IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

Will China raise the stakes at Doklam?

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, observes an attack exercise with People's Liberation Army Gen. Song Puxuan, commander, Northern Theater Command, at a PLA base in Shenyang, China, Aug. 16, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

Written by Nishant Rajeev.

India and China today find themselves in a situation that is all too familiar. Troops from both sides have previously engaged in similar standoffs, most recently in 2013, at Daulat Beg Oldi near Aksai Chin.

This geopolitical situation gives India more room to manoeuvre diplomatically.  By holding its current position, it would put the onus on China to escalate or de-escalate. As escalation is unlikely, such a move could then trigger a return to the status quo, which is the best possible outcome

Although the Chinese military has admitted that the 2013 incident happened because of misperceptions of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the current standoff over the construction of a road at the trijunction of Bhutan, Sikkim and Tibet has resulted in the Chinese media noticeably turning up the rhetoric and stating that there is no way the issue will be resolved unless India unilaterally withdraws its troops from the disputed territory between China and Bhutan. This incident has marked a new low in the already deteriorating India-China relationship. Although the odds might be against India, with the gap in conventional capabilities between India and China growing, it is vital that India doesn’t give up any further ground.

The current road under construction could have serious implications in any future conflict between India and China. It  would allow Chinese troops to deploy quickly to the Chumbi valley, which is part of the southern reaches of the Tibetan Autonomous Region along the Line of Actual Control, and potentially threaten the narrow and crucial Siliguri Corridor in West Bengal. The Siliguri corridor is like a choke point between mainland India and the northeast.  By threatening the lines of communication that pass through the corridor, China could dissuade India from militarily escalating any conflict that erupts over disputed boundaries in Arunachal Pradesh.

This is clearly a move that China has made keeping in mind the deteriorating relationship between India and China that could potentially erupt, in the long run, into a limited border conflict in Leh or Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, China had previously even offered to cede territory to Bhutan in the northern part of the disputed territory for territory around the Chumbi valley where the Doklam plateau is situated.

However, despite a disparity in military capabilities, India might have more room to manoeuvre than one would think. This has more to do with the current geopolitical situation that China finds itself in rather than military capabilities alone. If China were to engage in military conflict, it would need to register a decisive victory to preserve its reputation as a superior military power and regional superpower.

While it could perhaps deliver a victory, India’s current military capabilities would allow India to impose a very high cost on China for any such victory. This would call into question China’s economic wherewithal to wage such a conflict.

The costs imposed on China would widen the gap between the US and China, which China views as its true adversary. China is also currently engaged in its largest ever economic project: The Belt and Road Initiative.

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) itself requires an investment of nearly $50 billion. Any large-scale conflict with India would entail high costs which would affect China adversely in the long run. Hence, though India may not ‘win’ such a conflict, it could surely deny China the victory it needs to establish itself as a global superpower.

Another factor is the potential international fallout which would prevent China from escalating the conflict. This is particularly so because such action would involve Bhutan – a small country. China has always portrayed its rise to superpower status as “peaceful”. Any over-aggressive military action could seriously tarnish this image and affect its international standing because the military fallout would severely impact Bhutan.

This geopolitical situation gives India more room to manoeuvre diplomatically.  By holding its current position, it would put the onus on China to escalate or de-escalate. As escalation is unlikely, such a move could then trigger a return to the status quo, which is the best possible outcome given the current position both countries find themselves in.

China may realise that talks are the best way forward, but India must realise that talks are only a short-term solution. Certainly, this process would take time. The last time the two militaries confronted each other and refused to back down the standoff lasted well over a year.

Going forward, China is likely to establish itself as a superpower that could even challenge the United States. Therefore, the only long-term solution for India to prevent another debacle like the 1962 war would be to ramp up its own technical and infrastructural capabilities.

Nishant Rajeev is a GCPP course student at the Bangalore-based Takshashila Institution. This article was first published on the South Asia Monitor and can be found here. Image credit: CC by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/Flickr