Spearhead Analysis – 22.08.2017
By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
The Diplomat counted a total of 140 articles in the Chinese press– all warning India of “unavoidable consequences” if it continues its role as an ‘aggressor’ in the Doklam dispute. Tensions amid the fractious standoff at the Bhutan-China-India triboundary point are escalating. The Chinese media has gone as far as predicting an impending war. But New Delhi is unruffled. Despite Chinese insistence, the Indian forces have refused to unilaterally withdraw from the disputed territory and have instead reinstated that India will be sticking to its ‘rightful position’ in the conflict. With worsening bilateral relations and talk of war, the state of affairs with respect to Doklam is troubling to say the least.
India has no right over the disputed territory. The clash started off as a conflict between China and Bhutan. India only intervened because it has a friendship treaty with Bhutan, which India claims makes it responsible for the protection of Bhutan’s sovereignty.
Moreover, China building roads on the Doklam plateau provides it easy access to India’s northeast regions through the Siliguri corridor. India has voiced several security concerns and has also offered to withdraw its troops provided China agrees to follow suit. A solution, New Delhi believes, can be found between China and Bhutan if stability is maintained in the region. Japan has also joined in, backing India and supporting the view that no unilateral step should be taken in the disputed region.
But China has refused to comply.
In lieu of agreeing to push back troops by 250 meters along with India, China is determined that India should unilaterally withdraw troops from the Doklam plateau. Added to that, it has refused diplomatic overtures from the Indian side and any attempts made to try and resolve the ongoing issue.
The dispute is at an impasse. If the Chinese media is right and war is within the list of possibilities, it is important to consider where India and China each stand militarily.
On 21 July the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) issued a report in the Indian parliament, based on several concerns regarding the condition of India’s military preparedness. The report notes: out of the 80 missile systems that the state-run Bharat Electronics Limited provided 30% of the Akash missile systems failed the basic test. Missiles were unable to reach target, had below satisfactory velocity, and there was malfunctioning in critical units. By international standards, the failure rate of these missiles is significantly high. Out of the missiles tested two failed to take off due to booster nozzle failure. When confronted by CAG audit, the Indian Air Force claimed to have already undertaken the steps necessary for the replacement of the failed missiles.
Just last year, the Indian government announced that it would deploy Akash missiles at six sites near the Indo-China border. But till date, none of the missile systems procured have been installed.
According to data released in February, India’s fleet of old military planes has suffered an alarming total of 39 crashes in just the last four years. Since February the rate of accidents has increased; two MiG-21 jets crashed in September adding to the statistics.
China, on the other hand, surpasses India in terms of its defense capabilities; China’s defense budget is at $152 billion compared to India’s $51 billion. It has nearly one million more troops than India, three times more nuclear warheads, five times as many submarine and tanks, more than twice as many military aircrafts and about twice as many warships.
Even though Beijing is well-aware of the advantage it has over India militarily, it may still be reluctant to go to war.
War between India and China could be disastrous for the overall stability of the region. India, knowing China’s superior military standing, will likely be more inclined to join the US-Japan axis and officially get the two countries on board, so that it can have a stronger footing in case of war. Japan has already thrown its weight behind India in Doklam. The US may also be convinced. With a big power to back it, India can also send its naval frigate to the South China Sea.
Because of its regional credibility and expansionist policies China has considerable stakes in multibillion dollar projects, like the ambitious OBOR initiative. A war with India could upset China’s influence in the region, and set all progress China has so far made in counterbalancing the US influence and power back by decades.
The Indian PM Narendra Modi has increased investment in building up the Indian Army, Air Force and Navy. The Indian government recently allocated $416 billion over a five-year period to improving and remodeling its forces so that it is more prepared in case of war with any of its neighbors, China or Pakistan specifically.
Presently, in terms of military preparedness war is not a possibility for India.
At best, the Doklam dispute can be resolved through dialogue. Observing the standoff as the expression of suppressed frustrations in the bilateral relationship, makes understanding why India and China are unable to kick-start dialogue and end the deadlock easier.
In case of India, memories of defeat at the hands of the PLA in 1962 are still fresh, which may explain why India seems to be growing more stubborn in not altering its position in the dispute. For China the standoff is an added opportunity to put a steadily expanding and assertive India back in its place—as “Asia’s permanent second-class great power”. India has paid no heed to China’s ultimatum or warnings in the Chinese media. None of the two powers are backing down. Leaders of both countries must demonstrate sagacity and foresight. Working towards the continuation of dialogue is the only way to resolve the dispute, otherwise regional stability and security will continue to be in danger.