(Views of Major General S B Asthana,SM,VSM, (Veteran),
Questioned by Jiangtao Shi of South China Morning Post on 29 August 2017.
Question 1 (SCMP)
Are you surprised that the over 70-day military standoff ended all of a sudden just days ahead of PM Narendra Modi’s trip to China for the BRICS summit? The deliberate ambiguity in both sides’ statements seems to indicate that both sides were willing to make some kind of concessions in a bid to end the dispute in a mutually acceptable face-saving manner. What are the main reasons and factors behind the seemingly peaceful solution for China and India respectively? (For China , BRICS and the 19th party congress? For India, domestic political support and economic reform?)
Answer 1 by Major General S B Asthana
I am not really surprised that the over 70-day military standoff ended all of a sudden just days ahead of PM Narendra Modi’s trip to China for the BRICS summit. As you have rightly pointed out, both sides (China and India) were looking for an opportunity for a face saving resolution, without appearing to be weak domestically. The likelihood of absence of PM Modi in BRICS Summit, and its resultant political and diplomatic cost, triggered that opportunity. In my opinion, the main reasons behind such a sudden resolution were:-
- Any escalation beyond the point of standoff as on 28 August could have been cost prohibitive in terms of economical engagement, political and diplomatic cost, human casualties, without any worthwhile gains for both sides. Prolonging it was not in the national interest of either of the country.
- Success of BRICS is important for all member countries including China. China refusal to talk without precondition of Indian withdrawal and repeated provocative statements was exhibiting its arrogance. This wasn’t going well with global community, besides giving an indirect message to all including BRICS, about its hegemonic intentions and poor diplomatic acumen. Even US and Japan, who were not involved with Doklam, chose to state that both must talk to resolve it. The fact that China did not accept ICA verdict, continued aggressive posturing in South China Sea, violated 2012 Agreement in Doklam Triangle, and was seen as not doing enough to implement UN obligation against North Korea. It was affecting its global image adversely, hence some midcourse correction was needed, which has been done through this adjustment.
- An India China conflict, besides shattering dreams of economic prosperity of both countries, could have escalated to international dimensions, more so with ongoing problems of North Korea and South China Sea, and turbulence in Af- Pak Region. The fact that both are nuclear states cannot be discounted in strategic calculus of escalation dynamics.
- Militarily the escalation dynamics was not thought through. If war gamed properly, the escalation would have resulted in stalemate, which would have damaged the image of President Xi Jinping and reduced his chances for getting favourable people in 19th Party Congress in his second term and any possible prospects of his third term.
- From Indian perspective also, escalation of this standoff wasn’t in its National Interest. India needs China’s market for its growth in future, even if the balance of trade is not in its favour today. Now that India is on ‘Make in India’ path, as fastest growing economy to bring prosperity to its people,it may not like to slow down due to such meaningless disruptions.
- There was no domestic pressure on Indian Government, as all political parties,Security forces and public were determined to check Chinese encroachment and arrogance, at any cost.
While an “expeditious disengagement” in Doklam brought an end to the border standoff and ease tensions between the two countries, do you think it could fuel nationalist sentiment, mistrust and hostility in both nations and cast a long shadow over the longstanding border dispute between China and India and their relations? What are the immediate and long-term implications of the border standoff on bilateral relations, especially considering the strategic competition and rivalry for dominance in the region between the nuclear-armed Asian giants? Will it have a long-term impact on the regional geopolitical landscape?
Answer 2 by Major General S B Asthana
Doklam standoff is neither the first, nor the last, and not even the longest standoff between India and China. Many strategists argue that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are strong leaders, leading their nations with patriotic sentiments. The nationalist self-confidence from both sides may ignite a heated rivalry in which bilateral relations could deteriorate, because an “expeditious disengagement” in Doklam is only a temporary answer to the bigger problem of longstanding border dispute between both.
Out of 14 countries with which China had border issues, it has resolved with 12 except India and Bhutan. With India, China has been delaying settling the border issue on some pretext or the other, and with Bhutan it has been shifting its claim lines many times. I understand that permanent resolution of Border Dispute is the ultimate solution, which needs to be expedited. It is a complex problem, as both sides read history in a manner that it supports their claims. This was the reason for both countries to have signed various agreements to ensure peace and tranquillity along the borders, which have been reasonably successful, as no bullet has been fired amongst both Forces in last four decades.
Even if resolution of boundary is considered to be a complex problem, the demarcation, delineation and defining of Line of Actual Control (LAC), (which is not a mutually accepted line as of now), is an inescapable necessity. This is do-able by cooperative political intent, to be followed by intense diplomatic efforts. This action cannot be postponed further if the two neighbours have to live peacefully in future without further standoffs’. It needs to be understood that with un-demarcated LAC, troops of both sides will patrol as per their own perceptions of LAC; some areas will be common which both sides will patrol to be its own. Every such patrol will be called as intrusion by the other side, hence such face-offs will continue tillit’s demarcated, and the identification of its demarcation is made known to troops manning the borders. The short term impacts of standoffs were the anxiety among people, possible temporary setback to trade, tension on borders, non attendance of important events like BRF/BRICS if not resolved. The long term impact could have been hardening of varying stand on border resolution, aggressive strategic competition, and growth of interest based strategic partnerships to balance each other.
Being neighbors, most populated, developing countries and significant trading partners of future, China and India have convergence of interests in many areas.Our economical engagements, mutual cooperation can proceed with strategic divergences, and this has been demonstrated adequately in past.
