This Article is From Aug 30, 2017

5 Lessons For India From Doklam In Handling The China Threat

The Doklam crisis may be over, but not the harsh words from the Chinese side - with senior PLA colonel Wu Qian asking India to "draw lessons from the standoff".

Well, Mr Wu, India would be well advised to do that, but not for the reasons you may imagine. That's because this isn't the Game of Thrones, and China is not a dragon that India fears. If anything, Doklam has shown the world that Chinese coercion can be defied with a mixture of firmness and dignity. The whole world will be drawing relevant lessons from that, especially the countries who have faced this coercion in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

However, Doklam may well turn out to be a watershed moment in India-China relations, and yes, there are plenty of important lessons for Indian policy-makers to learn. Here is a small sample:

1. Know where the real threat comes from: If you only watched Indian TV news channels, then you would be pardoned for thinking that all of India's problems emanate from Pakistan. But while Pakistan is definitely a migraine for India and the world, and while shouting at retired Pakistani generals makes for great TRPs, it should be obvious to anyone that India's real strategic challenge comes from China. Pakistan itself would hardly be a threat if it weren't for Chinese backing and military support.

On the other hand, the jostling for strategic space between India and China is going to be one of defining features of the next few decades and we may as well get used to it. A recent PwC study says that China will be a 38 trillion dollar economy by 2030 - the largest economy in the world. But the same study says that India will be at number 3, with a 19 trillion dollar economy. Two giant rising economies, with 2.6 billion citizens between them, facing off across the Himalayas - rivalry is almost inevitable. Conflict may be avoided, but we should be prepared for it.

2. Make sure we are ready on the border: Geography and logistics were in India's favour in Doklam, which may well be one of the reasons why China backed down. But there is no guarantee that the next incursion (and we better believe that another is likely) will be on favourable terrain for the Chinese. The Modi government has done well to start building infrastructure in the North East, but the roads to our borders are far behind what the Chinese have. We need to close the gap fast, and we need to quickly find alternate pathways to the Siliguri chokepoint as Rajat Sethi argues here.

3. Make it the Indian Ocean: The best thing in a potential conflict is to find a crippling weakness for your adversary and figure out how to take advantage of it. Chinese strategists have long worried themselves sick about the chokepoint at the Straits of Malacca, where a blockade could totally disrupt the Chinese economy. More recently, Chinese analysts like Zhang Ming have begun to worry further about India converting the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into an "Iron Chain" that can seal the Six and Ten Degree channels through which so much Chinese trade flows.

India needs to ensure that these concerns are well-founded - because that provides the best leverage to ensure that China doesn't allow any tension to escalate beyond a point. 

A recent article correctly pointed out that China's overwhelming naval superiority in numbers may not matter much in a clash, because of India's geographical advantages in the Indian Ocean. But it's relatively easy to develop this advantage even further.

The first step is to immediately accelerate the plans to convert the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into a decisive power projection platform, such as by upgrading the base at Campbell Bay. But India should go further by deepening its engagement with key Indian Ocean states like Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles. This would tighten India's hold on the Indian Ocean, and hence on China's jugular. 

4. Develop friends and allies: China has spent so much time and money building up Pakistan partly because it bottles up India in South Asia. India is now correctly taking steps to return the favour by building strategic relations with countries like Japan and Vietnam that are equally concerned about China. It is still not clear whether India is in fact going to sell BrahMos missiles to Vietnam, but, in principle, that's the sort of a step that should be seriously considered. I have heard drawing room chatter about a NATO style alliance to "contain" China. That talk is probably premature, unless China steps up its provocations further, but there is no harm in systematically building relations across East and South East Asia.

5. Keep economic factors in mind: Many feel that long-term conflict between India and China is impossible because of the 70 billion dollars of trade between them. Well, if you look at history, that isn't necessarily true. There have been any number of conflicts between strong trading partners. 

If anything, one of the key lessons of Doklam is that the government needs to take a look at the strategic dominance of Chinese companies in key areas of the Indian economy, including sensitive areas like communication. Here is just one example: the government is so concerned about foreign ownership levels in TV news, but today, a large number of people get their news on mobile phones and a majority of that news now comes via Chinese platforms. That's a potential strategic weakness for the authorities to worry about along with the sharp economic imbalance in the form of a huge trade deficit. There have been signs in the past few days that the Indian government is starting to do something about this.

In short, Mr Wu, India needs to learn the relevant lessons from Doklam and once this is done, India will emerge stronger in its dealings with China. 

The lessons for China, though, should worry you. It isn't always going to be easy for China to intimidate or coerce its neighbours, especially when they decide to stand firm. The concept of a "peaceful rise" worked well for China for several decades. You would be well advised to stick to that strategy. 

(Vikram Chandra is Consulting Editor, NDTV.)

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