China’s long game did not end at Doklam
August 28 marked one year since the end of the Doklam standoff between the Chinese and Indian armies, after the former had begun construction of a road near territory disputed between China and Bhutan.
Doklam, which is called Donglong (“Pastureland”) in local Chinese language, is in the vicinity of the tri-junction among Bhutan, China and India. The Chinese military had constructed several military posts, a few helipads, and some trenches near where the two armies faced off. The standoff spanned 72 days from June 16 to August 28, 2017, ending after China and India agreed to maintain peace and tranquility in the area. The statements of the two countries’ foreign ministries differed in narration but did not contradict each other.
Rahul Gandhi, chairman of the Indian National Congress and a member of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, has asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeatedly to explain to the nation and the Indian people what underpinned the Doklam standoff. During a debate on July 20 this year on a non-confidence motion against Modi’s government, Gandhi subtly hinted at the primary cause behind the standoff. Modi also mentioned the Doklam standoff marginally in his rejoinder to Gandhi, but he did not disclose the details of the episode.
It is reasonable to ask why, despite a strengthening relationship with India in the areas of trade, commerce and economic cooperation and partnership in the BRICS forum, New Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China decided to face off against the Indian military on the Doklam Plateau. Was the standoff merely a border dispute between Bhutan and China which India entered on behalf of Bhutan?
Some Indian analysts emphasize that the Doklam episode was a mere territorial dispute as per the treaty between Bhutan and India. However, such analysis is entirely misleading, because the Doklam standoff was far more than that. It should be seen as part of the panorama of China’s and India’s strategic game on the military and media fronts in the Himalayan region generally, and Chinese attempt to roll back America’s and India’s influence and presence in the Himalayan region particularly.
US grand strategies
To see the big picture of the crux of the Doklam standoff, one needs to go back to look at two US grand strategies, the first being Barack Obama’s “Asia pivot” strategy. At the beginning of his second term as US president, Obama introduced this strategy to contain China, in the water from the South China Sea, the South Pacific, and the East China Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Yellow Sea, and from land in the Himalayan region, thus limiting China’s challenge to the prominence of the US and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region.
The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Agency (NSA), India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and Israeli intelligence agency Mossad cooperated in early 2013 to prevent pro-Chinese prime minister Jigme Thinley from retaining power in Bhutan. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in the Sydney Morning Herald in July 2013 the software system codenamed XKEYSCORE that operated from the US Embassy in New Delhi, which had a role in this intrigue.
Later on, a joint operation was carried out to prevent Nepal’s Maoists from coming to power in Constituent Assembly elections in November that same year.
Ever since, China has been increasing its influence in Bhutan and Nepal more audibly to counter the Asia Pivot strategy.
Second, after Modi came into power in India in May 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Modi’s home state of Gujarat and New Delhi to enhance bilateral ties and partnership in the region. However, Modi was in a tumultuous time at the beginning of his prime ministership due to lack of experience in handling diplomacy and foreign relations.
Pro-US foreign secretary appointed
Nearly half a year later, Modi appointed Subramanya Jaishankar as India’s foreign secretary on January 29, 2015, rewarding him for managing his first US visit. Jaishankar was known to be strongly pro-American and anti-Chinese. He had written an article titled “India and USA: New direction” in the limited-circulation volume Indian Foreign Policy: Challenges and Opportunities, published by the Indian Foreign Service Institute in Delhi in 2007. In his article, he seems to be a strong advocate of a partnership between India and the US to overthrow the Communist regime and establish democracy in China.
Modi’s pick of Jaishankar as foreign secretary accelerated the partnership between the US and India. The US and India negotiated the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), and on August 29, 2016, it was signed. Under that agreement, India and the US can use each other’s military facilities, although it did not permit US military bases on Indian soil.
In 2016, Donald Trump won the US presidential race, and soon after he was inaugurated in January 2017 he began replacing the strategies and policies of the Obama administration, and the “Asia Pivot” also changed to the “Indo-Pacific Strategy.” The Indo-Pacific Strategy is all about containing China’s growing military and economic influence under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the Asia-Pacific region. Then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson termed the strategy the “planned partnership for the entire 21st century.”
China relies on the waterways of the Indian Ocean because of the crucial role it plays in smoothing and accelerating China’s trade with Europe and Africa and imports of fossil fuels from the Middle East. It is as vital to China as the Pacific Ocean. Therefore, it is natural for the US to underscore its military operations in the Indian Ocean and its contiguous Rimland to brim China.
But besides these bodies of water, Nepal and Bhutan are also integral parts of the Indo-Pacific Strategy in the Himalayan ranges to shroud China.
Therefore, China has been contriving a “counter-containment” strategy for both India and the US on all fronts – air, water, and land.
Gwadar Port and Jiwani Port in Pakistan, Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, Gadhoo Port in Maldives and, most recently, India’s Seychelles faux pas are parts of the Chinese counter-containment strategy in the Indian Ocean. China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti, and apparently, China claims it is being used for anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa.
Similarly, China has been consolidating its presence and influence in the Pacific Ocean. A New York Times report dated August 29, 2018, quotes the acknowledgment of the new commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, in written remarks submitted during his senate confirmation process in March: “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”
As part of the pushback against the US and India from the Himalayan region, China could strangle India in the “Chicken neck” of the Siliguri Corridor, which is the narrow strip of land connecting India’s eight northeastern states to the rest of the country. If there were a full-scale war between the two Asian military giants, India would face a significant threat to its vast territory.
The Wire reported on August 15 that a draft report sent to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs authenticated India’s diplomatic defeat in the Doklam crisis. The report captures three crucial aspects of the Doklam episode.
First, India itself initiated the diplomatic communication with China and “13 rounds of diplomatic discussions were held” after the Doklam standoff started, the report quotes Jaishankar as saying. Second, India abandoned its claim on the upper reaches of the Doklam Valley, as the report says “any construction in the upper reaches of the Doklam Plateau would be a matter to be dealt between Thimpu and Beijing.” Third, during the crisis, Bhutan and China unprecedentedly engaged with each other, and Bhutan will deal with China itself on the border dispute in the future.
Despite the jingoist war of words between Indian and Chinese media over the Doklam standoff during and after the crisis, who is the winner of the game will be determined by the results of the general election in Bhutan, the first round of which is to be held on September 15, and the second round on October 18. If the self-declared pro-Indian People’s Democratic Party goes down to defeat, it will be another win of China. But even victory by the ruling party will not mean India consolidates it influence in Bhutan, because the majority of young Bhutanese look more toward China.
So the Doklam standoff was China’s game-changing military attempt as part of a counter-strategic gamble against the India-US alliance in the Himalayan region. China is not only pushing back against Indian and US ambitions but has also managed to convert the majority of young Bhutanese to the anti-India side.