Has India Called China's Bluff Over Doklam?

8:16:00 AM

While the world's attention continues to focus on a combination of Brexit, U.S. domestic politics and North Korea, the news from the Himalayas remains tense. Maybe the mere thought that China and India might actually be going to war still seems implausible to many outside the region, but the obvious diplomatic routes out of the Doklam standoff are closing fast. Just last week an absurdly racist video broadcast on Chinese state television revealed–if anything–a casual disregard for the dangers of treating large, powerful states as a kind of roadkill on China's rapid rise.

To begin with, the problem seemed like a misunderstanding, but at each point where either side might have made overtures towards a de-escalation, the situation has merely worsened. The Indian government has said little, suggesting they feel the deployment of their troops conveys pretty clearly what their intentions are. Whereas the Chinese have been very vocal, denouncing India's move as a provocation from which a failure to withdraw will merely oblige China to administer a disciplinary slap, limited in scope, but overwhelming in effect.

Sticks and Stones

Curiously though, recent days have seen the Himalayan standoff at Doklam take a back seat to wider strategic issues as another video emerged of Chinese and Indian troops engaged in what looks like a mass brawl on the shore of Pangong Lake in Ladakh. The encounter was surprisingly violent and showed clearly injured men being dragged away after being pelted with stones, but according to some seasoned experts on the region this level of violence is "not unusual."

It is not clear who released the video, or quite frankly, which side caught the worst of it, but if anything it indicates that neither side is accustomed to backing away. Furthermore, it reminds both sides that the contested border is long and unstable along its entirety, meaning that a dispute in one region is not obliged to stay there. Which raises the stakes of any military effort China might engage in.

Nevertheless the perception remains that India is strong and well-positioned in and around Doklam, while not quite so secure on other parts of the border. Indeed, this is one reason why India is highly unlikely to concede anything to China in this region, given that the main reason why they are relatively well prepared is simply that the Siliguri corridor is strategically sensitive. Furthermore, China may be powerful, but deploying serious forces in Doklam would be hazardous given that India both controls the heights and can mobilize three mountain divisions numbering upwards of 50,000 troops in total, all of which are already deployed close by.

Indeed, the threat of this current incursion by China into Bhutanese territory is likely to be a key reason why there are so many Indian troops close by, so it would have been strange if they had not acted exactly as they have done. In historical terms it would be comparable to France ignoring German troops in Belgium. Despite China's public bravado, it is not at all clear that they would be able either to push Indian troops back or prevent the situation from escalating. Which raises the question of what else China might do to put pressure on India?

Another Road?

Sure enough, yesterday saw China slam India for building a new road near Pangong Lake in Ladakh, creating an interesting symmetry of grievance that will facilitate further equivocation, but perhaps also offers a way out for both sides. If India decides not to build the new road in Ladakh (presuming it was ever going to be built, of course) then perhaps China may decide its own road construction in territory Bhutan claims could be postponed for now? The speech also made reference to China's "all-weather" alliance with Pakistan, which is clearly intended to press a few raw Indian nerves, but also obliquely responds to Donald Trump's criticisms of Pakistan and courting of India over Afghanistan a few days ago.

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