The Doklam Standoff: Does Something Else Lie Behind the Row Between the Tiger and the Dragon?

The Doklam standoff has monopolized the news over the last weeks. It is not every day that the world observes two Asian global powers, India and China for instance, wrestling over a territory. So what is really behind this conflict?

The Protagonists: Modi, Xi… and Trump.

Since Modi took office in 2014, he has developed close relations with both Japan and the US, rejecting OBOR and China (its historical ‘problematic’ neighbor) fiercely. Knowing that the couple Japan-China is ‘infernal’, Modi seized the opportunity and focused on strengthening his ties with Abe. This culminated with the concretization of their vision created in November 2016: The Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), an initiative to integrate Africa, Oceania, and Asia (South, Southeast, and East) in a tangled web of sea-routes to counter China’s Maritime Silk Road.

Modi has also been working with Russia and Iran on the North-South Transport Corridor which was started in 2002, prior to him becoming Prime Minister. The primary objective of the corridor is improving transport connectivity and trade between these countries.

In addition, Modi is strengthening India’s Connect Central Asia Policy that covers an array of topics (politics, security, economy, and culture) and is focusing on infrastructure projects that include sea port development at Chabahar (Iran) and, ultimately, Trincomalee (Sri Lanka) and Paira (Bangladesh).

Like Xi Jinping, Modi is putting in a lot of effort to place India at the heart of the global geopolitical landscape. He is using a variety of initiatives to do this, though there is a significant difference: India is a Western-style (to a certain extent) liberal economy and, moreover, a democracy, as opposed to ‘communist/socialist’ China, ruled by the CCP, and under the thumb of Xi.

Xi Jinping, on his side, has been actively working on his Belt and Road Initiative since 2013 that is gaining popularity in many countries. It is structured along one Maritime Silk Road (from China through Singapore to the Mediterranean Sea) and six corridors, the famous one being the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China is aware of the strategic value of Pakistan when it comes to countering the US (Pakistan’s largest donor of foreign assistance and the second biggest military equipment supplier after China). China then, is demonstrating to everyone (especially India whose relationship with Pakistan is cold because of historical reasons and cross-border terrorism) that it backs Pakistan. Furthermore, China is supporting Pakistan building for free, for example, Gwadar, a strategic port in terms of security and military affairs.

That said, let’s not forget that China has eighteen territorial disputes with its neighbors and non-neighbors, alike with the exception of Pakistan! The most famous territorial dispute is that of the South China Sea, one that involves both islands and maritime boundaries, and several countries on different fronts. China does not like feeling claustrophobic and wants access to the Big Sea, especially when this area is well-known for being rich in oil and natural gas deposits.

And whenever energy is at stake, the West is usually nearby. In this case, the US is the major player. Under the guise of helping its allies (e.g. Japan), the US is meddling in the region, managing to escalate the conflict. Whether with Tillerson’s comments on the subject (suggesting that the US will block China’s expansionism in the area by using force), Mattis’ remarks about the US defending freedom of navigation in the region or the frequent joint drills with Japan, Trump is not helping the situation either since he appears to have no clear Asian foreign policy.

The US is bogged down in the South-China-Sea quagmire while China is getting stronger: OBOR Initiative, AIIB membership that includes all G-7 countries except Japan and the US, and the SCO (where China and Russia are partners) whose aim is to counterbalance NATO. With Trump at the helm, the US once powerful hold in Asia is weakening, and the pressure coming from different fronts is high on Trump.

The Meeting: When Modi Meets Trump.

With these first explanations in mind, on June 26th, Modi visited Trump at the White House. According to some observers, the meeting was full of warm signs of friendship while empty when it came to serious issues. But then, after an analysis of this visit, two key points grab the attention of the analyst.

Firstly, both countries have converging views on being a significant player in the global geopolitical landscape to counter China’s ‘annoying’ rise. ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’, and this is the case for India and the US vis-à-vis China.

Secondly, India and the US vowed to fight terrorism, thus a strategic partnership on security will bring about arms deals between the two countries. The US, India’s major defense ally, is a key partner. Under the guise of keeping watch over the Indian Ocean, as reported by the news, India has secured a $2-billion agreement for the purchase of 22 unarmed drones, which is a first for a non-NATO member.

