A remote corner of the Himalayas has become the scene of a major power standoff between China and India. In June 2017, the Doklam plateau in the Himalayas, where the boundaries of China, India and Bhutan meet, made headlines when Indian and Chinese troops began a standoff over a road construction project. As of now, neither side is spoiling for a fight, nor are they ready to back down anytime soon considering the security concerns, domestic political pressures, and regional reputational stakes. A series of quiet diplomatic interactions has not restrained the brinkmanship or ultimatums and the risk of a major armed clash between two Asian heavyweights is becoming increasingly threatening to peace in this part of the world.
In the world so obsessed with North Korea’s nuclear capability, many have missed the fiery confrontation between Beijing and New Delhi in recent days, despite the fact that it is something that could spark a devastating nuclear war. Chinese and Indian soldiers have lined up “eyeball to eyeball” on the remote Doklam plateau – a disputed China-administered area – in an apparent readiness to respond to threats militarily. In the dispute, Chinese and Indian troops remain locked on the tri-junction with Bhutan, with many experts in China and India warning that chances of a military confrontation are higher than ever.
The standoff dates to mid-June, when Bhutan claimed that Chinese soldiers arrived on the plateau – a patch of land called Donglang by China and Doklam by India – to begin construction of a road. Beijing, on the other hand, claimed that the work was being carried out inside the Chinese territory. Since Bhutan has no formal diplomatic relations with China and relies on India on a number of issues: its security, as well as economic and military aid, and relations with China, Indian government, after the Bhutanese claim, dispatched soldiers to the plateau to stop the construction. The impasse has existed since and both sides have made threats while simultaneously calling for negotiations.
In a larger sense, however, today’s standoff is the latest flare-up dating from the ambiguity created by agreements made in the colonial era. A pact signed in 1890 by two former empires, the Qing dynasty in China, and British India, led to conflicting interpretations over who owns the plateau. Bhutan believes the agreement places the plateau under its jurisdiction. Later, in 1914, a convention between China, the UK and Tibet produced the McMahon Line, today’s eastern border between China and India. Beijing has consistently challenged its legal status.
India and China have a history of disputes along their border, a rugged 2,500-mile frontier extending from the Himalayas in the east to South and Central Asia to the west. In the far-west, both China and India claim Aksai Chin. In the eastern edges of the border, New Delhi claims the state of Arunachai Pradesh, while Beijing claims it as part of southern Tibet. A 1962 war between the two countries ended with China permanently occupying Aksai Chin.
In the current scenarios, the mounting military tensions are reminiscent of the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Chinese media and think tanks have warned India that conflict can lead to war, if not handled properly and India should take a lesson from history. An article in The Global Times, referring to India’s involvement on behalf of Bhutan, reminded New Delhi that “under India’s logic, if the Pakistani government requests, a third country’s army can enter the area disputed by India and Pakistan.”
The rhetoric is similarly tough in New Delhi. For instance, when Beijing invoked the 1962 war and India’s humiliation, Indian Defense Minister Arun Jaitley replied that “The India of 2017 is different from the India of 1962.” Likewise, Gen. Bipin Rawat, India’s chief of army staff, also acknowledged the possibility of an Indo-Chinese war and said the “Indian Army is fully ready for a 2½-front war.” Modi government’s recent authorization of the army to make emergency purchases of ammunition, stores and spares for several weapon platforms also point toward an impending short, intense war between India and China.
The most significant question at present is: who would fire the first bullet, India or China? Interestingly, answering this question will help us answer the million dollar question: Will there be another India-China war?
There is no denying the fact that war is fundamentally a political act. It is not the military, which fights the war, but rather the political leaders, who declare the war and are accountable for its outcome. A war can bring different incentives for domestic institutions, including a change of government or change of leadership.
Will India go to war with China? This scenario seems almost impossible and the reasons behind this answer go beyond strategic calculations, such as strength and numbers of forces and weapons. In other words, cognizance of pure military strength and weakness is not the primary force that stops New Delhi from firing the first bullet against China. It is the structure of the government and concerns of leaders about the domestic constituency that holds back a forward move.
In “Selectorate Theory of War,” Bueno De Mesquita, et al explain that democratic leaders are more likely to opt out of difficult wars because their grip on power is more contingent on the support of the population. Compared with other types of regimes, in a democracy the chances are high that the outcome of the war will be reflected in the re-election campaign.
