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Raja Mandala: Doklam’s unintended consequence

If China makes no room for compromise, India will be forced to think about coping with its power, burying illusions of Asian solidarity

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published: August 8, 2017 12:51 am
Sikkim standoff, Doklam standoff, China, India, India-China, India -China ties, narendra Modi, Xi Jinping, The signals of China’s new approach to India were evident since 2008 when China opposed the nuclear exemption for India at the Nuclear Suppliers Group. (Representational photo)

Whatever the eventual outcome in Doklam, the current stand-off is bound to significantly alter Indian perceptions of China. For one, the political goodwill in India towards China that was constructed over the last three decades will be increasingly difficult to sustain in the coming years. For another, India, which long resisted the idea of balancing China, is likely to move inevitably in that direction.

It took a lot of bold moves, including those by Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the foreign minister in the late 1970s and Rajiv Gandhi as the prime minister in the late 1980s, for the Indian elite to overcome the sense of Chinese betrayal in 1962. While leaders like Vajpayee and Rajiv Gandhi understood the imperatives of normalising relations with China, there was entrenched resistance in the political class and in the bureaucracy, armed forces and the security agencies that would take many years to overcome. Indian business too has been deeply fearful of engaging China.

The slow but definitive normalisation of relations was aided immensely by the pragmatism in Beijing, especially that of Deng Xiaoping, whose emphasis was on creating a peaceful external environment for the economic modernisation of China. But as China’s power grew rapidly, Deng’s successors have abandoned that pragmatism in favour of assertiveness. The current generation of leaders in Beijing believes China can now shape its external environment rather than merely adapt to it. As the newly predominant power in Asia, China may now see no reason to defer to Indian sensitivities.

The signals of China’s new approach to India were evident since 2008 when China opposed the nuclear exemption for India at the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Thanks to strong support to India from then-US President George W. Bush, China backed off. Meanwhile, tensions on the border began to rise as the PLA improved the military logistics in Tibet. China’s embrace with Pakistan has grown tighter and Beijing’s penetration of South Asia deeper over the last decade.

On its part, the UPA government in Delhi downplayed the differences with Beijing and underlined the prospects for collaboration with China in the quest for a multipolar world. The Narendra Modi government had a taste of Chinese pressures in September 2014 when PLA’s incursions into Ladakh coincided with President Xi’s visit to India. Modi’s followed his success in defusing this crisis by a strong effort to expand economic ties on a practical basis. But the Chinese actions — brazen opposition to India’s membership to the NSG, the reluctance to support international sanctions against known terrorists in Pakistan, and most recently the aggressive posture in the Doklam crisis — have dashed hopes for a positive turn in bilateral ties.

If Modi, as the strongest leader since Rajiv Gandhi, presented a rare opportunity to reconstruct Sino-Indian relations, Xi seems utterly uninterested. Sensible statecraft must, however, try and temper the pessimism of analytics with optimism about political agency. Hence , the unprecedented restraint in Delhi’s language and its patient calls for a dialogue to resolve the Doklam crisis in the face of Chinese threats and demands for unilateral Indian concessions.

India sees no reason to pick up a needless quarrel with a neighbour and rising power like China. But Beijing might be terribly wrong in presuming that Delhi would simply fold up under pressure. Pushed to a corner, India has every incentive to simply dig in. If China sees itself as an irresistible force today, India could well turn out to be that immovable object. There will be no happy ending for this confrontation.

China appears to have been carried away by the success of its recent coercive diplomacy in East Asia and the South China Sea. Unlike China’s East Asian neighbours, India has the capacity to absorb pressures from Beijing. With limited economic interdependence with China, Delhi can bear the costs of a severed commercial relationship. If India could turn its back on the dominant powers of the West for many decades during the Cold War, it could do that with China again.

China is also wrong to believe that asymmetry in power potential will automatically lead to surrender. China could learn from Pakistan’s refusal to submit to the widening strategic gap with India. Beijing’s haughty and unpleasant diplomacy in the current crisis will eventually lead to the conviction in Delhi that strategic defiance of China must prevail over the temptations for appeasement.

One of the consequences of power asymmetry is the pressure on the weaker power to turn to balancing strategies. Until now, India has deeply resisted walking down that road in the expectation that a reasonable accommodation of interests with China is possible. If China makes it clear there is no room for compromises, India will have to turn to both internal and external balancing of China.

One of the unintended consequences for China from the Doklam crisis would be an India that is forced to think far more strategically about coping with China’s power. For nearly a century, sentimentalism in Delhi about Asian solidarity and anti imperialism masked the more structural contradictions with China. Beijing’s approach to the Doklam crisis could well help bury those illusions.

