Recent events on the Doklam plateau near the tri-junction of India, Bhutan, and China have resulted in plenty of discussion among Indian analysts. The better among these have pointed out Doklam’s limited tactical value to China and the latter’s clear contravention of prior agreements to preserve the territorial status quo with Bhutan. Why then have PLA troops and their political masters risked a potential conflict on such weak grounds? As Ajai Shukla notes, “Beijing’s wish to extend the Chumbi Valley southwards is incomprehensible.” Understanding how this episode fits with China’s rise and broader strategy in Asia can shed light on this question, as well as on the most effective Indian response.
Limited data in the public domain show that the number of Chinese troop incursions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India has been increasing, from 228 in 2010 to 411 in 2013 (and 334 by August 2014). Major episodes in the last four years include incursions in Ladakh at Depsang, Burtse, Chumar, and Pangong Lake. This pattern fits with China’s increased assertiveness in Asia since the late 2000s. The Doklam puzzle is tied to the larger question of why Beijing has abandoned its “peaceful rise” approach and adopted a strategy that is likely to alienate neighbors and invite balancing coalitions such as the growing India-Japan partnership.
It is tempting to attribute Chinese assertiveness to non-intentional factors such as rising nationalism, the ruling party’s internal politics, or rogue elements in the military. A more accurate explanation, however, lies in Beijing’s considered response to an altered external environment. In the late 2000s, with the US economy in crisis, Washington’s emerging pivot to Asia, and maritime disputes surfacing with Vietnam and the Philippines, Chinese elites began to question the continued wisdom of Deng Xiaoping’s injunction of hiding capacities and biding time. The ensuing debate, according to Chinese public intellectual Yan Xuetong, led to a shift in China’s strategy from “keeping a low profile” to “striving for achievement,” famously outlined in a speech by Xi Jinping in October 2013.
Whereas keeping a low profile was focused on hunkering down for the sake of economic development, striving for achievement is designed to actively shape China’s external security environment. It is in line with China’s rapidly growing capabilities, and is the political concomitant of Beijing’s post-Cold War military strategy—termed “active defense” by Beijing and “anti-access/area denial” by Washington—of making it unacceptably costly for the US to militarily intervene against Chinese interests in Asia. As noted by American scholar Oriana Mastro, China’s assertiveness (striving for achievement) serves its active defence strategy by weakening the political bonds between the US and Asian countries and by raising the perceived cost of US intervention in a regional crisis. The same applies to China’s relationship with South Asian countries vis-à-vis India; hence the potentially escalatory tactics for little gain in Doklam and the strident war-talk emanating from Chinese officials, state media, and experts.
This tactic should be familiar to students of international conflict. Thomas Schelling, a leading American theorist of conflict during the Cold War, called it brinkmanship, or “the threat that leaves something to chance.” Chinese assertiveness is a form of coercive diplomacy based on the power to credibly hurt the other party. Leaving something to chance makes Chinese threats credible, for if everything were under China’s control then the ball would be in China’s court, so to speak, to end the conflict. Instead, in the Doklam case China has acted in a way that hands the initiative to Delhi—the Chinese ambassador literally claimed that the ball is in India’s court—betting that the latter would choose capitulation over a potentially escalatory response.
By deliberately introducing the risk of military conflict into its relations with Asian countries, China is able to achieve three inter-related goals. The first is actual territorial or strategic concessions, as was evident in the demand in 2013—highlighted by Srinath Raghavan—that India dismantle its bunkers in Chumar in exchange for China withdrawing its troops following an incursion in Depsang. The second is to make any Asian country think twice about involving the US in a crisis with China, for fear of military escalation. The third is to systematically undermine the credibility of any potential challengers. Brinkmanship is a game of chicken, and the player that capitulates first begins to earn a reputation for lacking resolve.
Seen through this lens, Chinese soldiers pitching tents on the Indian side of the LAC are not very different from Chinese frigates harassing US surveillance ships in the South China Sea or Chinese fishing trawlers ramming into Japanese coast guard vessels in the East China Sea. The Doklam crisis is an instance of Chinese brinkmanship designed to weaken the political bond between India and Bhutan, raise the cost of Delhi coming to Thimpu’s aid, and undermine India’s reputation (if any) for acting resolutely in international crises.
How best can India respond to such a contingency? Locked in this particular game of chicken, the rational choice is to stay the course. Doing nothing is not an option—as Schelling noted, “If you are publicly invited to play chicken and say you would rather not, you have just played.” The entry of Indian troops into the Doklam Plateau in a defensive posture is thus a strategically sound move. But what next? India has two options: deter further incursion by China, or compel China to restore the status quo. Deterrence will require a credible threat of punishment if China continues its road-building activities in the plateau. The local balance of capabilities favours India in this regard. Compelling China to vacate the plateau without gaining any concessions requires a tactic to which Indian strategists are perhaps not yet accustomed: brinkmanship. Competitive risk-taking with China—for example, through aggressive patrolling of the plateau—is the surest way of communicating resolve but requires Indian political leaders and military planners to be willing (within limits) to risk escalation and absorb costs in the event of a military conflict.
In the longer term, India would do well to create the necessary mechanisms of commitment to deter Chinese adventurism in the region. Upgrading the 2007 India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty to an alliance with a clear and automatic commitment to Bhutan’s defense would serve this purpose. Just as American troops in Western Europe served as a trip-wire for US commitment to the region’s defense during the Cold War, more Indian troops in Bhutan—perhaps even an airbase—would act as both commitment device and means for securing the Chumbi Valley. India’s ongoing road-building activity in northern Bhutan is similarly a step in the right direction. Finally, India needs to think more boldly about credibly deterring China by focusing on the latter’s greatest vulnerability: the sea lanes south of the Andaman Islands. Without its own strategy of active defence in the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean, Delhi will continue to lack the instruments of coercive diplomacy necessary to protect its interests in the face of a rising China.