Diplomacy at Doklam Was an Afterthought When It Should Have Been the First Step

The effectiveness of India's strategy will be measured not by the length of road China may build at the tri-junction but by the diplomatic bonds it establishes with Bhutan.

We must critically examine the domestic and international political forces that were at play then and are probably active even now in keeping India-China at logger heads with each other. Credit: Reuters

We must critically examine the domestic and international political forces that were at play then and are probably active even now in keeping India-China at logger heads with each other. Credit: Reuters

The “expeditious disengagement of border personnel of India and China at the face-off site at Doklam” and this week’s cordial meeting in Xiamen between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping are signs that we are out of the danger zone – the space between war and peace – where warmongers on both sides had a field day selling war to their respective public.

Forget totalitarian China, the whiff of war made truth limp even in democratic India. Propaganda pierced peace to make war look more desirable. Doubters and dissenters were overwhelmed by the nationalist hysteria that insists “once at war to reason is treason”. During the ninety-day long Doklam crisis, the self-styled Chanakyas who vigorously rocked the India-China boat were oblivious of the consequences of the boat capsizing. Perhaps, they wanted war to please the Leader. It is ironical that these very hawks are now celebrating the victory of diplomacy.

Most commentary in India was directed towards unearthing the mystery of Chinese war-mongering over Doklam. There was no inclination to pause and introspect. It was well-nigh sinful to question the Modi government about the strategic urgency of escalating the dispute to the military level. It was presumed that the government’s deployment of soldiers across the border was the first and best option. We are completely in the dark about any negotiation or diplomatic options explored either by Bhutan or India before the decision was taken to position the Indian army on Doklam.

It is being argued that China backtracked only because India used “coercive diplomacy” – a judicious mix of threat of use of force and diplomacy. The reality is that our actions in Doklam went beyond “gun boat diplomacy”. Warships don’t enter territorial waters of other countries without permission. Had we only directed our missiles towards China or sent our naval armada to the South China sea, we could say that we used military means short of use of force. Howsoever small our military involvement may have been, we did use force to push our way into land that is not ours. We resorted to direct action by using uniformed men to protect Bhutan’s claims to Doklam. This signified our intent to use coercion to solve a dispute. Since we had introduced the military element in the dispute, we should have been prepared for a military response from China to protect its claim to the disputed territory of Doklam. However, China used only the “threat of use of force” through its media and diplomats to ensure India’s withdrawal from Doklam.

Looking back at recent history

India’s relations with China have soured dramatically within the three years of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government. This is almost a repeat of the rapid fall in India-China relations in late 1950s. Just as a road from Aksai Chin suddenly emerged as a life and death question in 1959, similarly, the Doklam road popped up out of nowhere to define Indian security imperatives.

PIB clipping from The Leader (Allahabad), 1950

Both Aksai Chin and Tawang were not an issue in India-China equation in the early 1950s. When India hoisted its flag in Tawang in 1951, the Chinese did not raise any objections. In fact, the Sino-Indian treaty on relations between India and the Tibet region of China was signed in 1954 and as far as Beijing was concerned, Tawang was never a bilateral problem. Similarly, the Aksai Chin road, which was under construction before Mao Zedong came to power in mainland China in 1949, was not of any concern to India. The Leader, on June 28, 1950, reported from Allahabad that a network of roads was being constructed including one connecting the Khotan district of Xinjiang with Tibetan border.

Perhaps, infant India’s leadership was unaware of its strategic importance. But soon after its completion, the road from Aksai Chin to Tibet was portrayed as Chinese deceit in 1958. According to B.G. Verghese, “The very first note in the Sino-Indian White Papers, published later (tabled in parliament in September 1959), declared Aksai Chin to be “indisputably” Indian territory ” and, thereafter, lamented the fact that Chinese personnel had wilfully trespassed into that area “without proper visas”.