The writer is director, Carnegie India, Delhi and contributing editor on foreign affairs with ‘The Indian Express’

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  1. V
    Vijay
    Aug 11, 2017 at 11:50 am
    August 2, 2017 News: Japan's Ministry of Science and Technology survey was informed that 2013 ~ 2016, science and technology papers published number: the United States the world's first, China rose to the world's second, Germany also catch up with Japan , Japan from the world's first two fell to fourth, India's ranking fell from 15 to 20.
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      Raoul Sen
      Aug 10, 2017 at 11:20 pm
      Very misleading article. Deng Xiaoping's pragmatism was engaging in clandestine aggression while smiling. China flagrantly proliferated nuclear weapons to Pakistan and North Korea during Deng's regime in the 1980s. India is a fool to trust China ever.
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        Bihari Krishna
        Aug 9, 2017 at 7:04 pm
        The author, as an Indian national, must take the following few facts into account before launching himself in a tirade against the more cultivated country, China. 1. Ask Nevillle Maxwell, the author "India's China War", 1970 before talking about China's betrayal of India in 1962. India had thrust the war on China. 2. India could "turn its back" on China only for a price. India's NITI Ayog under Panagaria wanted the country to integrate India's economy with that of China to grow to become a $10 trillion economy by 2030 from its $2 trillion at present. So, turning the back on China would cost the people of India very dearly, although not for the handful of elites who have always ruled this vast impoverished country. 3. Finally, the Doklam issue is between China and Bhutan, and India has no business being there. Due to the shortcomings implied by these issues, nobody takes India seriously around the world, not even its immediate small neighbours. Time for India to come to Its senses..
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          Ramesh Nittoor
          Aug 9, 2017 at 5:30 am
          think far more strategically about coping with China’s power. --- In this perception game stage, India still does not have a diplomatic win. Unless this happens India remains vulnerable to strike by China. The ideal scenario for India is Nepal making an unequivocal stand in favor of defending Bhutan, along with India. Creating adequate trust in Nepal to rise above the balancing game and make commitment to historical bilateral ties, is a winner at this juncture, and most likely to dissuade China and make it concede Doklam is disputed by Bhutan. This sa uards Nepal in the long run.
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            Ramesh Nittoor
            Aug 9, 2017 at 6:40 am
            Persuading Nepal is a political task, not of government alone, but of Indian democracy and this is achievable.
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              A. M.
              Aug 9, 2017 at 6:54 am
              Your present govt cannot even maintain unity in India and talking about taking Nepal in our side... Lol I am an Indian citizen, but heartly wish that china wins against India. Atleast they will be better than the present sanghi monkeys ruling India.
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                S Sharma
                Aug 10, 2017 at 3:51 pm
                AM needs to be sent to China forcibly at his own cost and after return we all need to hear his comments.
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              vivek
              Aug 9, 2017 at 5:17 am
              Biggest threat to India is not from China or Pakistan, but from the internal enemy comprising Congress, Communists, AAP, SP, BSP and their ilk who will join hands with the external enemy to harm India. Representatives of this internal enemy are evident on this comments section. They have pathological hatred for democratically elected Modi and BJP. They vent their impotent frustration by name calling - Chaddi, Sanghi. This internal enemy needs to be crushed brutally deep under the earth by all nationalists who love India.
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                A. M.
                Aug 9, 2017 at 7:01 am
                Sensible Indians need to get rid of sanghi chaddis, bhakts, paid bjp trolls like you first for a prosperous democratic India. Feku will prove to be the biggest joker in the history of India after china attacks India because of his foolishness and takes over the whole of northeast. Meanwhile a few states like Kashmir can expect Chinese help to be independent from the atrocities by the dumb bhakts like you
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                  Rakesh
                  Aug 23, 2017 at 12:00 pm
                  Ok heard you. Now go back to your land of monkeys and chimps.
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                  S Sharma
                  Aug 10, 2017 at 3:54 pm
                  The Papu needs to be declared a traitor tryig to meet a foreign delegate without Governent permission. Next they should be removed as the opposition leader in center.
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                    Rakesh
                    Aug 23, 2017 at 11:59 am
                    Let your monkey masters try their luck in attacking India. Their misguided perceptions and over estimation of themselves will be smashed to smithereens. I wish the uncouth and uncivilized China has the audacity to attack India. They will know their worth and will come to their senses. For the information of all those chimps posting under Indian names, let them be told in no uncertain terms that India is not their vassal state like Pakistan or a weak country like Cambodia or Philippines. In India they will meet their nemesis.
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