China is increasing its influence in our backyard. India needs to up its diplomatic game.
As China and India begin to disengage from the Doklam Plateau, the Indian media has hailed it as a major victory for India. The stand-off is being portrayed as one where India has stood up to an increasingly assertive China, and denied China the ability to achieve its intended objective – building the road at Doklam. While it was necessary to thwart the road construction, the approach India took was rather impulsive. It is now necessary to manage the fallout from the Doklam Standoff to prevent China from capitalising on the incident.
The Doklam standoff needs to be seen through its potential implications on South Asia rather than through the narrow prism of constructing a road on a contested piece of land. This incident was, no doubt, closely watched in all quarters of South Asia, and it would have surely had an impact on all the observers. After all, it is not only Bhutan but also Nepal and Myanmar that share tri-junction boundaries with India and China.
Put on a larger timeline, this standoff comes off the back of recent displeasure over Indian hegemony in the neighbourhood, especially in Nepal and Bhutan. In the past few years, there have been sections in both Nepal and Bhutan that have accused India of meddling in the internal democratic processes of each country. This is especially highlighted in Nepal, where India has been accused of an economic blockade at a time when the country had just suffered an earthquake which had left the country in tatters. Against this background, if you look closely at the statements of Nepal and Bhutan, you will see that the Doklam episode hasn’t gone down well with either country.
Bhutan, in its statement on the Doklam standoff, had acknowledged that China had crossed into Bhutanese territory and violated agreements between Bhutan and China. However the statement didn’t mention India or the Indian intervention in Doklam, and Bhutanese officials have stuck to this statement throughout the entire episode. It is not yet clear whether Bhutan actually wanted India to intervene, but the lack of support for India’s action doesn’t send a good message.
Nepal has also taken a neutral stance on the issue, stating that the parties must sort out their differences through dialogue. These neutral statements are indicative of the fact that both countries are uncomfortable with the developing situation. Neither country wants to be caught in the middle of a conflict between the two Asian giants. The standoff may have actually driven home a clear message in both of these countries – it may be time to balance their relationships with India and China, or the outcomes in the long run can be consequential.
China generally follows a strategy that is sometimes referred to as ‘hardening the hard and softening the soft’. Through this strategy, China signals that standing against them can have dire consequences, but aligning with them brings many benefits. Through the Doklam standoff, this message may have been subtly conveyed to the entire neighbourhood. China has signalled that allowing India greater say in their border policies can have dire consequences, but a realignment can work well for all countries.
The fact that neither Nepal nor Bhutan have come out and directly supported India’s actions is indicative of the fact that both countries in the region have considered the consequences of putting greater emphasis on India’s interests than their own. China may have driven home the need to realign in the governments of both Nepal and Bhutan. While it is not likely that this is what China had initially intended when they set out with their road construction, it may have become apparent to them that this outcome works just as well as their ‘salami slicing’ tactic that they have used to gain similar results. After all, this is a strategy that has worked for them in the past. They have been able bring the Philippines closer to China, and roll back some of the influence that the United States has had there.
However, a realignment in the subcontinent can have drastic implications for India. It can affect the functioning of a number of regional forums that exist here. China has been using its immense economic clout to divide the ASEAN forum, and has prevented it from forming a united camp against China. A similar model may be attempted with SAARC or BIMSTEC. These forums were initially intended to facilitate economic cooperation and investments between the member countries. But, of late, Chinese state owned enterprises have also been looking for major investment opportunities in foreign countries.
With realignment in the subcontinent, initiatives under SAARC and BIMSTEC may be stalled, out of consideration for Chinese interests, and a growing willingness to engage with China. This could create the time and space for Chinese state-owned enterprises to come in and invest. With time and growing investments, China can gain more traction in the domestic affairs and politics of countries in the South Asian region, which can translate to security implications for India. We have already seen a manifestation of this in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Hambantota port project in Sri Lanka.
This is where the follow-up strategy for India in the aftermath of the Doklam standoff becomes absolutely crucial. It is imperative that India communicate effectively to all neighbours that, while India is out to protect the interests of itself and the region as a whole, its primary means of resolving conflicts will be through dialogue. India should look to allay fears that its tiny neighbours may get caught in a military conflict between the two Asian giants. More importantly, India must build a relationship that is based on trust with all its regional partners.
Today, many in the region suspect that India tends to micro-manage its neighbours when it comes to relations with China. This is true in the cases of former Prime Minister of Nepal KP Oli and former Prime Minister of Bhutan Jigme Yozer Thinley, both of whom were forced from office after making overtures toward China. Whether or not India actually coerced these Governments out of power is up for debate, but such perceptions can be detrimental to Indian interests in the region, and undermine Indian influence. Given their scale, it is hard for countries to decline the investments China is offering. However, there must be a clear communication between India and its neighbours on sensitive issues that threaten the core security interests of India. Moving forward, India must rely on communication and dialogue to build effective partnerships in the region. In the case of the Doklam standoff, this communication seemed lacking when the crisis first broke, and hence also created a perception that India acted unilaterally without taking Bhutan’s concerns into account.
When most countries boycotted the SAARC summit in Pakistan due to the Uri terror strike, the media boasted of how SAARC was united behind India. However, the real cracks in India’s ‘backyard’ may become apparent in the aftermath of the Doklam standoff. The real litmus test will likely come in the Bhutan parliamentary elections next year. Hence, it is imperative for India to handle the aftermath of this crises with extreme care — or the long-term implications could be dire.