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When India meets China in Bhutan: the Doklam standoff

For a few weeks, India and China were engaged in a standoff in a remote Himalayan Valley on the border of China and Bhutan, the Doklam plateau claimed by Bhutan and China. Indian forces went there to prevent the Chinese from going on building a road on Bhutanese territory, as Indians and Bhutanese see it, while the Chinese claim to be building the road on Chinese territory. The least one has to acknowledge is that sovereign rights over that Himalayan corner are contested. The Indian action is based on a friendship treaty between India and Bhutan, which gives India the obligation (and the right) to intervene when Bhutan’s security and territorial integrity is threatened. The Doklam plateau is remote, tiny and negligible for its local economic importance for any party. And even a possible strategic importance is not obvious. Now we read in marginal notes of international media that the Chinese and the Indians seem to have stepped down from a confrontational position regarding the contested area. We do not know yet the conditions for the mutual retreat. However, the local threat to peace in a corner where borders of China, Bhutan and India meet seems to be resolved. Was it an episodic accident or did it mean more? It meant more. China and India have been engaged in a decade-old competition about future hegemony over Asian neighbours. The thousands of miles of common borders, mostly in the Himalayan area, is the line along which this Indian-Chinese antagonism has been crystallizing since India’s independence. In 1962, the two Asian giants even fought a war on border disputes, which the Chinese won. This defeat is India’s second humiliating national trauma after Partition in 1947. Actually, the confrontation on the Doklam plateau, although involving military forces, rather remained a rhetoric clash with both sides insinuating that they were ready for war. Now, of course, both sides had no intention to go to war against each other. India for domestic reasons. In a democratic society, war is always a very risky game for the political leadership. The Modi Government too is focused on re-election in 2019. A war disaster would be deadly in view of elections. China, on the other hand, has no such worries. Without democratic structures and traditions, the Government has no obligation to worry much about what their people think and feel. If war is in the Government’s interest, they will go to war. But war is not in the interest of China. It is not in their interest for foreign policy reasons. China has developed all the necessary economic power and smart tools such as their “One Road-One Belt”-Initiative to replace the USA as the global hegemon. China’s major strategic weakness is its limited power projection capacity on sea. Therefore, they are massively enhancing their naval potential by building ships of all classes. As a traditionally land-locked “empire” (compared to the USA) with limited access to the oceans of this world, they need to expand networks of partnerships with other countries. They have only started to buy or rent and build deep-sea ports along the trade routes they need to protect in order to promote their global trade. Emblematic cases for that Chinese endeavour of acquiring foreign ports are to be found in Pakistan and even in Sri Lanka, India’s backyard, so to say. These strategic bridgeheads serve China’s commercial and strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. Seen from India, they are part of China’s “strings of pearls” encircling the Subcontinent. For China they are the necessary tools for the projection of influence and ultimately power globally. The Chinese seek future world dominance not through fighting war, but by staying loyal to their ancient tradition and policies and by implementing their classic strategic thinker Sun Tzu’s advice to fight your enemy and conquer the world without fighting wars. As the Chinese know that on their way up to world dominance they need some sort of international consent, and that declaring war on India would destroy their image of a reliable and peaceful partner, they will systematically abstain from launching military aggressions against others. They know that they need to inspire confidence in international partners in order to be acceptable as the world’s future superpower. So, the Doklam crisis of July/August 2017 may seem resolved and at least gone from the world’s media attention, but as a sign of the unresolved border conflict between China and India, it was not episodic, but symptomatic. India and China may look similar in size and economic potential, but in strategic affairs they play in different classes. Prime Minister Modi’s effort of reforming political and economic bad habits in order to match China’s power may go in the right direction, but they have not produced the necessary impact, to the disadvantage of democratic countries of the world.       

8th September 2017 / Philippe Welti

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