Post Dokhlam roadmap for India

In an earlier piece the reasons for India’s firm stand on the Dokhlam standoff were explored. It must be acknowledged that this misadventure by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has created an atmosphere of suspicion and enormous distrust between China and India. The million dollar question that lingers on is the impact of the standoff on the complete spectrum of ties between two as well as other countries in Southeast Asia. The potential diplomatic as well as economic fallout will be watched closely.

Firstly, the diplomatic fallout. There is no doubt that the élan and sophistication displayed by the Government of India in the handling of the standoff has yielded a big diplomatic dividend for India, not seen in decades. It must be stressed that this windfall is short-lived and India must strain every bit of its political and professional foreign policy expertise to consolidate this into concrete long term benefits. A business as usual or a fatalistic approach would certainly fritter away the gains.

The US and Japan definitely see India as the wronged party in the dispute and have commended it on its refusal to buckle under PLA pressure. India must cash in on this new respect it has gained from these two key nations and recast its foreign policy doctrines and take a fresh look at military and strategic alliances.

Soon after the standoff, the second trilateral meeting between US, India and Japan issued a statement on September 19th 2017, reiterating their resolve to keep “the free flow of lawful commerce in the region and around the globe, including the South China Sea”. India must use this anti-China posturing of this group to its favor and garner wider support of friendly powers against an expansionist China.

Further, the trilateral meet in an apparent reference to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) and China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), called for respecting “international norms and sovereignty and territorial integrity on connectivity initiatives”. This again is in India’s favor given that the bulk of the CPEC runs through Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK), which is a disputed territory. India must prepare an action plan to counter CPEC and brief world capitals to gain their support for India’s position.

India’s foreign policy establishment must also labor to translate this windfall into powerful levers for negotiation at the decades-old border / Line of Actual Control (LAC) talks with China. India must negotiate from a position of renewed strength and extract the most in its favor, at least in the Dokhlam sector.

The annual naval exercise MALABAR could be expanded to include new members or a conduct a new set of similar naval exercises with participation from more countries. India should specifically invite ASEAN members to join the exercises. This will enhance the reach of India’s blue water navy by providing greater global operability, reach and enhanced maritime expeditionary capabilities. Most importantly it will get India the concurrence of Southeast Asian countries in building a powerful deterrence against China.

The US, long aware of the prowess of the Indian military, has been actively persuading the political leadership to espouse a more pro-active policy that involves sending Indian troops on combat missions outside India. It will not be a surprise if India reviews its current stand on sending its troops to join other countries in combat roles.

Post Dokhlam, Indian troops may be fighting alongside other friendly powers, particularly the USA in Afghanistan. If India agrees, then it could not only help restore order in that war torn country, but also help keep watch on Chinese and Pakistani forces in POK along the CPEC. This will also open up a new dimension in India’s counter terror operations by monitoring the western and northern borders of Pakistan.

The Dokhlam standoff has left its ugly scars on bilateral trade between the two countries. India and China, over the years, have built a huge trade relationship.  Currently India has   running deficit of over $60 billion. Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar recently attributed this ‘alarming’ trade deficit to restrictions on trade and market access in China for Indian companies.

Similar complaints have been heard from the US and other large economies.  China has a mammoth trade relationship with the US – with the latter holding a huge deficit of nearly $350 billion (2016). Recently, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer called China an “unprecedented threat to the world trading system”. So the US will definitely be empathetic to India’s travails against dumping of Chinese goods.

The standoff in Bhutan has only incentivized India to openly join hands with the US and Japan to seek punitive corrections and protectionists relief against China. It will be no surprise to see India use this as a powerful instrument of its trade & economic diplomacy against China.

It must be mentioned that these diplomatic and trade offensives by themselves may not help India stop Chinese intrusion into its territory or stop dumping of cheap Chinese goods. But they will certainly ensure that it is not business as usual for the Chinese or the PLA.  India must strive to build a “loose coalition” that will help in the UN or impose economic sanctions against a self-acclaimed world power.

However, India must understand that it has to fight its battle by itself. It cannot count on other countries to fight by its side, notwithstanding the rhetoric we hear today. From that perspective, India must continue to pack power into its military since the world – and China in particular – only respects military power. History shows that authoritarian states behave themselves when the adversary is equally strong.  The recent conciliatory stand by China, no doubt shows that it is respectful of Indian military might.

But this is not to say that every intrusion or challenge should be resolved by the military. There is a time and place for military operations, so too for diplomacy and negotiations in international affairs.

In balance however, it would be prudent to choose diplomacy and negotiated settlements over military solutions. This is well understood by the PM Modi and President Xi Jinping. Hence reaching out to China and charting a course of mutual growth and prosperity would be the common sense yet pragmatic approach. This is precisely what India had pursued, albeit with the backing of the iron fist of its military.

If China chooses to accept India’s friendly gestures, it will be the dawn of a new era. But whatever measures the two countries take to rebuild bilateral relations, the scar of Doklam will remain for a long time to come. It is now incumbent on China, not India, to rebuild its trust and reputation that lay in tatters in the heights of Dokhlam in Bhutan.

Indians will remember the Dokhlam stand off for a long time to come.

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