New Delhi and Beijing have recently undertaken efforts to reset their relationship, following the high tensions of the summer 2017 Doklam incident. However, these initiatives are only surface gestures, and will not prevent another border crisis and its associated risks of military conflict.
The 21st round of boundary negotiations between India and China on 24 November, led by Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, was a milestone simply in its occurrence. Indeed, it forms the capstone of a long and careful process undertaken by New Delhi and Beijing to resume the elements of their normal relationship prior to the Doklam incident of summer 2017. However, despite the seeming success of both capitals in strengthening their relationship, there are few, if any, deeper shifts in their perceptions and postures to indicate that their long-term dark assessments of military instability have truly changed.
The 73-day Doklam crisis was triggered by Indian forces entering Chinese-claimed territory in Bhutan, in order to block Chinese efforts to extend a military road southward. Chinese success in this initiative would have permitted its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) an advantageous strategic position over the narrow Siliguri Corridor connecting India’s Northeast with the rest of its mainland territory. This outcome would improve China’s ability to potentially sever that artery through local bombardment or movement of forces.
During this crisis, while no shots were fired, the tone from both capitals was distinctly more aggressive than in previous border-related standoffs. Rather than the affirmations of containing the border incident and insulating it from affecting their broader political and economic partnership that have characterised border episodes in the past, Beijing and New Delhi both instead turned to publicly invoking the 1962 India-China war. A PLA spokesman, Wu Qian, alluded to the war to warn that India should stand down its forces or suffer a similar defeat. Arun Jaitley, India’s then Defence Minister, responded that the “India of 2017 is different from India of 1962,” indicating a far greater level of Indian defence preparedness to resist and counter any Chinese attack.
While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of the G20 Hamburg summit in July 2017, the crisis would not end until late August, with a mutual drawback of forces from the Doklam area on 28 August. While the immediate threat of crisis escalation was thus averted in the near term, the underlying mutual perceptions of a rival that is now prioritising military advantage over economic and political cooperation remained. A bilateral Track 1.5 dialogue in Chengdu was organised by Beijing in November 2018, ostensibly toward the aim of attaining a better understanding of the Indian perceptions that had propelled its forces toward Doklam, so Beijing would not be surprised again in a similar scenario. However, a source close to the dialogue indicated that the Chinese participants were uninterested in listening to the Indian perspectives, and instead repeatedly lectured their Indian counterparts on their grave violation of Chinese sovereignty during the crisis. The Indian Army announced plans to fortify its presence along all Chinese border areas, and harsh rhetoric on Indian military weakness continued to emanate from Chinese state media.
However, this phase appears to have ended with the Wuhan summit of April 2018, a two-day series of meetings between Modi and Xi Jinping. During this summit, both leaders essentially agreed to reset their relationship to the previous emphasis on agreeing to disagree on the border and continuing diplomatic border talks, but not allowing this dispute to derail larger efforts to seek alignment on international political issues where their interests converged, and to boost economic ties.
Since then, their bilateral relationship appears to have reached new heights. Particular highlights include agreements to jointly train Afghan diplomats and improve internal security cooperation. Most remarkable is the joint counterterrorism and counterinsurgency military exercise conducted in Chengdu in December 2018, an event unthinkable in the midst of the Doklam standoff.
As well as the overarching imperative for India and China to avert a border conflict—that neither states, with their pressing demographic, economic development, and job creation needs, can afford the economic instability that would arise from such a war—there are additional near-term reasons for both leaders to seek more harmonious relations. Xi Jinping is still encountering internal dissent regarding his recent tenure extension decision and the ultimate wisdom of the One Belt One Road project, and is indeed still in the process of consolidating his rule in Beijing. The Chinese military reorganisation into five theatre commands is still ongoing, and Xi must also confront a US administration that is both more aggressive and more unpredictable than those in the past.
Like Xi, Modi has similarly styled himself as a tough nationalist leader, and can ill afford the exposure of Indian ammunition shortfalls that could result from a China conflict. Modi also faces rising domestic discontent regarding economic stagnation that coincide with national elections in 2019, and will prefer to remain focused on addressing these internal challenges at least until then.
Is there a return to stability, then, and can Doklam be seen as an isolated episode that both capitals have firmly agreed to relegate to the past? Despite the appearance of warmer bilateral relations, the evidence beneath the surface suggests otherwise. Beijing is gradually building its localised military presence to be able to respond more rapidly to another similar Indian contingency. The Indian Army is similarly continuing with its projects of deploying new Brahmos supersonic cruise-missile regiments postured against China, and raising new forces to prevent China attaining local military advantage.
In this context of heightened suspicion and arms buildups, a misperception by either state of rival military movements or other actions can rapidly and unpredictably escalate, just as occurred with Doklam. In the event of another crisis, Modi and Xi both have even less political room to be seen to be backing down than they had during the Doklam period. Despite appearances that suggest otherwise, the India-China border will remain as much of a potential danger for regional and global security as it has been since the initiation of the Doklam crisis.
Frank O’Donnell is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the National Security Affairs Department at the US Naval War College, a Consultant and Nonresident Fellow in the Stimson Center South Asia Program, and an Associate in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. His opinions as expressed in this article are solely his own. You can follow him on Twitter at @frank11285.