Will Beijing still choose to go for even a limited military option?
It’s evident that China’s probing thrust in Doklam in June (principally it wasn’t much more than that), more than anything else, was designed to test India’s strategic antenna and its resolve to defend its self-image and status in the region and the world.
Beijing would have been surprised by the quickness of the Indian response, which demonstrated a readiness to not walk away from a “military standoff” if need be, while emphasising a diplomatic resolution, preferably one that is located in a benign political and philosophical perspective and framework which allows next-door neighbours that are leading powers with wide ambitions, to cooperate as a maxim but not flinch from competition.
This had been pretty much the story since Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping reached a concord in 1988, followed up in 1993 by P.V. Narasimha Rao signing the border peace and tranquility agreement during his visit to China. This situation persisted through the Atal Behari Vajpayee years and the early Manmohan Singh years.
But China’s ambitions skyrocketed with US companies locating operational bases in China on an impressive and unprecedented scale — very rapidly enriching its economy, industry and trade beyond the wildest dreams of the once aspiring communist state.
This permitted China to widen the gap in relation to the Indian economy, although India’s GDP was ahead of China’s in some years, and increase its military capabilities manifold. The “sweet spot” to underline the superiority of its geo-political influence over India was evidently now, Beijing reckoned, and not later, as ageing demographics are already corroding China’s economy. Later may be late, and the show might not even take off, China seems to have also reckoned.
This is fundamentally the backdrop to Doklam. For Beijing, the point to disentangle, while planning Doklam was: how far could it go in pushing New Delhi with a view to belittling it before its smaller neighbours in South Asia, and also more widely among developing countries, specially in Africa, where both sides are trying to retain/spread influence through aid diplomacy?
It’s plain to see the Chinese trick has misfired. Will Beijing still choose to go for even a limited military option?
Whether it does so or not, it has suddenly been confronted with uncertainty in ways it had not been while pushing the psychological frontier in the military field in the South China Sea in the past two years, when artificial atolls and islands were built up as naval and air stations in contemptuous disregard of the countries of the South China Sea littoral and of international legal opinion.
With the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party only three months away, will President Xi Jinping, working to leave a mark on history, risk choosing uncertain and unintended outcomes in a high-profile contest with India? Time will tell. But pragmatists don’t do that sort of thing.
Nevertheless, China remains zealous against India. The effort has moved to other spheres. After US President Donald Trump’s recent policy announcement on Afghanistan, which asks Islamabad questions about its active help to terrorists and urges India to step up development assistance to Kabul, state councillor Yang Jiechi, who heads the core group making foreign policy in Beijing, said in a phone call to US secretary of state Rex Tillerson that Islamabad’s “sovereignty and reasonable security concerns” in Afghanistan needed to be met.
There couldn’t be a more succinct endorsement of the silly Pakistani narrative that India’s benign presence in Afghanistan (which Kabul has consistently given high marks to) threatens Pakistan’s security, ergo India should leave Afghanistan.
Never before has Beijing promoted Pakistan’s case in respect of Afghanistan with such monumental irrationality and brazenness. This “coming out” has coincided with Pakistan lately agreeing to serve as a semi-colony of China — providing it land through Indian territory in PoK to reach Gwadar in Balochistan on the Arabian sea where a Chinese naval harbour is to be built, and also batting enthusiastically for Beijing’s OBOR initiative.
OBOR is a clear geopolitical move to undercut Indian influence or its potential in South Asia and in the Western Indian Ocean region touching the eastern shores of Africa. But its most conspicuous and immediate evidence is seen to the northwest of India. Evidently, the game is that it will now be China and Pakistan together in Afghanistan, seeking to edge India out. This had been in the works since US President Barack Obama decided to draw down troops from Afghanistan, retaining only a residual force there.
It is to be seen how China will recalibrate with President Trump shifting the terms of US engagement in the AfPak region. Much would also depend on how India imagines its own future role in the Afghan theatre. Any slackening, among other things, is apt to give China a sense of fulfilment and make it push harder against India strategically on a wider canvas.
The effort to curb India by using the Pakistan proxy of course began a long time ago. In the recent period, it was given shape with China trying to block the India-US civil nuclear agreement through surreptitious diplomacy. When this didn’t work, the game moved to trying to keep India out of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This was done explicitly. Crassly, the Chinese also kept blocking Indian (and later US) moves in the UN to punish the Pakistani terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed and its leader Masood Azhar.
Apart from the Pakistan-Afghan region to our west, which Beijing is hoping to render inhospitable terrain for New Delhi, it is also doing what it can to use its considerable economic muscle to bulldoze Nepal to our east in adopting postures inimical to India. A similar effort is on in Sri Lanka. It is, of course, up to India how to dispel these moves through diplomacy, politics, and permissible use of available military leverage.
Let’s cut to 1962. V.K. Krishna Menon was acute when he told Michael Brecher that the real reason for the Chinese attack was the desire to teach India a lesson.
Jawaharlal Nehru was a giant on the world stage. India was poor but was internationally sought after in the political realm. China felt impelled to give it a thwack to whittle Nehru’s — and India’s — prestige in the world to enhance its own standing.
A similar mindset is at work now. The difference is that churlishness and desperation is making Beijing sound like North Korea these days. If India stays the course in Doklam and Afghanistan, the dynamics in the South China Sea could change.