As China and India scaled down their prolonged confrontation at the Doklam trijunction in the Himalaya in July, world capitals reacted with much relief and some surprise. There had been serious anxieties over open threats from China of an imminent armed offensive against Indian troops.
Analysts based in Delhi and Kolkata outlined several reasons why both sides avoided an armed conflict that could easily have become a long slugfest, in turn leading to a military stalemate which would not have benefited either side.
First, they gave the diplomatic backdrop: with the long awaited BRICS summit in Xiamen city in China from September 3, neither country wanted to risk a conflict at the wrong time. It would have raised serious questions about the credibility of the BRICS grouping, not to mention jeopardising the future of several impressive infrastructure projects which were about to be finalised.
Bank loans have been lined up for seven of these projects already and while three are to be implemented in India, the importance of these projects to China cannot be overstated. The country is desperate to find suitable outlets abroad for its surplus cement and steel production as a means to kickstart its stalled domestic economy.
In the process of China and India actively maintaining the peace, a positive message has been sent to the world, especially to the US and EU. It proved that a non-Western power bloc like BRICS can settle its internal differences and safeguard the broad objective of creating an alternate and effective world economic order.
It also follows that the strategic importance of the Doklam truce will be felt in other parts of Asia and Africa, too. By reacting with restraint, both countries have showed a high level of maturity in handling an incredibly sensitive dispute.
Military fallout assured
Secondly, the India-based analysts highlighted the possible military fallout of an armed conflict at Doklam. Unlike in 1962, the Indian troops at Doklam are controlling the higher ground, which puts the Chinese at a strategic disadvantage. Any major onslaught against the entrenched Indian positions by the Chinese would have been very expensive in terms of the inevitable losses to manpower and weapons.
With neither side about to use nuclear options, the border war would have been fought with conventional weapons. A Kolkata-based analyst that the Chinese would have found it hard to make much progress, despite their known superiority in numbers and logistical preparations.
“India, too, is well prepared and its troops are keener than ever to wipe out the shame of 1962,” the analyst said. “While some work remains to be done, the Indian Government has carried out an impressive linkage of border roads and strengthening of old air strips, and has moved more men and heavy equipment into the cantonments. The Indian army would not have been a pushover for China as in 1962.”
Defence strategists feel China’s brief incursions into the Ladakh area last month were a reminder to India that if there was war at Doklam, other parts of India would also be at risk from aggression. However, the logic cut both ways as in some areas, India had the potential strength to worry the Chinese by carrying out similar diversionary tactics.
“It is not as though the Chinese do not know of our preparedness,” one observer said from Delhi. “Months ago, a Chinese diplomat admitted to me that any war with India at the international border or elsewhere would involve heavy costs and losses for China, even if it wins in the end.”
Worried over the minatory Chinese rhetoric, Delhi had kept the US and the EU in the loop about all border developments in the event of a shooting war starting between the two Asian giants. And while Indian authorities deeply appreciated the open expression of support from the US and Japan on the Doklam issue, behind the scenes its policymakers were exploring ways to damage Chinese interests in other spheres.
And this leads to the third and equally important reason why China did not pull the trigger: finance.
As latest stats show, Chinese exports to India are about five times more than Indian exports to China. However, a sectoral analysis of Chinese exports demonstrates that the large trade gap between the two countries is primarily a result of Chinese exports to India in the IT and telecommunications sectors.
As the Doklam deadlock continued, Delhi was actively considering the imposition of sanctions in some areas of bilateral trade in a bid to reduce the expanding trade gap to manageable levels. Delhi had asked Beijing many times to introduce certain bilateral arrangements so that India could increase its exports, without much effect.
Delhi-based sources say the possibility of India imposing restrictions on imports from China, especially in the IT and related sectors, had worried their trade circles. Any such move by India would have reduced the comfortable trade advantage China enjoys by about 40%, according some estimates.
In recent years, the Chinese economy has been mainly driven by its massive exports. The current worldwide slowdown and falling demand has slowed these, leaving China’s thriving manufacturing sector with fewer orders. With its export earnings shrinking, China did not want to risk any further loss of business with India.
This combination of factors – the possibility of a deadlock at the international border without any immediate outcome, the threat to the stability of China-dominated BRICS, and the possibility of China losing a chunk of the large Indian market – may have led to both countries pulling back from the brink of a major conflict at Doklam.
But the story may not end there. Some Indian observers feel that China could reassess its stance now that the BRICS summit has ended, resuming its hostile posturing at the International border and returning to its road building projects after a break.
Even so, India has already won honour by not blinking to the pressures and threats of its stronger neighbour in the north, and by not letting down Bhutan - its weaker ally in the east - in the process.
As one former diplomat put it: “Through its mature handling of a very delicate and threatening situation at its border and by not flinching, India will certainly enjoy an enhanced prestige and respect not just in South Asia, but in the world as a whole.”