How the Chinese incursions in Doklam can change India's position in the region
Doklam, Zhoglam is a narrow plateau lying in the tri-junction region of Bhutan, China and India. Photograph: (Zee News Network)
Did China not anticipate the Indian reaction to its road building on the Doklam Plateau? Some of the Indian analysis suggests this may be the case given the intensity of Beijing's response and the continuing barrage of criticism from its state-controlled media.
A former Indian Army commander who served in the area provided some perspective: "The brinkmanship we see from their side is part of their policy, they think they can browbeat us but we must not blink," he said.
He pointed out that India had no alternative since China was altering the status quo on the plateau, so "we had to stop them." He would not comment on whether India reacted on its own upon seeing what the Chinese were up to, or did it act upon Bhutan's complaint. But he acknowledged that this scenario had been war gamed by the army brass, and its implications thought through.
A retired brigadier was more direct, saying the Indian Army would have responded to any Chinese provocation in that area on its own regardless of the "sentiments of the Royal Bhutanese Army". In that sense, It helped that India has a "training team" in Bhutan.
But is there a larger point here? There is a view that India's intervention on behalf of its smaller neighbour has upset Beijing.
"We came to the support of Bhutan and that worries them," said the former army commander. "There was a similar standoff in 1987 in Sumdorong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh which went on for over a year but that was purely bilateral. Here we have intervened in support of a third party."
It has implications for India's traditionally negative 'Big Brother' image in this region (which among other reasons explains Chinese inroads). If the standoff prolongs, that perception could change to something more favourable towards India.
The standoff has invited considerable comment not from the ruling Nepali establishment but from the Nepali press with some supporting China, others sympathetic to Bhutan (why can't Thimphu have relations with China?) and some backing India although with caveats: for instance the need for Nepal to resolve its own tri-junction issues with India and China (Lipulekh in western Nepal and Jhinsang Chuli in eastern Nepal).
Some of the comment also reflects Nepal's ties with India, ties of blood, culture and history (including the 2-3 million Nepalis living and working in India and the 65,000 Nepalis serving in the Indian armed forces).
Sri Lanka has been studiedly silent on the Doklam standoff perhaps with reason: Sri Lanka is indebted to China to the tune of 8 billion dollars. Unable to pay off the debt, it is giving Chinese companies equity in projects like the Hambantota Port. That has ignited a storm of protests from people living near the port whose land the government plans to acquire on behalf of Chinese companies.
To give the Indian devil its due, aid from Delhi has helped Sri Lanka's social sector, or provided funds and expertise for projects executed by Sri Lankans for Sri Lankans. Which is why India's decision to stand by Bhutan and take on the Chinese could correct some of the perceptions about India in the neighbourhood.
Looking beyond the neighbourhood, it's clear that here also India stands alone. The US and Australia have remained neutral, a reflection of how important the China trade and investment is to their economies. The 11-nation ASEAN has kept silent given it is involved in negotiations with the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). As for Europe, apart from some insipid statements from the European Parliament urging India and China to talk, there's been nothing.
Old ally Russia too has had nothing to say, a reflection again of how indebted it is to Beijing given Western sanctions.
Yes, India is alone in this standoff. But there's also the buzz that China sees no purpose in escalation. Presently its trade surplus with India is over 50 billion dollars; Chinese companies are moving to India to take advantage of a growing market; there is also perhaps the recognition that China is not liked in most parts of the world and a conflict raises the risk of sanctions and embargoes that could further slow down the economy. So it could well be that the noise over Doklam will subside, hopefully as winter sets in.
The lack of a resolution is troubling. China could well raise temperatures on the plateau (or elsewhere) again. But India could be even better prepared by then.