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Oct 12 2017
Donglang Standoff and China-India Relations
By Liu Zongyi

After two months of tension, the standoff at Donglang (Doklam) finally ended peacefully in late August 2017. Donglang revealed India’s strategic ambition and its dissatisfaction towards China’s regional policies. Most importantly, the outcome of the standoff may affect China’s strategic perceptions of India and the future direction of China-India bilateral relations.

During the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, President Xi Jinping said at the meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi that healthy and stable China-India relations would serve the interests of people in both countries. China, Xi said, “is willing to work with India on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence to improve political mutual trust, promote mutually beneficial cooperation, and push bilateral ties along the right track”.

Responses from the Indian side showed that they might not yet be receptive to China’s overtures of peace. As soon as the BRICS Summit ended, Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat accused China of “salami slicing, taking over territory in a very gradual manner,” and noted that in the case of an India-China war, Pakistan would be ready to “[take] advantage of the situation [that would develop] along the northern border”. India, therefore, should make preparations to fight a two-front war with both powers simultaneously. These comments aside, India has also begun accelerating road construction near the Line of Actual Control along the Chinese-Indian border. This is ironic, since the Donglang standoff was sparked by India’s accusations of Chinese road building in the region. India also has plans to build a railway leading to the town of Leh, on the western part of the China-Indian border. When completed, the railway will have major strategic implications. Not only would it facilitate the movement of personnel and supplies to the border, but it also may reduce the travel time from Delhi by half.

Before the Donglang standoff, three factors influenced China’s foreign policy towards India: the first was India’s triple identity as a contiguous neighbour, a great power, and a developing country; the second was India’s importance to the emerging Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – not only was it identified as one of the four key countries of the initiative, but also the entire South Asian and Indian Ocean regions were considered important strategic intersections of the BRI; and lastly, the fact that in spite of the immense economic importance of South Asia, the region was not viewed as a major strategic focus for China. These factors together led China to pursue economic engagement and cooperation with India rather than seeing it as a major adversary.

Donglang, however, has shown that a redefinition of India’s status in China’s foreign policy is necessary. In order to achieve this, it is important to understand how Indian strategic elites view China.

Firstly, they believe that conflict between China and India is a structural one. The Indians seem to think that while China outwardly claims to embrace a multi-polar world, it is in fact pursuing the establishment of a bi-polar world and a unipolar Asia. India feels that there should be at least three dominant powers in Asia – China, Japan, and itself. It wants to be seen as China’s equal and does not want to play second fiddle.

For India, the BRI and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are seen as Chinese measures to dominate Asia and establish its status as a global power. Chinese investment and infrastructure construction in South Asia, the Indian Ocean, and along its border are seen as aggressive attempts to surround India and press its strategic space. Given this, it is unsurprising that India’s reaction is to strike back resolutely and not allow China to gain any strategic advantage. India’s thinking was clearly reflected in its behaviour at Donglang.

India’s strategic priority is the Indo-Pacific Ocean. In the maritime south, the focus is to expand India’s presence and influence. In the northern frontier, the strategy is to ‘hold the line’ and maintain the status quo while accelerating the integration of the frontier regions and its people by speeding up and improving communication infrastructure with the Indian mainland.

To balance China, India has pursued militarisation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and has enhanced strategic cooperation with the US, Japan, Australia, and Vietnam. India’s goal is to hedge against the BRI through military and security cooperation and to impose restrictions on China’s economic cooperation with countries along the BRI in line with so-called international laws, norms, and standards. India’s balancing strategy is thus a combination of defence, political, and economic measures, with the emphasis lying on defence and military.  Another new facet of India’s strategy is the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), which India and Japan have been working on since last year.

Secondly, India’s ultimate aim appears to be to eventually match China. Hence, even though China currently dominates Asia’s value and production chains and is already India’s largest trading partner, the latter has instead chosen to pursue cooperation with other states like the US, Japan, and European countries. Its goal is to absorb their investments and technologies and take over China’s place in the global value and production chains. This does not mean that India has shied away from economic cooperation with China. In fact, Indian senior officials have publicly welcomed Chinese investments on many occasions. Just after the Donglang standoff, in a meeting with China’s Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan in Manila, Indian Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu called for more Chinese investment in India and said there would be “facilitating measures, including in SEZs [special economic zones].” In fact, India wants to utilise China’s abundant resources. Moreover, India in 2016, revised the Enemy Property Act, 1968, which was aimed at China and Pakistan. Curtailing close economic relations between China and India could cause heavy damage to both.

There are currently many high-level dialogue mechanisms between China and India. However, as Donglang has shown, they were unable to prevent the deterioration of bilateral relations, which in turn, seriously impacted economic cooperation at the global and regional levels, such as the BRICS cooperation and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations. After Donglang, the Indian side expressed its hope of starting a new special high-level dialogue mechanism. It is doubtful if one more dialogue channel will help China-Indian relations break out of its vicious cycle. What perpetuates this cycle in the Chinese view is India’s style of diplomacy. Rather than a ‘give and take’ approach, India focuses on maximising its own benefits. China has tried and will continue to try its best to communicate with India’s current foreign policy makers and strategic elites, but it may be difficult to change their views on China.

Source of (National University of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy),October 10, 2017