siliguri Corridor, a vulnerable thin strip of land that connects India’s north-eastern states to the rest of the country. It is also vital to note that this is the first time Indian forces have challenged Chinese claims on Bhutanese territory, effectively on a collective-defense basis. Many analysts, including this author in a recent article, have argued that this is what gives the current conflict strategic salience for India.
What remains underappreciated about the current conflict are the strong domestic impulses and ideological preferences that are shaping elite decision-making in both China and India. While these variables are not the only ones that could shape the outcome of the current standoff, they are important enough to be explored.
Since becoming president in 2013, Xi Jinping has embarked on a massive campaign to consolidate power. This has included strengthening his control over the Chinese military, ostensibly in the name of military reforms and ‘purging’ it of corrupt officers. In fact, two RAND analysts noted last year that “[t]he only other PRC leader that resorted to purges [in the PLA] at such a high level—and so routinely—was Mao.” Xi has also emulated Mao in other aspects. Almost every major organ of the Chinese state is now controlled by him. Apparently inspired by a Manichean manifesto written by a former PLA officer, Xi routinely rallies his country around the “China Dream,” a Chinese version of the American ‘manifest destiny’ doctrine. Last year, Xi was anointed a “core leader” of the Communist party, adding him to CPC hagiography that has principally focussed on Mao, Deng Xiaoping, and (to some extent) Jiang Zemin in the past.
The 19th CPC (Communist Party of China) Congress, this Fall, will see the start of Xi’s second five-year term as general secretary. While Xi’s “election” to a second term is pro-forma, the real significance of the 19th Congress lies elsewhere. The Fall meeting of the CPC senior leadership will effectively determine who will succeed Xi as president in 2023 (after he completes his term as party general secretary in 2022). Beyond this, it will also see the reshuffling of the Politburo Standing Committee given that five of its seven members (all expect Xi and premier Li Keqiang) will probably retire this year, as well as the election of a new CPC Central Committee. The 19th Party Congress will have PLA delegates per convention.
There is also a distinct possibility that Xi – through careful precedent-setting at the Congress – will seek to extend his presidential term beyond 2023. One way by which he could seek to bolster his image as preparation for this move would be to consolidate his ‘strongman’ image through limited military adventurism, especially as the Chinese economy faces key challenges at home. Alternatively, the current leadership cohort who are about to retire may be “forced to take drastic and perhaps “irrational” actions […] all for the sake of self-preservation” – as one astute analysis of the foreign-policy consequences of the 19th Party Congress puts it – given the uncertainty about their future in face of Xi’s purges. According to this reading of Nottingham researcher Michael Cole, the Chinese leadership may thus be emboldened to create carefully-managed crises “by targeting the peripheral, albeit highly symbolic, interests of its foreign opponents than to directly attack them.” The Chinese decision to reclaim territory it contests with Bhutan – arguably India’s closest ally – lends credence to this hypothesis.
Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister a year after Xi became the Chinese president, in 2014. Modi’s election was a landmark of sorts in a country used to coalition politics for about thirty years. Modi’s overwhelming mandate in 2014 allowed him to take a set of risky policy decisions both in the domestic and the foreign realm. Regional elections earlier this year saw Modi’s party consolidate its position even further, suggesting to many that his risk-taking appetite finds consonance among Indian voters. While it is intellectually lazy to claim a monocausal relationship between every decision of Modi’s and his ideological background in political Hinduism, there is no denying that such weltanschauung implies a finer attunement with traditional conservative values such as defence of national interest, valour, and honour.
The last point deserves a further comment. Soon after Modi was elected, Xi visited India in September 2014, one of the first major world-leaders to be invited to do so. While Xi was still on Indian soil and holding meetings with Modi, the PLA carried out a serious incursion into the Indian territory of Ladakh. Until the downturn in the relationship between the two countries, Modi had made several – often unilateral – concessions to the Chinese, a sign many interpreted to his fundamentally-pragmatic nature. They included his offer of visa-on-arrival for Chinese nationals – going against the advice of his intelligence agencies – and support for the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor in a much-publicized visit to Beijing in 2015.
But even before the ongoing Doklam standoff, several events over the course of last year have added to the sense that these overtures were not being reciprocated by the Chinese. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through parts of Kashmir that India claims to be its own, as well as Chinese support for a technical hold on sanctioning a Pakistan-based terrorist under the UNSCR 1267 committee remain sticking points in the relationship. It is quite possible that Modi will view Doklam as a culmination of a series of incidents that signal intransigence on the part of the Chinese, and a clash with values he holds closely. Hindu epics like the Ramayana – certainly part of Modi’s mental universe – counsel patience with one’s adversary but not to the point that such action is misinterpreted as weakness.
Going beyond value-systems that Modi may or may not draw from in responding to the crisis, the strong domestic support he currently enjoys together with an electorally-decimated opposition would not incentivize him to stand down. Conversely, if Modi was to unilaterally back down in face of Chinese pressure, his opponents will pounce on him – grasping, as they are, for straws on other issues – and complicate what now seems to be a smooth path to a second term as prime minister in 2019.
Abhijnan Rej is a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. His current research revolves around Indian grand strategy, foreign policy, and international security. His latest research paper, “Beyond India’s Quest for a Neoliberal Order,” was published in the Summer 2017 issue of The Washington Quarterly. He tweets @AbhijnanRej. Image credit: Lhu Boom/ Flickr