These are the finest hours for Indian diplomacy. August 2017 will always be remembered for the major victory achieved in ending the Doklam crisis through peaceful means. Indian diplomacy has added a new and shining feather to its cap. It is, of course, faced with another test concerning the issue of persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingyas, but that is an entirely different ball game. It is a humanitarian crisis in India’s immediate neighbourhood and New Delhi, going by its past record, should not be found wanting in playing its role as a responsible and mature nation to force Myanmar to end what has come to be known as ethnic cleansing.
But when we dispassionately look at the dispute involving China and Bhutan, we have to admit that the success achieved is a tribute to the diplomatic skills of India’s foreign policy managers assigned the task of resolving the India-China Doklam crisis through dialogue at various levels. They refused to be cowed by the Chinese, who had launched blistering diplomatic and psychological attacks on India through various channels, including its state-controlled media. Perhaps, the Indian diplomats succeeded in bringing to bear on the Chinese that recourse to the military might was no option when both countries were nuclear-armed and had a world class military with the Indian Army being as capable of defending its borders as the Chinese think their army is.
Yet the Chinese did not hesitate in heaping insults on India by reminding it of the disastrous consequences of the India-China 1962 war when New Delhi not only suffered a humiliating defeat but also lost face in the comity of nations. However, China was told forcefully that those were different times; India’s military machine today was fully capable of taking on the Chinese dragon, turning its dream of becoming the future super power into just a pipedream.
Chief of Army Staff Gen Bipin Rawat told a TV channel in January soon after taking over the Army, “We are tasked to be prepared for a two-front war, and I think we are capable of carrying out our task in whatever manner we may be asked to do by the political hierarchy.” He made these observations much before the Doklam standoff which indicated that India does not have to worry about any kind of threat to its territorial integrity as the country’s armed forces were fully prepared for a “two-front war involving Pakistan and China simultaneously”.
India, therefore, was not scared when it forcefully questioned China’s illegal road building activity in the Doklam plateau, belonging to Bhutan (a country that depends on India for defending its territorial integrity following an agreement reached between the two), mainly aimed at changing the security matrix in the region, including the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction. Moreover, expecting an escalation of the border tension, India had amassed sufficient troops not only in the area where the possibility of a military conflict could not be ruled out, but also at many other places along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to give a befitting reply to the Chinese if it made an adventurous military move on more fronts than one. Launching of a military conflict at multiple fronts was expected in view of the fact that Indian troops had certain advantages, including geographical ones, in the Doklam area unlike at other places along the LAC, and the Chinese were obviously fully aware of this reality.
The whole world was anxiously watching the goings-on over Doklam with the India-China standoff refusing to come to an end. In the meantime, two factors prevailed upon China to find an honourable exit from where it found itself owing to its miscalculations. One factor was the September 3-5 BRICS summit and the other was Bhutan’s continued insistence that the Chinese road project in Doklam was in clear violation of a 2012 accord reached between the two. And the result was what cheered everybody: a decision by India and China to “expeditiously disengage” themselves from the Doklam standoff after 72 days of intense negotiations and dangerous posturing.
As Indian forces withdrew to their permanent post at Doka La, Chinese troops too came back with their road building equipment and occupied their previous position, restoring the status quo in the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction region. It was a simultaneous withdrawal as insisted on by India, bringing to a peaceful end the standoff that began on June 16.
While all that happened during this tense period highlighted India’s commitment to a smaller neighbour (Bhutan) by risking its own prestige as a mature nation, it led to China being seen in its true colours as an arrogant power, emerging as a serious threat to the territorial integrity of the countries in its immediate neighbourhood. Japan’s clearly expressed support to India’s stand during the Doklam crisis indicated that China is not trusted by most of the countries in the region. If China continues to demonstrate its military muscle to bully South Asian and East Asian nations, the character of the basically economic grouping called the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) may change to include some kind of a security-related arrangement to take care of bullying tactics of countries like China.
In such a scenario, countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Mongolia and Singapore may rally around India, as Japan has done, to overcome their fear of misuse of the Chinese military might on any pretext.
It was a matter of great relief for the region that the Doklam military standoff became a thing of the past without casting its ugly shadow on the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in China’s Xiamen city. But what happened between India and China over Doklam might have made countries like Russia, a member of the China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), more wary of Beijing’s designs. Moscow has already been suspicious of Beijing’s growing ambitions in Asia and this was why Russia managed to finally include India as a full member of the SCO.
China must remember that a responsible major power should never allow its official media and officials to use the language of war when faced with any kind of crisis, particularly involving a next-door neighbour.
Threatening India to withdraw its troops from the Doklam area or face a military conflict was the most irresponsible behaviour displayed by the Chinese. The world cannot ignore the fine conduct of the Indian officials involved in the negotiations that concluded at a happy note. They have provided proof that depending on dialogue with a restrained behaviour is a better way of handling crisis situations than the use of armed forces for the purpose with, of course, being militarily ready to meet any eventuality..