Doklam blues, again

Doklam blues, again

M.K. Bhadrakumar,

 A fortnight ago, the government did the smart thing by distancing itself ostentatiously from the “mischievous” media reports that appeared totally out of the blue to the effect that China has beefed up its military presence on the Doklam Plateau. The reports, based on satellite imagery, estimated that the PLA deployment is “close to the face-off point” last year on the Doklam Plateau; it’s on large scale and signaled permanent deployment; and, highlighted an augmented capability to undertake future activities at short notice in the contested area in south Doklam.

The MEA clarified that “status quo at the face-off site” has not been altered by China. The intriguing part was about the expression “mischievous” to refer to the media reports. Of course, the media reports were unduly alarmist and their source remained undisclosed. How far the reports were orchestrated from behind the scenes is hard to say but India-China border tensions are mostly like smoke and mirrors and various interest groups keep generating the smoke for their own nefarious purposes.

Interestingly, once the MEA debunked the reports (which coincided with the visit of the head of the US Pacific Command Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr.), they died a sudden death. But that turns out to be a tactical retreat. On January 25, more ‘satellite imagery’ has appeared – this time around, presented by none other than Stratfor, which is commonly associated with the US security establishment.

The imagery makes out that both India and China are strengthening their forces in the border hinterland of the Doklam Plateau and are “pursuing a wide-ranging strategic build up that has only accelerated in the wake of the Aug. 27 agreement” defusing the standoff. The Stratfor analysis concludes: “Now it is only a question of time until a new flashpoint along the LAC emerges, and as the increased activity shows, both sides will have greater capabilities to bring to bear next time.”

Stratfor has a chequered history of floating exaggerated reports regarding Russia, too. Most of them fit into the category of ‘psywar’. But it is useful to read them, if only to make out the American intentions. Isn’t it common sense that upgrade of defence preparedness is what is expected of armed forces, especially along a disputed border? The deployment of the advanced aircraft in the air bases in question (on the Indian side at least) predates Doklam standoff. Yet, just look at how Stratfor links it to Doklam and proceeds to forecast a “new flashpoint”!

No doubt, this is a high stakes game. For the US, fueling tensions between India and China is a key objective of their regional strategies. So many factors come into play here – India’s reluctance to be shepherded into the ‘Quad’; arms exports to India; Afghanistan; containment strategy against China; ‘America First’ and so on.

At the slightest sign of an easing of tensions in India-China relations, the Americans will step up. They probably sense that it is necessary to do so at the present juncture when the US-Indian ties are in a state of limbo, especially with the impending change of the foreign secretary in South Block and incipient signs suggesting that there could be new thinking at the leadership level. Certainly, a robust, forward-looking, ‘bilateral’ engagement between India and ASEAN with focus on trade and investment is not what the US would like to see happening at a time when it is muddying the waters in the South China Sea.

Basically, the Americans have the upper hand in this shadow play — not only because they control the information order but also because the level of mutual understanding and trust and confidence between New Delhi and Beijing is woefully insufficient. India’s ambassador to China, Gautam Bambawale touched on these sensitive aspects of the India-China relations during an interview with the Global Times newspaper this week. Evidently, the ambassador played down the Doklam standoff and warned against “blowing it out of proportion.” Having said that, he also underscored that there are “some sensitive points” in the India-China border areas where “it is important not to change the status quo. We need to be clear about this.”

On the whole, Ambassador Bambawale exuded cautious optimism: “We need to be talking and communicating with each other much more than we are doing. Such communication should be frank, candid and open. If we are able to do so successfully, we will understand each other much better and we will build trust and confidence in each other. With enhanced trust and understanding will come a stronger partnership between India and China. I would like to say that India and China are partners in development and progress. We are not rivals.”