By Lu Yang
After two and a half months of a tense standoff between Indian and Chinese troops at Doklam area in the Sikkim sector of the India-China border, both countries finally agreed to disengage their border personnel on August 28. The play came to an end shortly before the BRICS Summit, creating a better atmosphere for all its participants.
According to Chinese sources, China’s road construction activity in Doklam is part of the Chinese Western Theater Command’s efforts to improve infrastructure in the region, and not specifically aimed at India. However, India was afraid the completion of the Chinese road would change its military advantage in the Sikkim Himalayas sector of the border, as pointed out by India’s ministry of external affaris on June 30, 2017. The MEA had said that “such construction would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India.”
For India, the whole of South Asia constitutes a strategic entity, which is India’s natural and rightful sphere of influence. Any great power presence in the region is viewed both as a threat to regional security and as a challenge to its own pre-eminent position. This frames India’s security concerns in the region. As for China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative — and its flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – it intentionally does not aim at containing India, but is rather an economic plan that is expected to benefit both China and related countries.
In China’s logic, development and security can reinforce each other, with developing bringing security. Admittedly, there has been always a gap between China’s intentions and how the intended action is perceived by other countries. Moreover, the consequences of any action is also difficult to anticipate in advance. Although China would also like India’s participation in the OBOR Initiative, the construction of CPEC has created a de facto situation in India’s eyes that its strategic advantage in South Asia is shrinking.
In the decision-making process, what leaders perceive as threatening and what the evidence of intention and military capabilities suggest is not always matched. The point here is whether the situation in the Doklam area as claimed by the Indian government is a real security threat or a perceived one?
India’s domestic economic reform is at a very critical stage. Many non-traditional security threats such as transnational terrorism, food security, water security have also been testing the Indian government’s capability. By using the Doklam crisis India successfully increased its military budget so as to be able to properly cope with a potential military conflict with China, which will consume more resources that could be used for domestic development. And, as a consequence for China, it will mobilize more military resources to its southwest, which it hasn’t paid much attention to so far as to its periphery eastwards.
Undoubtedly the Doklam stand-off reflects a deep strategic mistrust between India and China and a lack of mutual understanding. However, against this backdrop, something positive is also happening which would contribute to a better understanding of India in China.
Alongside a very strong nationalist sentiment since the middle of June, Chinese official and social media have witnessed a soar of reports on India. The content of the reports are not only about issues related to the Doklam stand-off and geopolitical discussions, but also cover a broad range of topics about India including its political parties, history, nation-building, religions, ethnic groups etc. In China, India has been very under-studied in comparison with other industrialized countries such as the US, France, or Japan. The Chinese public has usually paid more attention to the developed world and to East Asian countries in China’s periphery. The emergence of a large numbers of articles on India in such a short period has reflected Chinese efforts to understand this giant neighbor.
In other words, the enthusiasm on India created by the success of Aamir Khan’s film ‘Dangal’ in May 2017 indeed suffered a sudden blow by the stand-off at the beginning, but in the long run the desire for a deeper understanding of India has been unexpectedly boosted against the crisis.
India-China relations are multi-faceted and have many components. Strategic and geopolitical issues are only part of the relations. Exchanges in culture, education, science, and business have been proved to be effective in bringing depth and vitality to India-China ties. It would be regretful if we understand relations only through the lens of security and if the development of relations in other areas are hijacked by the border dispute.
Certainly, there are structural problems in the relationship, such as the border dispute and the Pakistan-India-China triangle, which make it difficult to circumvent. However, looking at other aspects of the bilateral relationship could, to some extent, shift the centre of gravity from security matters and bring in some new ideas to reduce mistrust. Disputes between states could be resolved if they are addressed correctly and in a pragmatic manner.
In the end, friction may also be a path leading to a better understanding of each other — a reality that India and China have no choice to escape in living together as direct neighbors.
Indian Express, September 1, 2017