In the context of India, this is very much applicable. The incumbent government is going to face an election in May 2019, and its record so far is not good when it comes to delivering public goods. One needs to understand here that the necessity of a win to secure support from the domestic constituency compels leaders to put in additional efforts, including more military spending at the price of public welfare spending. If they win the war, people will forget all their sufferings in the delight of victory. However, if they lose the people will not only recollect the futile sufferings they underwent but the leaders who brought humiliation to their nation as well. In any case, a war with China, whether short or long, will have a destructive effect on the economy, which has already been disturbed by reforms and policies such as demonetization.
And, insofar as the matter of China firing the first bullet, it also seems an implausible idea. To those who follow Chinese warnings and their continuous references to the 1962 war, it seems that Beijing is preparing for an imminent and unavoidable war with India. However, Sun Tzu’s descendants will, surely, think twice before such a move. First, Beijing’s current priority is translating China’s economic might into global public support for its impending superpower status. If China takes the risk of waging war against India, it will only strengthen charges of Chinese interventionism and imperial tendencies. In other words, a war against India would ultimately destroy the image China is seeking to portray — that of a benevolent superpower which emerged out of a peaceful transfer of power. Hence, the best option for Xi Jinping is to follow Sun Tzu’s advice: “The skilful leader subdues the enemy without fighting.” Here, the only option left for Beijing is to convince the world that New Delhi is an existential threat. However, it is not an easy task since Doklam is situated in territory disputed between China and tiny Bhutan.
To sum up, while domestic calculations and preferences hold New Delhi back from going to war with Beijing, in China’s case it is its international image that prevents it from doing so. Therefore, India and China have only one option: to prepare for an indefinite standoff to satisfy their own constituencies.
Top 10 Takeaways from
“The Facts and China’s Position”
On August 02, Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a document of the facts and China’s position concerning the Indian border troops’ crossing of China-India boundary in the Sikkim Sector into the Chinese territory. Here are the ten main points from the document:
1. Convention Between Great Britain and China Relating to Sikkim and Tibet, a document signed in 1890 between the UK and China delimited the boundary between Tibet region of China and Sikkim. According to the convention, the Doklam region “is indisputably Chinese territory”.
2. The convention was validated by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in letters to the then Chinese premier Chou En-lai, in diplomatic notes from the Indian Embassy in Beijing (then Peking) to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and in documents provided by the Indian side to the Special Representatives Talks on the China-India Boundary Question.
3. India “illegally” crossed the China-India boundary at Doklam and since the incident occurred in an already-delimited boundary, it constituted an act “fundamentally different” from past frictions between the border troops of the two sides. It is a “very serious incident” as it violates China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
4. Since the incident broke out, India has invented various excuses to justify its illegal action, but its arguments have no factual or legal grounds at all and are simply untenable.
5. Although the boundary between China and Bhutan in the Doklam region has to be “formally delimited”, India, as a third party, does not have any “right to interfere in or impede the boundary talks between China and Bhutan, still less the right to make territorial claims on Bhutan’s behalf. India’s intrusion into the Chinese territory under the pretext of Bhutan has not only violated China’s territorial sovereignty but also challenged Bhutan’s.”
6. Indian troops have constructed a large number of infrastructure facilities including roads at the Doklam pass. Troops have built fortifications and military installations along the boundary. China, on the contrary, has very little infrastructure on its side. “It is India that has attempted time and again to change the status quo of the China-India boundary in Sikkim.”
7. China has shown great restraint by seeking to communicate with India through diplomatic channels. But should it feel necessary, “China will take all necessary measures to safeguard its legitimate and lawful rights and interests.” Since the incident took place in Chinese territory, India should unconditionally withdraw all troops from the region.
8. The 1890 Convention was signed between China and Britain. India and China should sign a new boundary convention in their own names; however, it should not alter the status of the China-India boundary that was already delimited.
9. China was building in its own territory aimed at improving local transportation. Indian border troops flagrantly crossed the mutually-recognised boundary to intrude into Chinese territory.
10. According to UN General Assembly Resolution 3314, there can be no justification – economic, military or otherwise – for invasion or attack by armed forces of a country. To cross a neighbouring country on the grounds of so-called “security concerns”, for whatever activities, runs counter to the basic principles of international law and basic norms governing international relations.
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