The face-off at Doklam should be the turning point to change our usual response to China’s threats.
More than two millennia ago, in the 4th century BCE, Chanakya deposed a tyrannical king, helped to repel the Greeks, united a fractious territory, groomed a king and put him on the throne of Magadha, and made the Maurya kingdom, extending from Afghanistan to Bengal and southern India, the first ever empire in India’s history. He wrote the Arthashastra — perhaps the world’s first comprehensive treatise on statecraft, some 1,800 years before Machiavelli wrote The Prince.
The Arthashastra contains an important chapter on the conduct of foreign policy. Circumstances may have changed dramatically since then, but the need for strategic clarity — which was Chanakya’s strength — is as relevant now as it was then. Such clarity is at test in the serious face-off between India and China in Doklam, near the tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan.
It is wise that India’s reaction, against blatant Chinese provocation, has been measured, and has kept the option of diplomatic resolution open. Sama, or reconciliation, was the first dictum of Chanakya’s famous formula of sama, dama (incentives), danda (punishment) and bheda (sowing discord). Most people don’t know that Chanakya also spoke about a fifth stratagem — asana — the strategic art of deliberately not taking a decision and sitting on the fence.
However, not responding in like manner to increasingly aggressive Chinese rhetoric does not mean that we should be confused about our giant neighbour’s tactic or intention. China has a clear-cut policy towards India: engagement with containment. This policy sees India as a competitor that must be engaged but kept in place. The timing and nature of Chinese aggression in the Doklam plateau is entirely in keeping with this policy. Only recently, India, in a good strategic move, held naval exercises with Japan and the US off the Malabar Coast. China sees this as a hostile act, aimed at what it believes it is destined to be — the Middle Kingdom around which the globe must revolve.
If we retain clarity on what China’s “psychic apparatus”, in terms of its foreign policy objectives, is, it will become easier to interpret the consistency with which it has acted against Indian interests. The list of its hostile actions, not necessarily in chronological order, is long: the demand for stapled visas for our citizens in Arunachal Pradesh, the blocking of our membership in the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG), investments of billions of dollars in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), the building of the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) through territory that we claim as ours, the attempt to encircle India by calibrated interactions and investments with our neighbours, unfounded objections to our exploration of oil in the South China Sea, carefully timed intrusions into our territory along the several thousand kms long Line of Actual Control (LAC), including, amazingly enough, in Chumar, when Chinese President Xi Jinping was on a state visit to India, deliberate indifference to the yawning trade imbalance between both countries, with China “dumping” its goods on us, and raising invisible tariff barriers against our exports and, blocking the naming of dreaded terrorist Masood Azhar by the UN.
The last point, in particular, highlights China’s open and defiant collusion with Pakistan against India. There can be no other reason why China, which is itself not impervious to terrorist threats by fanatical Islamic groups, should back Pakistan in this matter. The aim is crystal clear: Pakistan must be cultivated as an all weather ally in order to keep India encircled. The strategic takeaway for us is that we must be ready to face two neighbours in open collusion against us.
If so much is clear, we need to be absolutely clear about our strategic imperatives. Above all, there is no need to display unwarranted docility to Chinese aggression. In this context, our decision not to attend the recent OBOR multilateral conference convened by China was entirely correct. In fact, I believe that we should, in addition, have sent a protest note to all the countries that did attend, stating clearly that the proposed road passes through territory that belongs to India. One can only imagine how China would have reacted if India convened a conference for the building of a road that would go through territory claimed by China! Even now, China routinely sends a strong protest note to any country that Dalai Lama travels to, and recently, when His Holiness visited Arunachal Pradesh, the threatening nature of the Chinese response was emphatically offensive.
Countries respect countries that respect themselves. Our protests were far too muted when China was escalating its investments in PoK. So was our response when China decided to give stapled visas to people of Arunachal Pradesh. Our appropriate response to this hostile affront should have been to give stapled visas to Chinese of Tibetan origin. The threat of a boycott of Chinese exports to India, at the level of a people’s movement, would have also conveyed to China our national resolve to stand up to its bullying. For too long now, China has come to assume that its aggressive psychological warfare against India gets only the predictable “measured” response.
India is an emerging superpower. Even in defence terms, it is not a walkover for any hostile power. The Chinese have a better and bigger defence prowess, but 2017 is not 1962. Yet, as once again Chanakya emphasised, countries must never neglect their defence preparedness. We have full faith in our armed forces but we need to do everything possible to ensure that they are well equipped and battle ready. A serious overhaul of our indigenous public sector defence production is urgently required. Equally important is to improve the infrastructure on our side of the border. China has a motorised road going right up to Doklam. It can move 30 divisions with 15,000 soldiers each to the Line of Actual Control within a month.
The face-off at Doklam should be the turning point to change our usual response to China’s threats. The plateau has far too great a strategic importance for us to yield. Nor can we let our time-tested friend Bhutan down. If sama, which in this case implies the conciliatory reach of diplomacy, works it is well and good. But if it doesn’t then India must convey to China that, frankly, enough is enough.