World is watching the Doklam stand-off

World is watching the Doklam stand-off

By CLEO PASKAL | LONDON | 13 August, 2017
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj holds bilateral meeting with Bhutan’s Foreign Minister Damcho Dorji amid the Doklam stand-off, in Kathmandu, on Thursday. IANS
Doklam has global implications. Not because China is doing anything new, but because India is.

While much of the Western media is blaring North Korea, many key commentators and analysts are closely tracking the situation in Doklam. They have realised that, embedded in the stand-off, are many of the today’s key strategic questions. 

Will China’s expansion continue unchecked? Will India become a net security provider not only for itself, but for its allies? Will China put an aggressive PLA agenda above domestic economic growth? And more. 

The answers resonate far beyond Doklam, and are being examined in capitals around the world. 

In terms of China’s expansion, Western media largely sees the Doklam road in the context of Beijing’s other status quo disturbing infrastructure projects, such as the militarising of islands and reefs in the South China Sea. CNN’s recent article on the situation highlights that China’s moves “come amid increasing Chinese military activity throughout Asia”. 

The road also casts a new light on the “benignness” of the One Belt One Road initiative. While some commentators reference China’s attempts to make historical claims in Doklam, most also imply that there is no economic or social reason for the road. It only makes sense in the context of weakening Bhutan and threatening India. 

There is a strong sense that China will just keep pushing, as it is doing in the South China Sea, East China Sea and elsewhere. In that context, there is a lot of sympathy for the Indian position, with, for example, Gordon Chang writing in Forbes: “China has made a friend an adversary and is now making that adversary an enemy.” 

There is also a very careful observation of what China will do, now that it is actually being challenged on the ground. Does it have the ability to de-escalate? If not, what does that mean for all the other expansionist flashpoints created by Beijing?

Another question being asked is, will India hold its ground? There is a contentious and important debate in many Western capitals around India’s role in global affairs. Especially since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Delhi has tried to position itself as a regional (and potentially Indo-Pacific) net security provider. Those in doubt point to, for example, the 2012 “coup” in the Maldives, during which India was notably impotent. Those backing India say that was the last administration. Things have changed. 

This is one reason why what is happening in Doklam is so important. So far, “new India” is doing what it said it would—defending an ally, and itself, against potentially destabilising expansion. Not only will Washington, London and others be watching to see if India continues to hold its ground, so will some of India’s newer allies, such as Vietnam, Japan and others.

So far, “new India” is doing what it said it would—defending an ally, and itself, against potentially destabilising expansion. Not only will Washington, London and others be watching to see if India continues to hold its ground, so will some of India’s newer allies, such as Vietnam, Japan and others.

Another key question raised by Doklam, and being increasingly discussed in the West, is what is the relationship between China and Pakistan (and/or Pakistan-based terrorist organisations)? The Daily Mail ran a feature about Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Amir Hamza releasing a video in which he says, “If India will send its army in Bhutan to counter China, then along with Pakistan, Chinese troops will enter Srinagar.” The Daily Mail noted, “This video is the first such proof of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s direct involvement in the Northeast and their strategy to work along with China.”

This combined with the widely reported quote from Long Xingchun, director of the Center for Indian Studies at China West Normal University that “under India’s logic, if the Pakistani government requests, a third country’s army can enter the area disputed by India and Pakistan, including India-controlled Kashmir”. Especially taken together, the two approaches make it clear that, at the very least, elements within Pakistan and China consider themselves aligned against India.

Given the China-Pakistan links are in large part driven by their militaries and that, in any conflict with India, China’s exports to this very large (and growing) market are sure to suffer, it begs the question will Beijing put an aggressive PLA agenda above domestic economic growth? If so, China’s much repeated line “our expansion is just about economics” doesn’t seem very convincing, necessitating a whole different set of responses. Overall, the risks to India and Bhutan of letting the Doklam road continue are clear. India decided to defend against that change in the status quo, largely garnering support, and showing that, as it stands, it may really be a net security provider. 

Meanwhile, the benefits to China of pushing on are much less clear. The road doesn’t make it more secure. On the contrary, it is making an enemy of a major trading partner, pushing it even closer towards the United States. It looks like it is trying to bully a smaller nation (Bhutan). It casts a new and disconcerting light on its flagship Belt and Road Initiative. It is potentially opening up a second front at a time when it is already having problems along its maritime periphery. It is calling attention to its alignment of interests with terrorist elements within Pakistan. 

Doklam has global implications. Not because China is doing anything new, but because India is. And in so doing, it is calling China’s bluff. The world is watching what happens next very carefully indeed.

Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian’s North America Special Correspondent.

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