Beyond Doklam: India may change Asia’s power matrix – Sreemoy Talukdar

Narendra Modi & Xi Jinping

Sreemoy TalukdarDoklam has dramatically increased India’s stock as a pivot of Asian security. Through its mature handling of the crisis and successful employment of the strategy of denial to counter China’s tactics, India may have created a template for other nations to follow. – Sreemoy Talukdar

There is  always a degree of risk involved in interpreting media commentaries as official narrative but the disclaimer comes with its own disclaimer, especially when it involves China’s state-controlled media. Erring on the side of caution could be a mistake because Beijing uses the press as an essential part of coercive diplomacy.

It was interesting to note two recent articles carried by The Global Times which had been at the forefront of China’s psy-war against India. In Wednesday’s editorial, the newspaper termed the Doklam resolution as a “victory for Asia” and showed a magnanimity that was singularly missing during the 10-week standoff:

“This newspaper hit hard at India during the face-off, but now we don’t want to engage in an argument with the Indian media as to which side won this standoff. We just want to say that the two countries can end this crisis without having to resort to war, which is a victory for Asia.”

In an op-ed piece carried in the same edition, the newspaper heaped praise on Hinduism—the religion followed by a majority of Indians—calling it the deciding factor behind radical Islamism not taking root in India.

The article, written by Ding Gang of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China, raises a rhetorical question: “Why does it seem that Muslims in India have remained largely apart from the radicalisation that has happened to Muslim groups in other parts of the world?” before adding that “the answer may lie in the facets of the country’s other major religion: Hinduism.” For good measure, it adds: “India is sure to continue to stand out in geopolitical significance when it comes to increasing religious and ethnic conflicts around the world.”

What’s happening here? The timing seems decidedly odd for a “Hindi Chini bhai-bhai” redux, that too, at a time when the crisis hasn’t ended the way China would have hoped for. Stray murmurs of dissent are escaping even an uncomfortably closed society. Some analysts suggest Xi Jinping may cop considerable flak during the 19th Party Congress for botching up the operation.

Conspiracy theorists may see a game of smoke and mirrors. Indeed, China’s propensity to use deception as part of its assertive diplomacy cannot be ruled out. It is possible that China plans to reassert itself and is luring India into a false sense of security.

Even so, China’s real concern may be the trajectory of the bilateral relationship, which has taken a massive beating after the Doklam impasse. The face-off has ended in a way that is not only unsatisfactory for Beijing, it has simultaneously increased India’s stature as the net security guarantor in Asia—at a time when many smaller nations are feeling the heat of China’s not-so-peaceful rise.

Global Times’s behaviour post-Doklam, therefore, may appear to be counter-intuitive but is actually a pragmatic move. It’s important to remember that China does not benefit from an adversarial relationship with India. Mending of fences with a neighbour who gives access to one of the largest markets for its finished goods is the smart thing to do.

To a certain extent friction between the two nations is inevitable as they fight for respective spheres of influence. Yet frequent skirmishes arising out of mutual, simmering hostility serves no one’s interest. Much less China’s. It is not a question of trade imbalance alone. India’s ability to stitch alliances in Asia without resorting to chequebook diplomacy puts China at a distinct geopolitical disadvantage.

China wouldn’t have failed to notice that for all the efficiency of its propaganda machinery, no one except Pakistan (little more than Beijing’s vassal state) was willing to buy its version of the story.

India, on the other hand, received unequivocal support from Japan, Australia and tacit backing from many nations including the US. That the US did not go beyond urging the both countries to sort out their differences through dialogue (India’s stated position) could be because New Delhi wanted it that way.

Doklam has dramatically increased India’s stock as a pivot of Asian security. Through its mature handling of the crisis and successful employment of the strategy of denial to counter China’s salami-slicing tactics, India may have created a template for other nations to follow.

In their marvellous essay “Countering Chinese Coercion: The Case of Doklam”, scholars Oriana Skylar Mastro and Arzan Tarapore write in War on The Rocks: “India thwarted China’s coercion through denial—blocking China’s attempt to seize physical control of the disputed territory. By physically denying China’s bid to change the status quo, India created a stalemate, which suited its strategic policy…. India was able to do this because of a local military advantage and its broader policy of standing up to China.”

Beyond the immediacy of the event, this could be New Delhi’s biggest gain—one that promises to change the perception about India and more importantly, may alter the way India sees itself vis-à-vis China.

In many ways, 1962 remains a sore point in India’s collective memory, one that has defined its relationship with China. The slight has been institutionalized despite a valiant attempt at suppression, and perhaps also because of it. India had, so far, found it impossible to break out of the redolent prison—a condition that China fully tried to exploit during the standoff by frequently referring to it.

While reviewing a collection of essays on the 1962 conflict, former NSA Shivshankar Menon, in The Wire, wrote “we have internalised a narrative or story of the war that is powerful and lasting…. It is a story of betrayal and defeat with an unsatisfactory end that needs to be re-written. It is a strong narrative, deeply felt by Indians.”

It is here that Doklam may initiate a tectonic change in India’s collective psyche. That we stared down a nation much stronger than ourselves adds to confidence, that we did it against China even more so.

India also conducted its role admirably as Bhutan’s ally, and this subsequently increases its chance of extending regional influence. India must seize the chance and broker a greater coordination between ASEAN. China has been able to exploit the differences between south-east Asian nations to forge ahead with its militarisation of South China Sea, ensuring greater naval capacity. Any successful counter-strategy must be collective in nature. A confident India can ensure stability in the region by leading such an alliance. – FirstPost, 31 August 2017

» Sreemoy Talukdar is a senior editor at FirstPost in Kolkata.

Global Times