Lessons of Doklam to prepare for the future

Columnist  | Syed Ata Hasnain

Opinion, Columnists

Those trying to label it a ‘victory’ for us must be cautioned about what victory involves — that it’s not the end of conflict with China.

At Doklam, the Indian Army took its precautions, didn’t show undue aggression and held its ground in as risky a situation as Nathu-La, allowing New Delhi to execute quiet political handling and deft diplomacy.

The 72-day Doklam standoff had a vague initiation and an equally diffused termination. That signifies the nature of modern confrontations between nations where the ability to cut through the grey zone is vital to safeguard a nation’s interests. Tracing these issues through the extended logjam would help reach a little more clarity. But it’s also important to acknowledge the mature handling of what could have turned into a very dangerous situation. While this applies primarily to India’s political, military and diplomatic players, in some measure it can also be said for the Chinese. Despite raising the temperature to an unacceptable level, the Chinese too had some pragmatic and reasonable people with a sensible outlook, and their perception did influence the outcome.

The Chinese gambit was possibly intended to pressure India, projecting its supposedly weak military capability, showing the rest of Asia and the world the inability of even a large nation in securing its interests in the face of Chinese intimidation, and forcing India to reassess its emerging strategic relationships with the United States and Japan. The possibility of strategic equations and blocs to counter China has always worried it, not realising that in its quest to seek robust power, there would always be nations whose interests were not served by its blatant intimidation.

The Indian Army moving rapidly into Bhutanese territory to secure Indian interests by preventing the road construction at Doklam would probably have been envisaged by China. However, for this Army to hold on and refuse to budge under intense diplomatic and psychological pressure was probably unexpected. That is how the situation changed, even as the world watched. In this tinderbox situation it needed one spark to change everything — and we had Nathu-La 1967 to fall back on in terms of experience.

An irrational PLA commander had then opened fire on Indian troops working on a wire fence to demarcate our perception of the border, causing heavy casualties; in the almost immediate response, our troops inflicted much more damage on the PLA. At Doklam, the Indian Army took its precautions, didn’t show undue aggression and held its ground in as risky a situation as Nathu-La, allowing New Delhi to execute quiet political handling and deft diplomacy. Analyses in the Indian media also took stock of reality, corrected initial perceptions and backed the government.

Standing out in the political arena was external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s extremely mature speech in Parliament, which in restrained terms outlined India’s ability to secure its interests and resolve the issue through diplomatic measures and talks. Progressively, it became increasingly clear China was using the standoff for internal political purposes too.

A wrong move would equally upset its carefully crafted strategy. What was most evidently on display was China’s inability to think through to a situation which could put it at advantage should India decide not to be coerced. The PLA, which adopted the doctrine of war under “informationised” conditions 25 years ago, proved it still has much to learn. Its crude attempts at intimidation through extremely unsubtle measures of psychological warfare actually allowed India to gain moral ascendancy. Its live firing demonstrations in Tibet may have caused some concern, but India’s quiet response was the advancing of 33 Corps’ operational alert by a month. If anything was at all proved here, it was that ranting and raving rhetoric doesn’t impress anyone. That could also be a lesson for segments of the Indian media, the majority of which showed a high level of maturity.

The combination of India’s veteran warriors, former diplomats, accomplished academics and experienced media hands choreographed a communication strategy without actually planning one. It just gelled, keeping the nation well informed and the government fully supported. The Opposition did its bit in terms of critique, but did not take it beyond.

I have said this elsewhere, but it needs repetition. The Chinese would probably not have accepted a standdown until the convening of the 19th congress of the CPC in late October-early November in order to prevent any loss of face. But it happened well before, and possibly as a fallout of national security adviser Ajit Doval’s pre-Brics parleys in Beijing.

A major multilateral summit with unresolved tension on the border would not go down well with anyone, including international observers and Communist stalwarts, as it would cast doubt on President Xi Jinping’s abilities as an effective leader. As a clean break from the standoff would show Chinese weakness, India hasn’t objected to the grey projections by the Chinese foreign ministry on the actual disengagement by PLA troops, which isn’t really in doubt.

Face-saving is being done by vague Chinese statements like the PLA continuing to patrol the Donglang (Chinese for Doklam) “area”. When the word “area” precedes or follows a landmark, you know there’s nothing definitive about the swathe of ground the PLA still occupies. While it sets the tone for an amicable visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China for the Brics summit, and saves face for the Chinese, it is creating some concern in some circles within India. Those trying to label it a “victory” for us must be cautioned about what victory involves — that it’s not the end of conflict with China. The Chinese will henceforth wargame situations more seriously as even in their perception while it may not be “victory” for India, it was surely “advantage” India. China won’t be able to stomach that in the pressure cooker international environment, where uncertainty is the name of the game.

So instead of debating the actual Chinese pullout, without which the Indian Army too wouldn’t have stepped back, it’s best if all national security stakeholders in India chalk out a couple of strategic wargames involving comprehensive military, diplomatic, political and logistics issues for a war covering two and a half fronts. One can’t remember when such an exercise was done with full political involvement. That will keep the focus on infrastructure, ground and maritime capability, as well as cyber and air capability for the future.