Four Indian Interpretations of the Doklam Stand-Off

The Doklam stand-off ended almost as quickly and as mysteriously as it began. Analysts and commentators are still scratching their heads over the episode. This short essay looks at the various Indian narratives on Doklam and in particular the kind of motives ascribed to China in those narratives.

Broadly, four Indian narratives are discernible. Let’s call these the “fit of absentmindedness” story, the “pressure India on the border” story, the “punish India” story, and the “drive a wedge between Indian and Bhutan” story.

All four are circulating, and as with the India-China confrontations in 2013 and 2014, it remains unclear which Indian narrative is dominant in the sanctums of New Delhi’s decision-making structures – the Ministry of External Affairs, the National Security Council, and the Prime Minister’s Office.

Except for the wedge story, the other stories with variation were present in the Depsang and Chumar confrontations as well. The one Indian story that has been more or less laid to rest is the “Chinese rogue elements in the PLA” story which blames local or more distant PLA leaders for the incidents.

The fit of absent-mindedness narrative

One view is that the Chinese decision to extend the road from the turning point at Doklam towards the Jampheri ridge was part of extension work that has been in progress for several years. Indian commentators and official statements have noted that the Chinese have been road building and probing in this region for several years going back at least to the early 2000s.

The June action therefore was a case of absentmindedness, with no great thought given to Indian or Bhutanese reactions. Chinese engineers proceeded to extend the road because it was in the original planning for the road and because they have the apparatus, funding, and mandate to do so. With the winter coming on in a few months, this was the time to do it. The extension should therefore be seen as the last mile in the massive Tibet infrastructure plans going back to the early 1990s initiated by Jiang Zemin and then taken forward by Hu Jintao.

Those who are sceptical of this view would say that Chinese military units do not do things absentmindedly and routinely in such sensitive areas and that this was deliberately planned, as are most strategic moves. The Tibet infrastructure plan shows that the extension is part of a larger plan for Chinese strategic dominance over India.

The pressure India narrative

A second narrative, not surprisingly, is that Beijing sought to put India under pressure along the border. Those who make this case point to the spate of border incidents over the past decade and certainly in the past 5 years. They pay attention to two episodes – the April 2013 incident when Chinese troops in Ladakh crossed the line of control just before Premier Li Keqiang came to visit Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi; and the September 2014 incident, again in Ladakh, that began days before the arrival of President Xi Jinping on his first summit with Narendra Modi.

Doklam, in this view, is part of a growing pattern of needling, well-timed, and obstinate intrusions into the Indian side of the line of control. China’s motive is to bring pressures to bear to remind the Indian leadership and public that Beijing can make life uncomfortable. The intrusions are a reminder that China will not accept the status quo, that the “package deal” of 1960 and 1980, which signified an acceptance of the territorial status quo, is now dead. India did not accept those offers and should not expect them to be revived. The intermittent intrusions are part of a larger plan to remind India of its vulnerability and to shake it out of any complacency it might have developed about the viability of the present boundaries. The intrusions are also a signal to New Delhi and other capitals around the world that China is the dominant power in Asia and neither India nor anyone else on the continent should have any illusions about Beijing’s ability to crack the whip.

Skeptics would ask why Beijing would use the occasion of high-level official visits in 2013 and 2014 to carry out the intrusions. Surely the military intrusions would spoil the atmosphere and prove embarrassing to China’s visiting leaders. In the case of the Doklam road extension, this was an intrusion into territory claimed by Bhutan and not India. In any case, there was no high-level visit by a Chinese leader in and around June 2017. Skeptics would conclude that Doklam does not therefore fit the 2013 and 2014 pattern. Proponents of the pressure story would reply that China has simply changed its tactics somewhat. Beijing is reminding India that even the so-called middle sector of the border, which is often thought to be the easiest to delineate with China, will not be an easy one to deal with in a final settlement and that India’s Siliguri Corridor (or Chicken’s Neck) is easy military prey for China if it gets control of the heights in this sector.

