India's tone has been persistently calm, not threatening action, but sticking to its guns. And for the first time in decades, it is standing up to Chinese bullying
by Abhijit Iyer-Mitra
For some strange reason people in India seem to think that India is somehow on the back foot in its latest showdown with China over the Dokalam trijunction. Some feel that should the situation continue or deteriorate, ‘strategic defiance’ may be the only option. This, however, is not the impression in Beijing. In private, the Chinese feel that they, rather than India, are caught in a bind, unable to resort to the use of force for fear of destroying the myth of nuclear deterrence, but still supremely confident that strategic defiance by India, on the other hand, will be economically and diplomatically disastrous for India.
As a dear friend in Beijing summed it up rather rudely, “India is a dog. Whatever we do to you, you will first bark and snarl, but then accept and come back wagging your tail. The problem now is what we can do to you is also very limited.” This raises the question as to why India feels it is losing control of the situation. And second, if this idea that India will somehow finally turn on China is based on reality or plain wishful thinking.
Let us be clear about one thing — far from losing control, this has, in fact, been one of the best managed crises by India’s ministry of external affairs. India’s tone has been persistently calm, not threatening action, but sticking to its guns. And for the first time in decades, it is standing up to Chinese bullying and staring it down. The ‘losing control’ and ‘escalating crisis’ narratives seem to be emerging only from a set of strategic commentators whose window seems to be limited to Xinhua and Global Times, and completely devoid of primary research.
Having toured the area over the last seven days, there seems to be no escalation in troop numbers whatsoever. Landing in Lhasa, one could count about 12-14 Sukhoi family aircraft. And driving past the Shigatse airbase, given the difficulties of observing the tarmac, one could count between three and seven J-10 fighters. The entire Lhasa to Shigatse stretch also showed no signs of increased infantry activity, no spurt in military logistics and only some parade/TV optimised artillery lined up in Lhasa's marshalling yards along the Lhasa-Beijing railway.
Clearly then, the only real ‘escalation’ that can happen is unarmed Chinese border troops coming into and squatting in Indian territory, as suggested by the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs earlier this week — a major ‘climb-down’, if one can call it that — from previous threats, which were ominous simply because of the lack of specificity.
We also have a pattern of similar action across the South China Sea to judge China by. It has resorted to similar ‘sea grabs’ there, depending purely on the fear of the other parties to the dispute to avoid escalating the situation to fatalities. That fear simply doesn’t work with India, for the simple reason that both sides are nuclear-armed. This is particularly important as the situation thus far indicates that while India’s doctrine of deterrence may have failed on the western front (in all fairness, it was never directed against Pakistan), it has had a clear success in the east (where it was directed all along) by putting hard limits on how far China can escalate.
Stuck In Limbo
The diplomatic and strategic costs of escalation for China now are severe, even if Indian warheads can’t reach the Chinese eastern seaboard, taking China down several pegs equating it with rogue revisionist states like Pakistan and destroying the image of it being a more or less ‘responsible’ player on the world stage. All indicators then are that short of an extremely serious miscalculation by the Chinese leadership, the situation has plateaued. The only spikes will be verbal, and that too from the Chinese side.
Which also complicates things for the Chinese leadership when it chooses to de-escalate. It, however, seems to have realised its mistake after its first attempt to do so — claiming that India had reduced the number of troops. The furious denial by India caught it off guard with colleagues in Beijing admitting that they had miscalculated, and not factored in how this would be perceived in India domestically.
All up, we seem stuck in limbo. Escalation is not an option for China. But de-escalation also seems impossible, till public attention is shifted elsewhere. On the other hand, it is high time the Indian media also realise what the MEA and PMO seemed to have long back — that Indian strategic defiance is a non-starter.
China’s massive infusion of finished goods, such as mobile phones, are the core drivers of the Indian economy and impossible to substitute. Equally, if we choose to go against China, we might as well kiss goodbye to any chance of UN Security Council and Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) membership. In this situation, Dokalam is a win, an emphatic win, the best possible under the circumstances, marking the first serious Indian (and arguably global) pushback to Chinese salami tactics.
The writer is senior fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal
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