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OPINION | Military and Diplomacy Should Drive Doklam Policy, Not TV TRPs

The media in India and China are only reflecting the national sentiment on the Doklam standoff. It could, however, limit policy options and force the two countries into populist but strategically poor decisions from where stepping back would invite internal wrath.

Lt Gen (Retd) DS Hooda |

Updated:July 29, 2017, 3:11 PM IST
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OPINION | Military and Diplomacy Should Drive Doklam Policy, Not TV TRPs
File photo of an Indian army officer talking to a Chinese soldier at the Nathu-la pass on the country's northeastern border with China. (Photo: Reuters)
The situation in Dokalam is not looking good. Not irreconcilable yet, but soldiers of two rising Asian powers facing off each other is not the best of scenarios. The NSA’s current visit to China is perhaps the best opportunity to defuse the problem and as I started to write this article, I switched on the television to check if there was any update on the NSA’s meetings. The headline in a major media channel was, “Doval to tame Dragon?”. This reflects the narrative in both countries which has somewhat drowned out rationality.

The media on both sides has been thumping their chests. It was China who took the lead and pulled out all stops in being rude and offensive. The Chinese media is state controlled and its statements do reflect a direct signaling by their government. Calling the Indian foreign minister a “liar” and the NSA as a “schemer” is definitely going a step too far. On the Indian side there are stories of how an India-China war would play out with attacks across the Himalayas, ending up with the Indian Army soldiers giving the PLA a bloody nose. Other countries are also roped into the conflict, one headline reads, “US won’t sit idle if India-China conflict breaks out: Experts”.

To be fair to the media of both countries, they are only reflecting the national sentiment. There is growing nationalism in both countries. This brings a sense of pride in the nation and assists the leadership in pushing difficult but necessary reforms. It is also an instrument for strengthening autocratic controls, as in China, and for garnering popular support, as in India. However, it has a downside. It could limit policy options and force the two countries into populist but strategically poor decisions from where stepping back would invite internal wrath.

An India-China face-off was only to be expected. Differences between the two countries were on the rise – NSG membership, China Pakistan Economic Corridor, the Belt and Road Initiative, ties with the U.S and Japan, and a host of other issues. India and China are inevitable competitors on the world stage. China has made inroads in South Asia to weaken Indian influence and secure energy corridors which bypass the Malacca Straits. India is seeking to make inroads into East and South East Asia, among countries who seek to hedge against an assertive China who dismisses their territorial and maritime claims. Both countries are treading on each other’s toes.

It is important for leaders to understand this competition and handle it with a sense of long term strategy. There is no great strategic advantage to China in building a dirt road, or a strategic disadvantage to India in Dokalam, which should bring the two countries to the brink of a conflict. TRPs should not influence policy and blind us to geostrategic realities. Otherwise we will rush into a situation which will leave both countries red-faced. It is time to rely on the advice of experts in handling such situations. And frankly there are only two such expert groups - military officers and the diplomats. With no malice to the others, they just do not have the experience or the historical knowledge to deal with such crises. The central skill of the officer corps is, as Harold Lasswell put it, “the management of violence.” While winning wars is the most desirable outcome, one key function of the military is also to deter war. Diplomats are accomplished in the art of international relations and negotiations, and they do this best in an atmosphere which is not clouded by rhetoric. We hope both these groups are playing out their role.

The talk today is only about the military capability of both countries. The Chinese release videos of training and firing of artillery while the Indian Army has let it be known that they will not step back. The brutal fact is that there is no military solution to Dokalam. The Chinese have military superiority on paper but cannot surmount the reality of geography and the mighty Himalayas which define the border. Indian military strength, which has been built up in the last decade, cannot overcome the weaknesses in infrastructure which still plague us. Ultimately, none of the two countries will decisively win the shooting match. The victors, if there are any, will be those who are happy to see the two countries weakened.

In 1913, The Economist published an editorial, “Neighbours and Friends”, in which they described war among civilised communities as “impossible”. The assumption was that economic interdependence ruled out any chance of conflict. An year later, and 37 days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the world was at a war which would end up with more than 40 million casualties. 27 days after the 9/11 attacks, the Americans were at war in Afghanistan, a war which would have been unimaginable a month prior. Both these examples could be considered a bit of an exaggeration when compared to Dokalam but do go to show how the impossible can become a reality. What is also clear in both instances is that decisions were taken without a clear understanding of future implications, and in the case of Afghanistan, by domestic compulsions.

The solution to the current standoff is simple. Near simultaneous withdrawal of troops and a moratorium on patrols coming into this area for a specified period of time. This will remove the immediate cause of tension. I am acutely aware that it is easier to write this than implement it on ground without some side claiming the greater victory. However we have two strong leaders in Modi and Xi Jinping who have the force of authority and popular backing to cut through the noise and diffuse the situation. This will define their sagacity and understanding of world affairs.

((The author is former Northern Commander, Indian Army, under whose leadership India carried out surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016. Views are personal.)
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