The current impasse has put India in a veritable hornets' nest, because New Delhi can neither forsake defending the territorial claims Bhutan has over the Doklam, nor can India ignore Chinese moves to shrink its operational-military space.
The ongoing crisis over the Doklam plateau provides important confirmation that confrontation with the PRC and potential for force remains a possibility in Sino-Indian relations. Much has been written about why and how this crisis emerged in the Bhutan-India-China tri-junction without probing the larger implications it portends for conflict and cooperation between the two states. What remains unaddressed is why and how their protracted boundary dispute renders Sino-Indian relations fragile, despite a burgeoning trade relationship. The current impasse invites two very relevant conceptual issues connected to relative and absolute gains on the one hand, and on the other, how reputational factors will determine the outcome of current crisis.
There is a veritable division between two schools of thought. The first is the pacifying role economic interdependence plays in reducing conflict between India and China, and the second contends that as long as the potential for force exists, their capacity to maximise cooperation will remain stunted. The divide is between liberals and realists. The current standoff in Doklam only indicates that regardless of the argument advanced by liberal institutionalists, the prospects of absolute gains from open trade and greater economic intercourse overriding the possibility of conflict and generating cooperation is limited. If anything, the current Sino-Indian standoff gives empirical support to realist claims that relative gains are more important than absolute gains in international politics. As long as the potential for force exists between India and China, realist claims about relative gains will remain the most consequential in the Sino-Indian conflict dyad. Indian liberal institutionalists who express optimism about 'win-win' economic cooperation between the two Asian giants through the China led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) should be sobered by current tensions. Notwithstanding the fact that some suggest that India stands to lose little in military terms if China controls the Doklam plateau, the relative gains argument is apt in this case. India sees China's control of the Doklam plains as disadvantaging it as it reduces the distance between the plateau and the Siliguri corridor. Critically China's effort to alter the status quo in Doklam enervates the Indian army's capacity to concentrate strength. In any case, China and India agreed that any territory under dispute at tri-junctions as is the case with Bhutan and Myanmar would be resolved following confabulation with Thimpu and Naypyidaw. Therefore, regardless of the merits of those argue there are no intrinsic Indian interests at stake, the perception of the other side gaining an advantage also matters in highlighting the significance of relative gains. This has important implications because relative gains over their disputatious boundary are likely to override aggregate or absolute gains they make through trade and economic intercourse. Yet another pertinent issue is one of reputational costs.
Some in India have suggested that China's current strength actually gives it reason not to escalate the Doklam crisis. If that is the case, why did Beijing precipitate the crisis in the first place? Was it triggered to test India's resolve and the extent of its support for Thimpu? For China, sovereignty claims evoke a visceral nationalist yawp. India, for its part, sees its security jeopardised by China's road construction on the Doklam plains. Sovereignty and security are difficult cases in international politics, because they denude opportunities for cooperation, but equally constrain Beijing and New Delhi to defuse tensions. More importantly, while analysts recognised that Beijing's aim is to 'drive a wedge' between India and Bhutan, few have considered how reputational factors influence the persistence of the crisis. Reputation in international politics works through two mechanisms: the first is dispositional and the second situational. Dispositional factors relate to an actor's behavioural characteristics such as intentions, and motivations. Situational factors are context specific to the extent an actor's conduct is driven by the constraints and opportunities inherent in the situation. In some cases both dispositional and situational attributes may be evident as is in the Doklam impasse. Chinese motives have drawn a response, because India holds some military advantage in the area, which Beijing wants to limit and situational factors have also played a role in New Delhi's response arising from competing territorial claims between China and Bhutan and not between India and China. By precipitating the crisis in Doklam, Beijing is only testing how credible India's support is for Bhutan even if it has no direct territorial claims over Doklam.
This situation should be familiar to many, particularly Westerners in that it highlights the extent to which a strategic patron can come to the defence its ally when the latter is threatened. What exertions will the patron endure on behalf of its ally as the case between the US and its allies? Indeed, the current impasse has put India in a veritable hornets' nest, because New Delhi can neither forsake defending the territorial claims Bhutan has over the Doklam, nor can India ignore Chinese moves to shrink its operational-military space. Beijing, for its part, is attempting to kill two birds with one stone since India is not an actual or legitimate claimant to territory in dispute it can assert internationally and through shrill rhetoric that New Delhi to back off. Second, it exerts pressures on India from a military standpoint both to come to the defence of its ally as well restricts India's options in defending the Siliguri corridor. Consequently, given how symmetrical the interests are at stake for both parties in the present dispute, the prospects for defusing the crisis are not in the offing. Nevertheless, if India backs down in the face Chinese duress, it will be potentially setting itself up for further Chinese tests of Indian resolve along the rest of Line of Actual Control (LAC).
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Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...Read More +