By Jacqueline Deal, Stephen Rosen and Shivaji Sondhi
Every crisis is an opportunity, and the current stand-off in Doklam is no different. Our aim in this piece is to suggest modest, incremental ways in which India can respond to the current impasse that will leave it better positioned going forward. These steps are made possible by the resolve demonstrated by the Indian leadership and military to date, which appears to have caught Beijing off guard. China’s persistent effort to nibble away at the border has now given way to explicit threats. Delhi’s refusal to be intimidated offers a promising opening for strategic steps that will promote stability over the longer term.
We begin with our general framework, which we laid out in three pieces published in this newspaper in 2012. We asserted that, one, India has a China problem, which flows from the accumulated asymmetry in power that will improve only slowly as India’s growth rate overtakes a declining Chinese growth rate; two, in the meantime, Chinese elites are not sympathetic to India, and their ambition will continue to increase as Chinese power increases; three, there is a large list of potential Chinese actions over this period that India will find problematic, and so a strategic Indian response is warranted instead of tactical responses to each new development; and finally, four, redressing the balance in military power and preparedness is both possible and highly desirable.
The current crisis has an immediate tactical level that involves force dispositions relevant to a potential conflict, diplomatic moves attempting to identify a local resolution, and the steps that would be needed to get to such a resolution. On such matters, we suggest that the more visibility there is on Chinese actions in the border area, the more likely it is that China will refrain from risky behaviour. To that end, we suggest that all actions to improve surveillance of the border be taken, and to the extent possible India should “shine light” upon the pressures it faces on this front. Ideally, India will succeed in getting an effective restoration of the status quo ante in the area — an outcome more likely if other major powers come to see Doklam as emblematic of a growing Chinese unilateralism, that is destabilising.
But even if this proves not entirely feasible, India can still come out of the crisis having improved its bargaining position for future crises. The key to this is to use the crisis to announce a set of long-term measures to improve Indian military readiness vis-a-vis China. Such announcements would have multiple advantages. First, they would signal immediate resolve without risking tactical danger. Second, they would make clear to China and other Asian nations and the United States that irrespective of the resolution of the crisis, India is committed to do what it takes to retain its strategic autonomy. Third, it would allow the Indian government to use the crisis to initiate a set of reforms that have proven difficult to execute in “peace time.”
Important steps can be taken by the Indian government on its own. These are modest near-term measures that keep India on a long-term path towards a position from which it can defend its sovereignty against the kinds of threats now being made by the Chinese spokesmen. The Naresh Chandra Committee proposed measures to improve the capacity of India’s armed forces to work synergistically, most notably by asking for a dedicated and effective Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, which would also create an effective joint command of the critical installations in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It also suggested professionalising the personnel of the defence ministry. Prime ministerial instructions to overcome roadblocks and to implement these proposed reforms should be issued. There is the possibility of announcing consultative measures in concert with friendly governments to discuss the increasing Chinese propensity to upset the status quo on its periphery. Even a purely operational discussion of the common challenges, away from the political level, would be valuable.
Finally, the Indian government should also continue with its careful, incremental programme to explore ways in which India and friendly countries such as the United States can pursue mutual interests in the Indian Ocean region. Much progress has been made, spanning three US presidential administrations, and the two countries should stay the course, despite efforts by China to derail them.