Lessons of Dokalam standoff

It has been a coming-of-age ritual for us: now it’s time to profit from the crisis

DS Saksena | October 5, 2017


#Doklam   #BRICS   #Pakistan   #China   #Terrorism   #International Affairs   #MEA   #Narendra Modi  
PM Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping in Xiamen on Sep 4
PM Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping in Xiamen on Sep 4

The Dokalam standoff has come and gone. After a tense 73 days, the situation on the ground appears normal but the outcome of the standoff is not clear – mostly because no joint statement has been issued by India and China. Rather, conflicting statements have been forthcoming from the affected parties. While China is saying that it would continue to exercise sovereignty in the disputed area, according to India the road building activities of the Chinese have ceased. Many doubts and questions are still unanswered.

Who are our true friends?


Not many. Only Bhutan and Japan supported us openly. The Pakistanis saw it as an opportunity to score brownie points. The US, which we have been assiduously wooing, kept hoping that the standoff would be resolved through dialogue. The Russians and the rest of the world kept mum. It seems that most of our neighbours are beholden to China, having taken large loans from the Chinese. Other countries did not support us because no country wants to antagonise the world’s second superpower.

This ambivalence does not portend well for any conflict, which we may have with our neighbour. Prime minister Modi has been on a massive outreach programme. It would appear that a massive ground-level follow-up to his efforts is also needed. 

What is the validity or use of the claims and counterclaims made by both parties during the standoff?

Not much. The agreements were made at a time when Britain was the world’s only superpower and China was a land of opium eaters. For this reason China has expressly rejected the McMahon Line, drawn by the British to demarcate the India-China border. The various conventions between Britain and China are quoted selectively by both parties to buttress their respective cases.

Rather than the earlier conventions, more important is the “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas” signed in 1993 whereby both sides agreed to maintain status quo on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The problem is that the LAC is not perfectly defined. Our army chief has succinctly summed up the genesis of our various conflicts with China in the following words: “The LAC has not yet been settled between the two countries, and hence each country has a different perception about it. So, at times, you have a clash as each one tries to patrol the area up to its limits.”  

Can Dokalam type of situations be averted?

No. China’s actions are mostly guided by internal compulsions which are not known to outsiders because of the absence of the freedom of press in China. Moreover, China is in an expansionist phase. China has laid claims to vast tracts in the South China Sea by building artificial islands and reefs. China wants to flaunt its newly acquired superpower status by browbeating its non-client neighbours and gaining some territory or rights in the bargain. Also China has scant regard for the rule of law. In 2016, after the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea Tribunal dismissed China’s claims in the South China Sea; China cajoled the

Philippines not to insist on implementation of the judgment.
China perceives India as a rival and to remind India of its (China’s) superiority, Chinese troops regularly intrude inside Indian territory. The only way to deter China is to develop our military capabilities along the Chinese border. This would mean building all-weather roads and rail tracks right up to the border – an unfinished task since 1962.

Could our response to the Dokalam standoff have been better?

Our response to the standoff was quite good. We stood politely but firmly for our rights. The Indian press and social media were restrained; they did not respond to the Chinese verbal onslaught. However, we did not realise the gravity of the confrontation; ideally we should have responded much earlier. Our external affair minister made her first statement when the standoff was 33 days old and the incident had played out in the international media to our disadvantage. It was fortuitous that China was hosting the BRICS summit in the beginning of September. To ensure the success of the summit, China came under pressure to resolve the standoff. 

What is the way forward after Dokalam?

China will not be deterred easily. Even after the resolution of the standoff, China has claimed sovereignty over the disputed area. It has further claimed that though Indian troops have withdrawn but its troops continue to patrol the area. China has also given some uncalled for advice to our government. All this shows that a Dokalam kind of situation can recur. It seems that China has applied its concept of ‘Three Warfares’ (public opinion/media warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare) in the Indian context. To foil Chinese designs on our territory, a holistic response from our side is required. The government of India would be well advised not to permit import of sensitive items from China. For example, most of our power generation and transmission equipment is imported from China. A bug in the computer programme of such equipment would put our power system at China’s mercy.  Similarly, all our wireless routers, desktop computers and smartphones are imported from China. These equipment can be programmed to relay sensitive information to China.

As of now, China is India’s biggest trading partner and this fact probably prevented the situation from spiralling out of control but in future, to prevent over dependence on China, we would have to curb our propensity of importing all kinds of cheap goods from China. To curb unbridled Chinese imports, we have to amend our flawed taxation policies which have made Indian goods more expensive in Indian markets vis-à-vis Chinese goods, resulting in a huge balance of trade in China’s favour.   

As said earlier, military infrastructure along the Chinese border has to be enhanced. Equally important is expansion of our indigenous arms manufacturing capabilities. The CAG has pointed out that our stockpiles are barely sufficient for a ten-day war. Since most of our weapons and ammunition are imported it would be virtually impossible to replenish them during actual warfare. We have the sad precedent of the Kargil war when we had no shells for the Bofors gun. It is indeed surprising that we can manufacture all kinds of sophisticated goods and send satellites in orbit but are still unable to manufacture a small gun.

Then, we have to build better goodwill amongst our neighbours to counter Chinese diplomacy in our neighbourhood. The fence-sitting attitude of our long time friends like Nepal is a cause of concern. Pakistan looks to be going in the Chinese orbit; we have to take steps to increase people-to-people contacts and trade with Pakistan; otherwise we would have two implacable foes instead of one.

If we adopt a proactive foreign policy, we can easily capitalise on the alarm caused by Chinese hegemonistic posturing. We have age-old cultural and religious bonds with south Asia. Indian music and movies are popular throughout Asia but our foreign office has not been able to capitalise on these positives because of our bureaucratic functioning. Work on the Chinese Belt and Road initiative has started in right earnest but even after a decade and half our plans for the Chabahar port and International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) are at a rudimentary stage. 

The Dokalam standoff has been a coming-of-age ritual for us. We have learnt two important lessons. Firstly, we have to fight our battles alone. Secondly, a modern war is fought on many fronts. In addition to the battlefield, we have to confront our enemies on the economic and political fronts also.

The Chinese foreign minister quoting panchsheel in the aftermath of Dokalam is a red flag bringing back memories of the prelude to the 1962 war. Let us not be misled into forgetting that eternal vigilance and preparedness is the prerequisite of our freedom. n

Saksena, IRS, retired as principal chief commissioner of income-tax.

(The article appears in the October 15, 2017 issue)

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