Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 16, 2017
Military confrontation between India and China on Doklam is showing little sign of abating — China is not in any mood to moderate its words.
Dangerous optimism on Doklam

The military confrontation between India and China at Doklam is now in its second month. There is little indication that China is in any mood to moderate either its words or its behavior, and it continues to hurl threats at India almost daily. Just a few days back, for instance, a senior Chinese foreign ministry official suggested — to a visiting delegation of Indian journalists, no less — that China could intrude into other parts of the Sino-Indian border.

On the Indian side, both among analysts and apparently even within the government, there is a disconcerting optimism that China will not resort to force. Such optimism is unwarranted, and potentially problematic. China may not attack, but prudence dictates that India’s civilian and military leadership consider the possibility of war much more seriously than they appear to be doing at the moment.

China’s threats should be taken seriously. For sure, a part of the threatening language comes from China’s media, especially nationalistic outlets such as Global Times. There is a general perception that Global Times does not represent official opinion, though there are also some suggestions of official support for the publication. But even if Global Times can be ignored, there is little difference in the substance of the rhetoric between it and the more staid, mainstream, “official” publications such as People’s Daily. Recently, the People’s Daily editorialised that India’s thinking was “wishful” and “deluded” in expecting that China would negotiate without India withdrawing its forces first.

The editorial <People’s Daily> went on to warn that though China has been restrained so far, “restraint has limits and with every day that passes the tether shortens.”

This rhetoric is not simply the heated imagination of China’s media. They are reflecting China’s official stance, which has been unrelentingly uncompromising in its demand that there can be no negotiations unless India first pulls its troops out of Doklam. In fact, China had called for the withdrawal of Indian forces in its very first statement on the crisis and it has not budged an inch on this, as China’s 15-page statement recently reiterated. Though Chinese defence officials have refused to support claims in the Chinese media that China could begin military action against India soon, they have also claimed that Indian actions was tantamount to invasion, and that only an Indian withdrawal can prevent a confrontation. Another official was quoted as hinting at possible military action. In addition, the Chinese defence ministry spokesperson also stated last week that China’s restraint has “its bottom line”. Ignoring the more excitable sections of the China’s media is one thing; ignoring China’s officials something entirely different.

There are at least three reasons why Indian analysts are generally dismissive of the Chinese threats.

First, the Indian military is in a fairly strong position along the China border. Indeed, unidentified Indian security officials have stated this to more than one Indian journalist. One reason for this confidence is that the Indian army now has about 10 infantry divisions permanently facing China. They are backed by the Indian Air Force (IAF), which is much better placed than the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) because the latter, deployed at very high altitudes of the Tibetan plateau, would have to fly with much reduced weapons and fuel-loads. Though China still has much better infrastructure and easier time approaching the border from the Tibetan plateau, the long drawn out crisis has allowed India to move up some of its forces, thus reducing the Chinese advantage in this regard.

Second, there is an assumption that China will not act because of a number of domestic and foreign policy events coming up in the next two months. The most significant of these is probably the 19th Party Congress, which is important for President Xi in consolidating his power within the Chinese hierarchy. The assumption is that Xi would not want to risk going to war before this in case the war is less than successful for China. Another factor is the upcoming BRICS summit in September, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Ginping are expected to be on stage together to highlight BRICS solidarity, which will be a bit embarrassing if a war takes place.

Finally, there is an impression that China cannot afford to be seen as being “expansionist” which it presumably will be if it attacks a small neighbour such as Bhutan or even India. In addition to all this, other reasons are also mentioned that will constrain China from resorting to force: that India could choke China’s vital trade routes, or that Indian resistance will embolden other smaller powers with which China has disputes.

The problem is that such assessments may be a better reflection of the calculus of democratic, risk averse India than China or President Xi.

As some analysts have pointed out, instead of dangers, the Chinese leadership may see all of these as opportunities. Take the military balance on the border, for example. Though Indian forces may be fairly capable of putting up a good fight and preventing any Chinese incursion, India’s defensive orientation leaves the initiative in the hands of China, which gives China an advantage. Coupled with this is a more serious problem: the belief that China will not attack, which is likely to give China a significant potential for strategic surprise. The 1962 war provides a worrying parallel. One of the primary failures of Indian policy then was the conviction that China would not resort to war despite the fact that Indian and Chinese military forces were confronting each other. Prime Minister Nehru believed, with little logic, that any war between India and China would become a world war and that this would deter China. Though Indian forces today are far more capable and deployed forward, the assumption that war is unlikely will leave them at a disadvantage if a war does take place. Another imprudent Indian assumption is about military intelligence. Indian officials have repeatedly stated that they see little sign of China mobilising forces towards its border, but such certainty about intelligence and early warning is dangerous.

Similarly, assumptions that China will not undertake risky endeavours prior to important national and international events, as well as the belief that China cannot afford to be seen as expansionist may not reflect Chinese thinking, and does not appear to reflect past Chinese behaviour.

For example, as Indian analysts and security managers should remember, China launched its explicitly punitive war against Vietnam while Indian Foreign Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was on an official visit to Beijing, and compared that to China’s ‘punishment’ of India in 1962. And despite its ‘peaceful rise’ rhetoric, it has used military force to seize the South China Sea with little regard to whether it would be perceived as being aggressive or expansionist. The Chinese leadership seems to think that its great power differential with its neighbours gives it a large margin for error, and that its neighbours have little choice but to eventually acquiesce. This is probably foolish and may eventually cost China, but what is necessary to recognise is that it leads to a different strategic assessment from that of risk-averse New Delhi.

The Chinese leadership seems to think that its great power differential with its neighbours gives it a large margin for error, and that its neighbours have little choice but to eventually acquiesce.

None of this is to suggest that a Chinese attack is inevitable. But prudence dictates that Indian security managers must assume it is instead of comforting themselves with various reasons why it might not be. In addition, it must be assumed that this will be a full-scale conventional assault, rather than confined to one sector or the other, or that it might be minor skirmishes. India can hope that diplomacy and deterrence can together hold China, but also recognise that this is far from certain. India cannot afford magical thinking when it comes to a confrontation with China.

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Rajesh Rajagopalan

Rajesh Rajagopalan

Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan is Professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi. His publications include three books: Nuclear South Asia: Keywords and Concepts ...

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