In all likelihood, there is not going to be an easy resolution to the standoff between India and China at Doklam. You don’t have to be a strategic genius to recognise that any resolution would require a narrative that allowed both sides to claim that they did not blink first. But the public positions of both parties make such an outcome harder to achieve. China’s position is that India must withdraw for meaningful talks to begin; India’s position is that both sides must withdraw. In effect, the structure of this situation is, as Shashank Joshi has argued, that both sides withdrawing would seem a victory of sorts for India. It is hard to imagine, after its strong public pronouncements, China easily walking away. Even assuming neither side wants to risk a major escalation, in the best case scenario, we could be in the position of a protracted period of tension.
The geographic and legal aspects of the standoff have been subject to much analysis. This standoff is considered a departure for two reasons. First, because it involves a third country, Bhutan. It will be important for India to keep Bhutan on its side both for legal and strategic reasons. It is very likely that one of the intended by-products of this standoff is to signal to smaller countries that potentially the costs of siding with India are high. Without Bhutan’s whole-hearted concurrence, the legitimacy of Indian actions will be in question. But this will require the ability to demonstrate that India can indeed stand up, and in ways that do not cause collateral damage to states friendly to it.
Second, it has been argued that India has taken the unprecedented step of arguing that its own security concerns, not legality, technical details or, potentially, regard for sovereignty, will guide its position. The MEA’s formulation was a bit hasty and has given grist to China’s rhetorical mill, and also to the government’s critics in India. But this criticism is an over-reading of what the MEA’s position implies. But India is not seeking security concerns as a carte blanche justification for its position or finding a pretext. In this instance, security concerns has a very specific meaning.
A better lawyerly formulation of India’s position might go as follows: “India has acted on its security considerations, as they arise from unilateral attempts to alter the existing understanding of relevant treaties, conventions and political agreements and facts on the ground as they might bear on the interpretation of these agreements.” Of course, many claims are disputed on all three sides. But pending resolution of these disputes, maintaining status quo is the non-threatening option: Radical departure from the status quo can be construed as a security threat. Incidentally, the Chinese would not demur from this proposition; they are accusing India of trying to alter the status quo.
In the political debate over this impasse, two things are noticeable. India probably did not have a choice but to respond to Chinese actions. The fair criticism of government, at least up to this point, is not that it has chosen to respond. The fairer criticism might be that in the events leading up to the impasse, the government has probably consistently misread China. Early on, it ended up believing too much in the prime minister’s charm offensive. Now, the Modi-Xi relationship is at an embarrassing low.
We later invested too much for relatively small gains like the NSG membership. India did take on China on OBOR. Given the ideological and symbolic importance of OBOR, it was highly likely that China would see India’s position as a slight to its status, and it should have anticipated deterioration in relations. India has also banked on the US being a player, but the rise of Trump has left the field entirely clear for China. So a lot of the angst over the Indian position seems to stem less from the actual standoff itself, but more from the prior framing of the India-China relationship. But to be fair, this government is not alone in misreading China. China’s definition of its core security interests is expanding as it footprint grows. And the opacity of how domestic concerns might shape China’s foreign policy makes a reading of its intentions difficult.
There is also a curious irony in Indian public discourse. It is fair to say that the level of public rhetoric against China was probably higher when the tension was less. It has, by Indian standards, been more muted as tensions have increased. For China, the public rhetoric has increased in tandem with its actions on the ground. This is not surprising because the blunt truth is that even if we assume China does not want a wider conflict, it, at the moment, holds many more cards than India. India’s ability to stand up to China may have increased since 1962, but the fact is that India is much more vulnerable than China.
Which is why when conflict might be more imminent, our rhetoric goes down. One of the interesting things about the China-Pakistan axis is that it will also get mobilised more on China’s cues than Pakistan’s. India’s internal situation, from Gorkhaland to Kashmir, has become more fragile than it has been in a decade. The Chinese might think it is easier to put an Indian government on the back foot, and in part that seems to be the intention. India has to find that sweet spot where it can signal that it cannot be pushed around easily. Having taken a stand, India will now have to think of what its next moves are in this long-drawn game, or more importantly what its risk appetite is.
As Srinath Raghavan cogently argued, the best hope for India-China relations is to take this standoff out of a frame that converts it into a larger ideological and status dispute. This might allow some practical accommodation while lowering the stakes. This is probably the best that an Ajit Doval visit can achieve in the short run — a toning down of the rhetoric, without actually changing the standoff.
This might buy time and prepare the ground for quiet compromise on both sides. But even this might not be easy. What makes this situation different is that this time China seems to be keen on raising the stakes. While our television warriors have become more muted, Chinese rhetoric seems to want to keep this front page news. Since the Chinese papers are naming him specifically, just hope China does not decide to take Doval down a peg or two when he visits.