Doklam: Understanding Chinese Actions in Bhutan

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

Following the latest confrontation between China and India in the Doklam area of Bhutan, there is clearly an edge to the repeated Chinese calls to India to ‘immediately pull back’ Indian troops to their side of the boundary.

The Chinese have stressed that this ‘is the precondition for any meaningful talks between the two sides aiming at resolving the issue’.

What should Indians make of this and what should we look out for?

First, there have been frequent statements from India that it is not what it was in 1962 and the Chinese have responded that neither is it for that matter. And this implies more than just the accretion of military capability and determination and will on both sides.

These statements are also a reminder that both sides have a clearer view of each other shorn of romanticism on the Indian side and of an equally romanticised ideology-driven anti-imperialism on the Chinese side.

Responsible leaders on either side know the costs of war. In particular, the Chinese are somewhat more conscious of the domestic political and economic costs of actual kinetic conflict as opposed to sabre-rattling.

The argument can be made that going into an important Communist Party Congress in a few months time, and given his strong domestic record in carrying out his political agenda, including the battle against corruption, Xi Jinping does not really need to show such muscularity in foreign policy as a way of consolidating his position.

Second, the Chinese are certainly caught in a spiral of their own making. The reliance on nationalism to overcome the shortcomings in communist practice today in China means that there is no easy or immediate way to spin Indian troop movement in defence of Bhutan as anything but an act of aggression against China.

However, the state’s control over the news dissemination system is strong enough in China to bury the matter gradually over time. Note, for example, Beijing did precious little in response to the Myanmarese air force bombing Kokang rebels on the Chinese side of the border in March 2015, ignoring online criticism by its citizens.

It then depends on the Indian side to ensure that it sticks to its firm but measured response in Doklam.

Third, despite Chinese statements that India has no business interceding on the behalf of Bhutan, they are also perhaps aware how this will play out internationally – that India has merely come to the rescue of its smaller neighbour in response to the bullying actions of their northern neighbour.

While China has managed to portray the South China Sea issue as a case of several smaller countries ganging up against it with American backing and in the process also managed to divide ASEAN over time, there is no equivalent opportunity in the Doklam case.

SAARC as an entity does not deal with or delve into issues of this sort and this will be seen more easily as a bilateral David versus Goliath situation. Here, perhaps, there was an element of Chinese miscalculation of the potential for a coordinated Bhutanese and Indian response.

Still, China is not without leverage for the future based on the responses of its southern neighbours.

For one, it has through its brazen and provocative move in Bhutan’s territory, pushed the issue of their boundary dispute a little more to the forefront of attention of the Bhutanese public. There will be, without a doubt, increasing debate within Bhutan on the merits of leaving the dispute unresolved until India is able to resolve its own boundary dispute with China.

This then opens up the possibility of targeted Chinese political and economic effort to increase Beijing’s influence in the tiny country. China’s success in becoming a force in Nepalese politics today is a case in point.

Two, India must not make the mistake of assuming that Xi’s preoccupation with the upcoming 19th Party Congress means that he will be too distracted to focus on foreign policy and security matters. Or that this gives People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) local commanders the freedom to take the initiative and that therefore, there is no hand of the central leadership in assertive activity along the Line of Actual Control.

Far from it.

Xi’s big stress in so far as the PLA is concerned has been on ensuring absolute supremacy of and loyalty to the Party. Actions might show local variance but they are unmistakably the result of central direction from Beijing. Any confusion on this score will muddle both analysis and response.

Meanwhile, one way of explaining the Doklam incident – more so than any reference to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States or the upcoming Malabar Exercises in the Indian Ocean – is that the Chinese leadership wishes to convey in clear terms that it will not take the gimlet eye off national security issues whatever its domestic preoccupations.

And like China’s frequent incursions into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands – 16 times already this year – India too, can expect LAC incursions to continue, even pick up pace and display a qualitatively different nature in the coming months and years.

This article was originally published as, ‘India, China and the “pull back your troops” fracas: Explaining action and reaction on Doklam’, in Catch News, 7 July 2017.

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