The stand-off between the Indian and Chinese armies at Doklam shows no signs of a resolution. For New Delhi, the most preferred option is a mutual withdrawal by the two armies from the contested area. The next best option is continuation of the status quo, a prolonged stand-off at the site where Chinese road construction has been stalled. The Chinese thus cannot build the road to the militarily important Jampheri ridge, and diplomats of the two countries can use the prolonged period of détente — of a few months if not more — to find an amicable solution.
The attractiveness of a prolonged standoff lies in a precedent from May 1986, when an annual Indian army patrol discovered that the Chinese army had occupied an Indian patrol point in Sumdorong Chu valley in Arunachal Pradesh. It was close to the location of the initial confrontation which had started the 1962 conflict. India formally protested to the Chinese in July, who replied with a straight face that they were, just like India, improving border management.
India moved in troops, occupied the dominating Longrola and Hathungla heights, setting up military posts in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the Chinese soldiers. India’s offer not to re-occupy the post next summer, if both sides withdrew troops, was rejected by China. The rhetoric from Beijing went up, when in October, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping warned India, via the US Defence Secretary, that China would have to “teach India a lesson”.
In May 1987, foreign minister N.D. Tiwari went to Beijing en route to North Korea and conveyed that New Delhi had no intention of aggravating the situation. A formal flag meeting took place at Bum La on August 5, 1987 and the military de-escalation started. Diplomatically, it took another seven years to restore status quo at Sumdorong Chu. The stand-off led to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s historical visit to Beijing in December 1988, where the two countries agreed to negotiate a boundary settlement and maintain tranquillity pending that settlement. By taking a strong military position at Sumdorong Chu, India’s aims were met and the path for future agreements between the two countries was also laid.
There are obvious lessons to be learnt from the Sumdorong Chu stand-off but it would be misleading to draw exact parallels as the facts are materially different. For one, China’s global standing and its own self-image. In 1987, China was still following Deng’s strategy of “hide our capacities and bide our time” in a global order dominated by the US and Soviet Union. It wanted to stabilise the region to deal with the world. The China of 2017 has become increasingly assertive in the military arena under Xi Jinping, which is reflected in its aggressive and expansionist stance in South China Sea.
Beijing’s external aggression is also an outcome of its increasingly nationalistic domestic politics under Xi, who is heading into an important party congress in November. The anti-India rhetoric from other party-controlled media outlets has been incendiary and intemperate. Reports suggest that 1962 war veterans have been paraded on state television, and the party’s propaganda machinery is upping the ante on Weibo and other social media platforms. This is a substantive shift from the 1987 stand-off where the nationalistic fervor in local Chinese media, including invocations of 1962, were negligible if not absent.
More than the global and domestic situation, the biggest difference between the two stand-offs is their respective locations. Forty years ago, the two armies were confronting each other on territory claimed by both India and China. Now the face-off between India and China is in a plateau contested between Bhutan and China. While Chinese road construction affects the Indian claim over the tri-junction, Beijing contends that Indian soldiers are in Chinese territory — or, at best, in territory claimed by Bhutan. Because Indians are in a third country’s territory, Beijing says that there is nothing to negotiate unless the Indian soldiers withdraw unilaterally first.
New Delhi may bet on a prolonged stand-off but the Chinese have given no inclination of being interested in continuing the status quo. But we must not forget that the bigger power is a loser in case a situation ends in a stalemate. Even China recognises that it can no longer humiliate India militarily the way it did in 1962 and it will suffer heavy losses for any misadventure, but a prolonged stand-off can lead to inadvertent escalation. Clausewitz posited this as friction or the fog of war, where accidents are unpredictable. The consequences of these accidents can often lead to a crossing of a recognised military limit, which would be catastrophic in the case of two nuclear-armed neighbours.
So far India has been mature in its approach to the stand-off, providing no provocation to the Chinese by any military movement or through its official statements. But New Delhi’s position is critically dependent on Bhutan, a close friend and ally. Although Bhutan is unlikely to flip on its support to India anytime soon, a prolonged stand-off will lead to the strengthening of voices in the Himalayan kingdom who want a more balanced Bhutanese foreign policy. In 2007, Bhutan had offered a swap deal to China where it agreed to give Doklam in exchange for the disputed areas in its north, which India vetoed. In 2013, the democratically elected Bhutanese government had started showing signs of independence from Indian guidance and New Delhi had let its displeasure be known in the 2013 Bhutanese elections.
The signs from Thimphu have been there, and a prolonged stand-off could be the catalyst for altered India-Bhutan ties. The choice for New Delhi is not between capitulation and war. Diplomatic engagement has provided creative answers to more complex problems but there is little luxury of time now. A military conflict would be catastrophic but even a prolonged stand-off has its own perils. The tensions between India and China thus need an early diplomatic resolution.