The Doklam Standoff: What if…?

That said, let’s go back to mid-June before Modi and Trump’s meeting. China, as it has done on-off regularly in the past, was constructing a road in the disputed area which is a tri-junction between Bhutan, India, and China. India formally accused China of doing so which was seconded by Bhutan and asked China to stop all construction work in the area.

China, for its part, counts on the 1890-Pact signed with Great Britain, and claims that India has trespassed the border and violated the pact, which is unacceptable for the Middle Kingdom, for its army and its sovereignty. And on June 30th, the PLA spokesperson warned India to ‘stop clamoring for war’.

Many analysts have looked at the conflict from its historical roots in 1890 and throughout the following century, trying to shed light on current events, but nearly no one has asked the following question: ‘Why bring back the conflict now, after an extended period of relative calm?’

What if the conflict can be explained through another lens, using contemporary geopolitical events? What sparks the imagination, is the intensification of the conflict just after Modi’s visit to Washington. All of a sudden, India became more assertive in its stance and held its ground firmly. Meanwhile, China’s focus shifted abruptly from the ‘boiling’ South-China-Sea situation to this one. And the South China Sea Conflict that was once an erupting volcano became calmer, to the astonishment of many observers who were speculating about it.

So what happened? What if Modi and Trump made some pact to counter China? It is plausible, because the gains for the two countries are many and they both want to halt China’s rise, so why not find ways to put sand in the gears?

On one side, the ‘calm’ in the South China Sea will give the US time to gather its strength and come up with a renewed strategic foreign policy with regards to the region. The US that has been under considerable pressure both domestically and internationally needs time to redraw its Asian strategy, that seems stuck and not giving the intended results.

On the other side, the gain India is looking for is that the US allows entrance to thousands of skilled Indian workers. Back in April, the US presidential order to review the H1-B visa program affected mostly Indians since, according to the New York Times, 70% of all H1-B visas issued annually are given to Indians (mainly in the IT sector). In fact, a Deloitte analysis showed that US-based Indians seeking a job in India has gone from a modest 600 to 7000 from December 2016 to March 2017! This situation is not good for India, and they have been observing what is happening silently. Additional to this, there are arms deals with the US that provide more power defense capabilities to India.

The Finale: Will China and India go to War?

China and India have known three military conflicts in the twentieth century (the Sino-Indian war in 1962; the Chola incident in 1967; the Sino-Indian Skirmish in 1987). They managed to overcome their differences through the following decades, culminating their relationship with strong bilateral trade ties. But then Modi and Xi happened, both with an active agenda for their respective countries.

Since the current conflict began, both countries have shown restraint, while the propaganda on both sides is hitting new highs. India does not accept China’s arrogance while China does not accept being challenged by India. August may be spent glaring at each other, exchanging warnings, involving neighbors and allies as witnesses to the unfolding events, and showing power to intimidate the other… until the BRICS meeting that will be held in China (August 31 to September 4) where Modi is set to meet with Xi. This meeting is critical, and both countries are aware that it is not to their benefit to go to war. They both have more pressing problems, domestically and internationally to tackle than to engage in an unwanted war whose consequences are major with regards to the stability of the whole region… Meanwhile, the US is gaining very-much-needed time, observing what is happening, trying to sharpen its Asian strategy, and playing the game to keep being viewed by its Asian allies as a major player in the region.

Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia

Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia is a lecturer at HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal, a consultant, and an independent researcher. She holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration with a focus on China and Japan. Dr. Er-Rafia specializes in cross-cultural management, international affairs, strategy and organizational behavior. Her focus is on Weberian sociology, politics, economics, and history, and she uses aspects of all these disciplines to study Asia.

Dr. Er-Rafia previously served as a Corporate Strategist at Desjardins Group and as a Management Consultant, Director of Operations, and a Strategy and Business Development Consultant at Stratégies Internationales. She provides training for Business Executives at the international level and regularly gives presentations about Asia’s geopolitics, and its business, management, and culture. She is the recipient of several honors and awards and author of two book chapters on China and Japan, several articles and over twenty business case studies.

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