Learning lessons, not scoring points, from the Doklam standoff

The 10-week-long standoff between Chinese and Indian forces in the Doklam region of the Himalayas was peacefully resolved on 28 August. This is a victory for diplomacy on both sides. The temptation to score points and declare winners and losers is, however, hard to resist. Analysts from both China and India, as well as other countries, have tried to impose zero-sum verdicts on the resolution of the standoff. But zero-sum perspectives give a simplistic and superficial reading of the Sino-Indian border struggle—and, if they’re internalised by policymakers, they can also produce counterproductive and dangerous conditions for future strategic interaction between the two countries.

Although India achieved the tactical objective of halting China’s road construction in the Doklam area (the initial trigger for the standoff), it has elicited no Chinese commitment not to build roads in the future. China made the tactical concession of abandoning construction for the moment, but it has been compelled by that concession and the anticipated domestic backlash to strengthen its troop presence in the area.

China has long patrolled the area but is not known to have stationed troops there before. Now, the foreign ministry’s statement on the resolution of the standoff declares an intention to ‘station and defend’ (zhushou) the area. As a result, India may soon lose its tactical advantage in Doklam—one of the few areas where it still holds notable advantages over China along their 4,000-kilometre border. Such a shift in the local balance may lead to further deterioration of India’s overall strategic position vis-à-vis China, which already commands superiority in the western sector.

The Chinese government has an amazing ability to frame the outcomes of all important foreign policy events as ‘win-win’, and to turn an abused adversary into a celebrated partner almost overnight. So many officials regard the resolution of the standoff as a win-win and India still a valued partner for cooperation—not least in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) forum, which started its latest summit five days after the mutual troop withdrawal was negotiated.

The more they think so, the better. Labelling it a Chinese ‘defeat’, as some observers have done, would generate a sense of humiliation at this time of rising nationalism and increase the temptation to exact revenge—and thus also the risk of future confrontation.

The more the India side thinks of it as a win-win, the better too. An Indian ‘win’ would buttress a sense of triumphalism and steel New Delhi’s resolve to stand up to Beijing in the future. Such resolve, if not carefully managed, may lead to inadvertent conflict with China. That is why the battle cry of making the Doklam standoff a ‘model’ for countering Chinese coercion is a dangerous prescription for future policy, as Taylor Fravel, a noted expert on China’s territorial disputes, has pointed out.

Yet controlling nationalism—whether the humiliated or the triumphalist sort—is by no means easy. That is why both sides must learn the right lessons about strategic judgement and crisis management, so they can forestall future crises or better handle them if they do occur.

The critical lesson is the importance of making informed and sophisticated strategic judgements and decisions. The Chinese surprise at Indian intervention exposed their poor judgement of the possible Indian response or, equally problematic, their longstanding tendency to look down on Indian power and resolve. They further err in dismissing all Indian security concerns as ‘strange talk and odd arguments’.

It’s not yet known how the decision to build the road was made, or whether there was coordination between local units and central decision-makers or between the military and the foreign ministry. The road was most likely meant to enhance China’s military position in the area. But did the military really mean to threaten the Siriguri Corridor, which is so vital to India’s defense of its eastern provinces, as feared by Indian planners? Was much thought even given to the possible consequences on the Indian side?

India achieved tactical surprise, but it was based on an underestimation of Chinese resolve to strengthen control in the Doklam region. Some may think that China’s concession reveals its nature as a ‘paper tiger’ wont to bluster but not action. Yet it is equally possible that India got lucky this time: Chinese leaders have placed more value on staging a successful BRICS summit—and the more vital 19th Party Congress in October—than on building a road. Moreover, although plenty of armchair Chinese strategists want the government to fight, the People’s Liberation Army, which is in the middle of both the most profound reform and the harshest anti-corruption purges in its history, may not be ready.

What will happen after the pomp is over and the soldiers are ready? As the Chinese foreign ministry has now clarified, road work, past and future, forms a central part of China’s long-term construction plan. An immediate tactical challenge for India is therefore to determine what to do with future Chinese construction work along the border. Delicate enough, such tactical challenges pale in comparison to the large strategic task of resolving the prolonged territorial disputes without major conflict.

The Doklam standoff is a cautionary tale for both countries. They ought to learn the right lessons for managing future strategic interactions, not try to score points and engage in tit-for-tat struggles.

© This article first appeared at The Strategist blog, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.


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About

Dr Feng Zhang (PhD, LSE) is a Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy, Asia-Pacific security, and international relations theory. He is also Adjunct Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China.

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