Why China blinked in Doklam standoff
(Photo: Getty Images)
What really compelled China to de-escalate in Doklam? First, let us examine the reasons that have been cited in the public domain since the pull-back some weeks ago. After weeks of raising the decibel level the government in Beijing realised that building the road up to the Jampheri Ridge was considered an existential threat by India due to its proximity to the Siliguri corridor and hence India was unlikely to budge; the coming 19th CPC meeting in November 2017 later on in the year and the BRICS meeting at Xiamen.
In the last case it is possible that Putin advised his counterpart that without the participation of the Indian Prime Minister the summit would not measure up to expectation, considerably embarrassing the host country. Since Russia had maintained studied silence throughout the Doklam confrontation, the Russian President’s advice would have been taken in good faith. Had BRICS become a damp squib it would have hurt the Chinese President’s image.
A few other allied reasons had also been discussed threadbare in the print and electronic media. Going beyond the confrontation and the peaceful pullback and, with the passage of time, it becomes possible to deduce the deeper reasons for the Chinese backing down, which in the public perception amounted to loss of face.
The more cogent reasons are briefly discussed in the ensuing paragraphs. More than 70 days had already elapsed since the start of the confrontation. There were no signs of India backing down. Overblown rhetoric followed by threats in case India did not pull back had reached such a crescendo that had the confrontation continued much longer the agitated Chinese public would have mounted intense pressure for action that the government would have found it difficult to resist because in confrontations with other countries never had the Chinese gone so far as to tell its adversary that the latter would be taught a lesson it would not forget.
For the countries of the region watching the situation apprehensively China would have appeared to be a paper tiger. On the other hand the masterly way in which India handled the situation by not matching the Chinese rhetoric gave the impression of quiet confidence that would normally result from a position of strength.
The perception of ‘position of strength’, according to informed sources reporting from Beijing led to re-appraisal within the PLA, CMC as well as the top government echelons. The de novo re-assessment led to considerable doubt and misgivings about the outcome in case China went on to physically evict the Indian troops from their positions. It was realised that without military action the Indian side was not going to budge.
Over the years the Chinese government had come to believe, as had the Indian defence establishment, that military asymmetry with China was too formidable for India to risk military confrontation. The asymmetry since China’s accelerated growth had already been high enough to cause concern. Added to it was the fact that with much higher GDP and military budget the asymmetry would keep growing. The perception was shared by countries of ASEAN and East Asia, even beyond.
This was generally the larger picture prior to the confrontation. It led to the belief in corridors of Beijing that beyond a point, with the nature of threats that amounted to an ultimatum, India had no choice but to withdraw from the Doklam Plateau. The deeper analysis mentioned in the previous paragraph when reduced from the macro-perception to the situation on the border in the face of India’s intransigence showed up the chinks in the Chinese armour that could have resulted in a debacle for the Chinese forces. An elaboration follows:
The undeniable macro-level asymmetry simply would not work out on any border conflagration with India. China’s overall military strength was that of a growing superpower attempting to match the US military power, if not globally, certainly in the South China Sea, East Asia and in the Pacific. Comparatively, over the years India had quietly built up its strength on its vulnerable border to a level that it felt confident of being able to take on anything that the Chinese would field against them. Several mountain divisions had been raised to reinforce the Arunachal Pradesh border that China had begun to claim since 2005, never before that. Simultaneously a mountain strike corps had commenced raising that although not fully operational for another two years or so had the potential for a limited repost of a type that India never had before. In sum India would have successfully blunted any offensive.
Coming down to the level of the actual fighting most of the factors operative on the ground favoured India. Firstly, in the mountains missiles and other offensive weapons of the type were insufficient to dislodge the Indian troops. Commanders who have operated on those heights know that mountains eat up men. The only way to dislodge the opponent is to have much larger force for dislodging men in strong defensive positions with well-coordinated fire. The Indian side was sure that in hand-to-hand fighting at those altitudes the Indian soldier would be more than a match for the opponent. There are several reasons for such confidence.
The Chinese have not fought any major land war for 38 years. On the Indian side there have been confrontations on the borders with its Western adversary very frequently, sometimes on a daily basis. Besides the Indian soldiers had proved their mettle against heavy odds in the Kargil War where the advantage lay with the opponent.
Another important factor that is overlooked is morale and motivation. For the Indian soldier these are very high because they are fighting for their motherland. Not so the Chinese soldier. The Chinese border with India came into being after the occupation of Tibet a bare 70 years ago. After another century if Tibet were to remain under occupation the feeling may become different. Currently for the Chinese soldier Tibet’s border with India is not motherland. The motivational difference always matters in close fighting.
Coming back the to the individual Chinese soldier located thousands of miles from his home there is further loss of motivation due to the one-child policy that has been in vogue for several decades. Being a single child fighting well away from home and worrying about his aged parents the motivation can never match the adversary confronting him with determination.
To sum it up the situation appears to have ended by considerably discomfiting the Chinese leadership with the attendant loss of face within China and beyond its borders in neighbouring countries. It resulted from a series of miscalculations that need not be gone into in depth in the current paper. Briefly, the Chinese had not anticipated the Indian reaction on Bhutanese territory and the latter’s call to India. Over the decades the Chinese leadership had become accustomed to the fact that when pushed very hard the Indian leadership would step back.
It had happened so often in recent years that the leaders in Beijing did not give it a second thought. Had they pondered a while before aggravating the crisis – by raising the decibel level that made it difficult for them to de-escalate – they would have realized that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was cast in a different mould.
A last thought in this episode that must have crossed some minds at the highest level in Beijing would have been India’s military position in Sikkim (this writer had briefly commanded the East Sikkim watershed in 1991), which overlooks the Doklam Plateau. It is so formidable that any conventional military misadventure instead of resulting in 1962 could well have resulted in another 1979. That conceivably could have been the end of the Chinese leader’s dream of a long tenure at the apex.
(The writer, a retired Major-General of the Indian Army is the author of Third Millennium Equipoise