National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, last week, is a welcome sign that their two countries are engaging in the hard diplomatic work necessary to resolve the crisis on the Doklam plateau. Though neither side has issued an official statement on the talks, China’s official news agency, Xinhua, said the two had discussed “major problems” in bilateral relations — a term that almost certainly includes the stand-off between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army in disputed territory in Bhutan that has dragged on through the summer. Earlier, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang had asserted that “meaningful dialogue” was impossible until India withdrew its troops. Foreign Minister Wang Yi asserted the Indian troops were in Chinese territory, and thus had to return. India, for its part, called for dialogue, but quietly made clear it would not back down on its commitment to back Bhutan’s claims to the Doklam plateau. New Delhi instead called on China to honour its past commitments not to alter the status quo on the plateau, and made clear it would only withdraw its troops to mirror a reciprocal move by China. Though some have cast the Doval-Jiechi meeting as a sign that China is prepared to back down, the end of the story may not yet be in sight.
Here’s why. The Doklam stand-off is part of a string of similar incidents, where the PLA has pushed back against well-established Indian border positions, and part of a wider pattern of aggression on China’s periphery. The aim is to signal China’s displeasure at India’s participation in what it sees as a US-led axis bent on its isolation, made up of Japan, Vietnam and Australia. From China’s optic, coercion has worked in the South China Sea, terrorising small states into submission to its primacy. For obvious reasons, this is a dangerous lesson for China to have learned as it rubs up against militarily more-substantial states.
The fact is China’s internal economic problems and the choking of its access to the US markets are likely to accentuate its fears of strategic isolation. This is not a reason for India to accede to China’s often-unreasonable behaviour. However, India and other Asian states do need to engage in a dialogue with China on how the rapidly-changing structure of power on the continent is to be managed — or risk conflicts that are in the interests of none of them going out of control.