India must avoid triumphalism post Doka La; China is a tricky adversary and Xi Jinping is under pressure

The pragmatism and prudence that marked the behaviour of India’s political establishment during the Doka La standoff is fast fading away in favour of a premature triumphalism. This could be a costly error. Though India managed to pull off a diplomatic resolution to the second-most serious crisis in its relationship with China, the stability of the resolution cannot be taken for granted.

It’s not about geopolitics alone. It will also be a grave mistake to underestimate the weight of domestic pressures on Xi Jinping. The  19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) starts on 18 October and Xi, who eyes an unprecedented third term, is desperate to hold on to the levers of power.

A key part of Xi’s strategy towards further consolidation of power has been the restructuring of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to ensure a bigger percentage of Xi loyalists among its top leadership. Xi’s changes have involved a greater stress on maritime and cyber warfare capabilities away from a platoon-heavy conventional structure, and a streamlining of resources from seven military regions into an integrated five joint theatre commands.

File image of Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi. PTI

File image of Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi. PTI

As Dennis J Blasko, a retired lieutenant colonel of US Army who specialises in China, writes in War on the Rocks, “many more personnel and force structure cuts are necessary in 2017 in order to finish the 300,000-man reduction announced by Xi in 2015. Several group armies, divisions, and brigades likely are targets for elimination or transformation into smaller or different types of units".

Xi’s push for a Western-style command for a more nimble PLA that can transform from peacetime to military operations on a war footing and is more compatible with modern warfare has involved cutting of deadwood on top.

Cheng Li, director and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution tells us how “young guards” are being promoted to top positions.

"The new top military leadership will most likely consist of Xi's long-time friends General Zhang Youxia, General Li Zuocheng, and Admiral Miao Hua, along with the newly promoted commanders of the PLA army, navy, air force, and strategic support force.... The degree of military reshuffling also offers a clue to broader leadership changes, particularly the likelihood of Xi further consolidating power", Cheng writes in BBC.

It is flattering to think that these changes are being made keeping India in mind, but it is undeniable that strengthening and modernisation of the PLA will further skew the balance of power between the two Asian rivals. And for Xi, a low-cost way of creating an aura of aggression ahead of the 19th National Congress, and keep the hawks in Chinese military-industrial complex happy, would be to continue with the policy of border adventurism.

Therefore, there is no reason to think — even though China has not done anything to violate the 28 August status quo ante at the Doka La face-off site yet — that it won’t test India’s red lines further. If not at the tri-junction, it could be somewhere else along the 3,488-km Line of Actual Control (LAC). It has already been noted that China is maintaining a heavy troop presence just off the face-off site on Chumbi Valley — a fact noted by Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa in a recent news conference — and it is possible that Beijing wants to create a “new normal” in terms of forward deployment of troops.

Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman would have been briefed by the Gangtok-based 17 Mountain Division during her aerial survey of Doka La-Nathu La stretch how Beijing is “carrying out the overlay of a road leading towards the Doka La area, but within their territory” in the presence of PLA troops, as The Hindu points out in a report.

Along with these developments on the ground, China has resumed its rhetorical warfare against India after a brief BRICS lull. Its foreign ministry told India Today that “there is no dispute that Doka La (in China, it's known as Donglang) has always been a part of China's territory, and always under China's effective and valid administration."

It reacted to Sitharaman’s Sunday survey by saying that India should honour and abide by the 1890 China-Britain Treaty to “maintain peace and tranquillity in border regions”, giving the 2012 agreement with India and 1988 and 1998 agreements with Bhutan a quiet burial.

Global Times, the fiery publication run the by CPC, complemented the foreign office statement by reminding India that China will continue to construct roads on Doka La plateau and India should stop being so “paranoid, sensitive and arrogant”.

All of this makes Union home minister Rajnath Singh’s recent boast about ‘Doka La resolution being forced by India’s increasing global power’, sound rather hollow. Addressing an event in Bengaluru on Sunday, Singh said: “Had India remained weak, the Doka La standoff would not have been resolved till now. It was possible only because India has become a world power."

One hopes that the minister was being facetious because to assume that “global power” India “forced China to abide by its terms” is a study in self-deception. It might be tempting to think that a resurgent India is forcing the world to take notice and bending the global order according to its will, but such a presumption is delusional. Leave alone China, even Pakistan has a better game when it comes to diplomatic outreach, writes Syed Ata Hasnain, lieutenant general (retired) of Indian Army, in The Indian Express.

Loose statements such as these undermine the diplomatic effort that has gone behind the resolution and triggers the irritants in bilateral ties. India handled the Doka La crisis with pragmatism and maturity, and it would be a shame now to spend that geopolitical capital in silly triumphalism.

Updated Date: Oct 09, 2017 20:15 PM

Also See