The punish Indian story

A third story going around is that Doklam is about punishing a rising India for its temerity. This story depends on the view that contrary to what Beijing says in public, it is deeply resentful or fearful of New Delhi’s growing importance in world counsels and India’s strutting desire to equate itself with China. Doklam is therefore a reminder to India and the world that India is much “smaller” than China and that it cannot compete.

The punish story includes the view that recent Indian foreign policy, under Modi, has rubbed China the wrong way. The Indian prime minister’s trips abroad and his attempt to be a world statesman have not gone down well in Beijing which is determined to present Xi as a world statesman. More specifically, though, Modi’s attempts to lead India into a quasi-alliance with the US to build Indian power and contain China and his construction of a coalition of medium-sized military powers in the Asia-Pacific – Japan, Vietnam, and Australia – have seriously irked Beijing. Doklam is a message to Modi that China can cause serious trouble and that no one in the coalition is likely to speak up for India.

The punish India story also draws on India’s attempts over the past 2 years to publicly shame China over (i) its opposition to Indian membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and (ii) Beijing’s veto over UN action against Masood Azhar, the Islamic extremist leader residing in Pakistan who New Delhi says organized the Mumbai attack of November 2008. In this story, Doklam is part of an attempt to punish Modi for his activism in the past 2 years in trying to get Xi to change his mind on the NSG and on Azhar.

Another part of the punish India story is China’s objections to Indian attempts to improve its infrastructure along the border areas and to increase its mountain forces and air power in the region. Since 2010, India has reversed course on its decades-long decision not to build mountain infrastructure. It has also raised a mountain strike force for offensive operations in Tibet, something it had never done before, and it has boosted land and air power. Doklam was a message, in this view, to warn India not to go too far.

Those who are sceptical of this view of Chinese motives in extending the road in Doklam would argue that a road extension in an obscure part of the border is not much of a riposte to Modi’s public diplomacy over the NSG and UN action on Azhar: China’s repeated refusal to go along with Modi’s requests on both issues are enough of a snub to India.

The wedge story

Finally, there is the view that the Doklam road building was a clearsighted attempt to drive a wedge between Bhutan and India. In this view, Chinese political and military planners were confident that India would respond aggressively, perhaps even cross into Bhutan and the contested area, to confront Chinese troops and that this would cause trouble between Thimphu and New Delhi.

Thimphu would find itself caught between China and India and would be uncomfortable in the conflict between the two giants. India’s intransigence and forcing of the issue would give Bhutanese who are resentful of Indian dominance or interference in their country’s politics a reason to raise their voices against New Delhi. A key part of this story is the idea that there are constituencies in Bhutan who want to settle the Bhutan-China border and who blame India for Thimphu’s unwillingness to go for the deal that China has offered.

Skeptics of this story point to the fact that it was the Bhutanese who first tried to check the road extension by Chinese troops. They also point to the fact that Bhutan publicly objected to the road and has stood by India, if rather quietly, during the confrontation. Skeptics of the wedge story also wonder if China was so prescient as to predict Indian military moves as well as Bhutan’s reactions.

So, what was Doklam all about for China?

Not easy to say.

India will, as in 2013 and 2014, think hard about Chinese motives. The most likely explanation for Beijing’s actions is that the Chinese see the Doklam road extension as being part of a bigger plan for Tibet and were determined to complete it. The trijunction area is one part of the border where India has the heights and superior troop concentrations. Extending the road to the Jampheri Ridge makes perfect sense for China as a way of countering Indian advantages. A second likely motive was to put Bhutan under pressure on a border settlement and to drive a wedge between Thimphu and New Delhi that can be exploited in the future. What is certain is that the withdrawal by both sides from Doklam is not the end of the story. Beijing is not likely to forgive or forget for too long.

This episode as well as the 2013 and 2014 episodes make clear that the border problem is a live one and that it could flare up despite all the confidence building measures signed by New Delhi and Beijing. The two countries need to think about whether it is in their larger interest to squabble over the border forever. This is true even for China which is more powerful. Progress towards a border settlement is not impossible, particularly with two strong leaders in Modi and Xi. So far, unfortunately, neither has displayed great vision in dealing with India-China differences.