India and China after the Doklam Standoff

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On November 16, Hudson Institute’s South Asia Program hosted a talk concerning India and China after the Doklam standoff. Dr. Aparna Pande, who moderated the discussion, introduced the topic by contextualizing the importance of Doklam, a disputed area between the borders of China and India. “This summer the two countries [India and China] were involved in almost a week long standoff for the 2,000 miles long border. The crisis set up when India opposed China’s attempts to extend their border to the Doklam plateau,” which led to an eight-week-long standoff between the two countries. To discuss the extent of this situation, Hudson Institute invited Mr. Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow  with the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

“This Doklam standoff began in June 16 when China tried to build a road in the Doklam area” said Mr. Joshi, who exemplified in a map where the conflict began. On June 30, the Indian government issued a statement affirming that India’s security was affected by the construction of that road, especially due to the building of a very sensitive bridge that could compromise Bhutan,  which was China’s objective. To become a world power a country must start by becoming a regional power, which explains China’s interest in Bhutan.

From his own experience, Mr. Joshi explained that in his most recent trip to China he witnessed the point of view that affirmed that the Bhutanese do not own the Doklam area but the owner is China, and that according to the bhutanese people the territory intervened by India was not theirs. The speaker explained that this story does not include the  fact that “the Bhutanese did formally protest on June 29th.” Mr. Joshi affirmed that the conflict would have been an occasion, but not the cause, because an invasion of one hundred meters does not justify the magnitude of the problem based on the Chinese perspective on Doklam.  

The internal problems between China and India have deeper roots, including the measurement of the border, as China recognizes two thousand kilometers while India affirms that there are four thousand fifty-seven kilometers, affirmed Mr. Joshi. This contradiction comes from the dispute of Jammu and Kashmir. The rise of both countries with their own historical perspective highlights the differences. The speaker discussed China’s need to establish regional preeminence, taking advantage of India’s dispute with Pakistan to increase its influence in the region. India on the other hand rejects China’s drive for primacy, therefore increasing its ties to  Japan and the U.S. This further escalates tensions as Beijing believes these countries are working together to stop their goal. In Mr. Joshi’s perspective, India needs to remember that its military is not modernized and its  economy has just entered the  high-growth path. If the current government led by  Prime Minister Narendra Modi utilizes this opportunity to strengthen relations with the United States, it could be costly if China decides to respond negatively.

The Doklam crisis shows that the border issue could have been resolved, but the conflict resolution measures in place since 1993 were unsuccessful. Next month (December 2017) some meetings will take place to discuss the problem, but the question about China’s reasons to own the area remain open. The Doklam region suffers from depopulation due to the hard conditions of the mountains. Since 1990s both countries have been talking about cooperation in this area, while at the same time as having conflict. China’s  economic influence is preventing  Indian ties in  Central Asia, so one solution is for India to get closer to Japan and work bilaterally to develop infrastructure in Africa and provide non-predictable economic assistance to achieve regional stability. Nevertheless, the Doklam conflict could affect both countries.

An idea from the Indian perspective  is to reform the armed forces to provide better means to deter China. India could also improve its relations and policy concerning its neighbourhood, and not over securitize those relations. Finally, getting economic policy reactivated is key, as the last government systems were caught in a cycle of elections in which the economy was not the priority.

Doctor Aparna Pande asked the speaker how China sees the South Asian countries as an important part of its plan. Mr. Joshi explained that a country such as Pakistan can be helpful for energy, while Bangladesh is very important for investment. Overall, China has the means to construct infrastructure in the South Asian countries. India does not have the means to invest in other countries as much as China because of the need to improve its own infrastructure. The U.S. has not focused on economic policy as much as security issues in the region, leaving the door open for an assertive China, giving this country the power to impose sanctions on those countries that do not want to cooperate.

In the context of a speech by  U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson concerning  the next hundred years of U.S.-India relations,  Joshi’s  affirmed that national interest plays a bigger role than values, threatening international relations. Dr. Pande inquired on the skepticism the speaker used to refer to this topic. Mr Joshi explained that national interests are shaped by national values, while international relations can unfold. “Indians have seen that the U.S. was an ally to Pakistan so there were not shared values” and ”the reality is that nations pursue  their interests.”  In his opinion, every nation wants to follow its own interests. For example, India’s foremost external interest is in Persian Gulf and Northern Arabian Sea region as 70% of India’s oil and $35 billion of remittances comes from this places. On the other side, United States wants India to cooperate in the Asia-Pacific region, but there there is no talk of cooperation in the Persian Gulf and Northern Arabian Sea region. In conclusion, the U.S.-India 100 year friendship needs to be built with more solid bases, taking into account the differences in national interests.

The discussion ended with a Q&A section in which the speaker answered several questions such as the role of Russian influence in the region, to which the speaker argued that investment and aid in many countries depends mainly on China, while Russia does not have “the capacity to maintain their primacy in Central-Asia” nor the incentives to do it. Regarding strategic fencing replacing relationships based on shared values, Mr. Joshi explained that India “does not face an existential threat from China” so it does not need to depend on an external military system. To elaborate on the present situation in Doklam, the speaker explained that the region is connected to the north-east part of India in the shape of a dagger, and from the military point of view the existence of a  Bhutan that cannot defend itself while existing in a sensitive area represents a threat.

This event took place on November 16, 2017 at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. You can watch the event here.