What are messages for other Asian nations caught between the increasing rivalry between China and India? What are the main takeaways for countries like Bhutan , Sri Lanka , Vietnam , Myanmar , Japan , Singapore and Mongolia ?
Answer 3 by Major General S B Asthana
I do not subscribe to the idea of growing rivalry between China and India. The extension of economical and strategic space by large growing countries like China and India, to fulfil their genuine needs is natural and may not necessarily be a rivalry. In case some Asian nation is caught between contradictory needs of China and India, in my opinion it should look after its own national interest.
The main message which comes out loud and clear from Doklam episode is that in today’s world no country can afford to be arrogant to bully smaller sovereign nation, if the smaller Nation is determined to stand up for its national interest. If Cuba could stand up to US, Bhutan could stand up to China, Vietnam could stand up to China as well as US, then smaller countries should also look after their national interest, without worrying about the size and might of any power, trying to push them or manipulate their genuine strategic choices.
In my perception, the DoklamPlateau was presumably chosen by China for road construction to violate 2012 Treaty at this point of time because:-
- India and Bhutan boycotted Belt and Road Forum (BRF) for International Cooperation, the Doklam ingress could embarrass both the countries simultaneously.
- Stressing on 1890 Treaty by China takes away the logic of Tibet, as a player in dealing with India, thus a subtle message to Dalai Lama that he is not a stake holder in Tibet.
- Test the depth of Indo- Bhutanese security relationship.
- The area being too close to Siliguri Corridor/Chicken’s Neck, India had to be concerned and had to decide whether to intervene or otherwise in India’s own national interest, thereby conveying a message of standing up or not standing up to a challenge from Beijing in future too.
- As the construction activity was in Bhutanese Territory, a strong Indian reaction was not expected.
- In case India takes action, China can proclaim itself as an innocent victim and blame India to be an aggressor.
China was however surprised by an unexpectedly strong Indian reaction, and then it realized that the point chosen was such, where it had strategic and tactical disadvantages for her in escalating it. China was also surprised that in multiparty democracy like India, all parties are on the same page as far as stand on sovereignty and Doklam Issue was concerned.The end result was that China was extremely disturbed about it, and churning out fresh provocative statements almost on daily basis, launching psychological and propaganda war, war of words, and resorting to every possible means short of war to put pressure on India to withdraw its troops. The Indian side on the other side has been relatively balanced, but firm in its stance, making very few statements, and was globally appreciated for its diplomatic maturity. No one bought the idea of India being an aggressor. India proved that it could physically resist China when its national interest demands so, and it also honors the security arrangement promised to Bhutan by physical action.
Chinese efforts to establish bilateral talks with Bhutan, including financial allurement (Purse Diplomacy) did not materialize. India and Bhutan stood by each other and could resist Chinese aggressive activity. Chinese efforts to involve Nepal also resulted in response from their Deputy Prime Minister expressing unwillingness to take sides. Japanese Ambassador in New Delhi also said that there should be no attempt to change status quo on the ground by force.
Vietnam has stood up earlier against China as well as US for its national interest. The Doklam episode will encourage countries like, Mongolia (Visit of Dalai Lama), Singapore( trade issues), Srilanka ( Hambantota Port), Myanmar( Dam construction), and Japan( East China Sea/Senkakuislands) to stand up to China for various issues of divergences, and cause others like Philippines, to reconsider their options to give away their strategic choices.
China in last few years has been on island grabbing spree using ‘Incremental Encroachment’ as part of ‘Active Defence’ Strategy’, with its economic and military clout, using ‘Purse Diplomacy’ with some countries and ‘Infrastructure Diplomacy’ with others. In some cases the disagreements amongst some countries have become quite pronounced due to unfair deals. Singaporehad a strong interest in ensuring navigation in South China Seas is not restricted. Mongolia displayed the temerity of hosting the Dalai Lama, despite Chinese opposition.
The bigger lesson is that no sovereign country should be pushed to take sides, and if it is done aggressively by any stronger power, the nation which is being pushed will be forced to seek security and other interests elsewhere, in terms of various other partnerships.
Question 4 (SCMP)
With India insisting that China should respect the 2012 understanding on tri-junctions, which specifically said “the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalised in consultation with the concerned countries,” do you think it will further delay the border talks between China and Bhutan? Does it mean India will have to be directly involved as the third party in Sino-Bhutanese border talks in the future?
Answer 4 by Major General S B Asthana
As per the lay of the ground, the resolution of border dispute of China and Bhutan especially at triangle/ junction points, is closely linked and cannot be done in isolation. At Doklam plateau the location of Tri-junction as per India supported by Bhutan is Batang La, whereas China contends it to be at Gyemochenon Jampheri Ridge, which amounts to an encroachment of 7-8 km. These issues cannot be resolved in isolation. If there is political will to resolve it, then meeting of three delegation will not take any time. The delay is only in making political decision and directing the diplomats to resolve it in time bound manner.
Although there is a contradiction in the manner in which each country has reported it perhaps to amuse their domestic audience, and both sides can claim it to be a diplomatic achievement. It is a welcomed step towards peace and tranquilityalong the borders, hence which side blinked first or had an upper hand is not relevant, although both will claim it. This resolution has ensured that there has been no exchange of bullets, and India and China as responsible nations have been able to resolve their differences peacefully on Doklam Standoff. It also ensured that both the countries found a peaceful solution, with a face-saving gesture to ease tension, without disturbing the core interest of either.
The interview has been republished by many journals. Given below are few links of those publications.
Republished in Giap Journal, Vol. 5 No. 2 (2017), Humanities and Social Sciences Reviews, eISSN 2395-6518 on November 06, 2017.