Are India and China sleepwalking into a war?

The standoff began when India objected to China's construction of a road there, leading both sides to deploy troops in sizeable numbers.

Published: 17th August 2017 03:32 PM  |   Last Updated: 17th August 2017 03:58 PM   |  A+A-

Image used for representational purpose only | AFP

Express News Service

CHENNAI: It has been two months since the armies of India and China locked horns over a barren stretch of land in the tri-junction between India, China, and Bhutan called the Dokalam plateau. The standoff began when India objected to China's construction of a road there, leading both sides to deploy troops in sizeable numbers.

New Delhi has confirmed that more than 50 Indian soldiers are presently facing not less than 800 Chinese troops in the plateau, which China considers as its territory.

Many observers say that an armed conflict between the two Asian powers cannot be ruled out.

Last month, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a warning to New Delhi to withdraw the Indian troops Dokalam or "risk escalation."  Nothing sums up the attitude of the hawks in Beijing better than an article that appeared on the state-owned Chinese tabloid, the Global Times. John Gong, a professor at Beijing's University of International Business wrote, "To such an unruly neighbour (India), China should reciprocate in a language that it can understand. The famous or infamous Indian bravado is never backed up by substance in its history with China. If memory is short on the Indian side, perhaps there should be a second lesson.” The western media is also rife with reports about an impending war between the two Asian giants. Online media outlets like the UK's Business Insider and the Independent have come out with reports saying that both countries are on the verge of a full-blown war.

So, how close are we to a war with China?

The Dokalam crisis has a rare precedent in the history of India-China disputes. Border standoffs between India and China are nothing new. However, hardly any have dragged on for two months without an end in sight. Most were resolved in a span of fewer than four weeks, thanks to diplomacy. However, this time around, China has clearly stated its lack of willingness to engage in any sort of negotiations with New Delhi prior to a complete withdrawal of Indian troops from Dokalam.

India, on the other hand, has called for a simultaneous withdrawal of troops, which China has flatly refused, claiming that the plateau is Chinese territory.

So is war likely?

No one can predict with certainty that a war is in the offing. However, if the current standoff is to end, both sides will have to make compromises. And to do that without losing face is nearly impossible for both sides.

From Beijing's vantage point, India is sticking its neck into a dispute between China and Bhutan.

An op-ed on the Global Times claimed that India is using Bhutan to further its regional hegemonistic designs. Quoting a Chinese academic, the daily noted that India has time and again interfered in Bhutan's diplomatic affairs to further its own regional hegemonistic designs.

For a rising power with pronounced regional aspirations like China, there is no greater snub than this.

"No matter what vassalage relationship India maintains with Bhutan, it baffles one that India has the courage to transgress the Chinese border on Bhutan's behalf. Well, if this kind of logic holds, China can certainly enter into Kashmir, including India-controlled Kashmir, upon Pakistan's invitation," John Gong observed in his Global Times piece.

Backing down means sending a wrong message

The Chinese leadership is aware that if it holds down its guns now, it would be sending a wrong message to its Southeast Asian neighbours many of whom have long-running territorial disputes with China. Countries like Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines will take home the lesson that China is a paper dragon and that the Chinese threats are nothing more than empty rhetoric.

Moreover, Indian soldiers have set up tents and are camping on a piece of land that China considers as its own. How can China agree to negotiations when Indian soldiers are on supposed Chinese territory?

Things look more or less the same from New Delhi. Capitulating to Beijing’s demand that it pull out all its troops before any negotiations can take place would mean a loss of pride. Moreover, now that the crisis has dragged on for long, conceding to the Chinese demands without a credible assurance that Beijing would halt the construction of the road leading to Chambi Valley is tantamount to New Delhi forsaking its core national security interests. This would convey to China that India would back down when confronted with the threat of force, which would give Beijing an upper hand in future negotiations between the two countries.

Moreover, now that India has put up a bold face against China, withdrawing without appropriate compensation would be a debilitating blow to the morale of not just its soldiers but also the entire nation.

Preparing for an unlikely war?

None of this is to say that a full-scale war is likely. The two are nuclear powers and it is still reasonable to put faith in the assumption that two nuclear powers would not go to war with each other.

Moreover, although they whip up nationalistic euphoria, those at the helm of affairs in both Beijing and New Delhi have linked their survival to the economic growth and prosperity of their respective countries.

As such, a full blown war could be nothing other than an instrument of last resort.

But how about a limited war?

Both countries are aware that if fighting erupts, there is always a possibility that things may spiral out of control. As the Italian philosopher, Niccolo Machiavelli said, “Wars begin when you decide, but do not end when you please.” China is aware that any use of force, even limited, is unlikely to lead to a de-escalation, or far from it, a resolution. Rather, the most likely consequence of a Chinese attack on Indian troops would be a counterattack, leading to escalation and war. Because New Delhi knows that if the Indian troops flee when Chinese mortals rain on them, it would in effect be telling its northern neighbour that it could be cowed into submission.

Although the Chinese media have claimed that Chinese leadership may not tolerate the presence of Indian troops in Dokalam for long, it is yet to issue an explicit threat of war. The Chinese Foreign Ministry at best said that the Indian soldiers should withdraw from its territory to prevent escalation and that China will defend its sovereignty "at all costs". In other words, the Chinese leadership is yet to say: withdraw or face war.

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