Walter Crocker, the Australian high commissioner to India (1958-62), in his book Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate, questioned the very purpose of taking out a White Paper. Crocker said that the notes in the White Papers “were bound to unleash nationalist passion in India, probably to a degree which would deprive him (Nehru) any leeway for negotiating.” Crocker further noted: “But why did India set up the 40 new check posts in the disputed area in 1962? Could China accept this forward policy without reaction? This must surely have risked a military confrontation.”

During the Doklam crisis, amidst the numerous voices clamouring to ‘stand up to’ China, it was veteran journalist Prem Shankar Jha who dared to ask, “after deriding Jawaharlal Nehru day in and day out for irresponsibly pushing India into the 1962 war, Modi is doing exactly the same thing – pursuing a reckless policy with China and gambling everything upon its not daring to strike back.” Imagine if enough voices had questioned Nehru’s “forward policy” and interventions in Tibet, the futile 1962 war could have been avoided and we would not have lost 3000 innocent soldiers.

India’s relations with China have soured dramatically within the three years of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government. Credit: Reuters

India’s relations with China have soured dramatically within the three years of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government. Credit: Reuters

The present discussions on the righteousness of the Indian position are similar to the one that were espoused in 1960. We must critically examine the domestic and international political forces that were at play then and are probably active even now in keeping India and China at logger heads with each other. It is imperative that our patriotic zeal is prevented from plunging India into a futile war in the future over the “chicken’s neck” – that may not be as important for national security as is being projected by some. It is for this reason that it is important to rummage through the newspapers of the late 1950s and early 1960s to see how the tone was set for the 1962 conflict.

A series of twelve articles under the banner ‘World’s Most Rugged Frontier’ were published in the Globe and Mail of Canada by William Stevenson in late 1960. These articles were floated on file by the external affairs ministry’s publicity division. These covered the growing Chinese incursions and influence in Nepal, Xinjiang, Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. The title of Stevenson’s first article in the series ‘Has India the Moral Fibre to Resist Border Intrusions” revealed his expectations from India. The basic theme in Stevenson’s series was that China was not just unfriendly but an enemy country for India. China was blamed for making India spend more on defence in times of its foreign exchange crisis. He held China responsible for India getting closer to communist Russia. Stevenson’s article, ‘A Question of Morale’ (November 23, 1960), highlighted “morale’’ as the chief weakness in India’s defence system. His concern was that “even the most outspoken or responsible newspaper pussyfoots around the subject of meeting China’s military threat”. The tenth article in the series, under the caption ‘A Tightrope in the Himalayas’ (November 23, 1960) talked about how Chinese agents were undermining Nepal’s neutrality, leaving a critical section of the Indian border open to intrusion. Stevenson provided ammunition to right-wing writers by deriding the communists. He described the Communist party as  “the most powerful political fifth-column that China has inside India”.

It is troubling that even after 57 years, Stevenson’s words continue to echo in New Delhi. The same language, similar arguments and familiar fears are being invoked to build a case for a fresh India-China conflict. Earlier Indian socialists had a problem with Chinese communism, now Indian businesses are wary of Chinese capitalism.

It is simply déjà vu when C. Raja Mohan talks about “undoing the economic partition” between India and Pakistan, in times of growing India-China tensions. One is forced to re-read William Stevenson’s article titled ‘Roots of Hostility are 1000 years old’ (November 28, 1960) that urged India and Pakistan to resolve their differences to meet the Chinese challenge. Stevenson stated “China’s sudden and menacing arrival on the borders of the Indian subcontinent might seem good reason for India and Pakistan to resolve their differences.”

William Stevenson was no ordinary foreign correspondent. He was a former Royal Navy pilot of World War II vintage. “By the 1960s, Mr. Stevenson was working for the Near and Far East News Group, a propaganda arm of the British government, and becoming increasingly connected in the world of espionage.”

The direct result of such propagandist pieces was the emergence of “loquacious 22-carat-patriots” who according to the New Age (February 10, 1963), demanded “for itself the sole right to sit in judgment on what is patriotic and what is unpatriotic in the actions of the government of the day”.

Even after the cessation of hostilities in November 1962, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Bharatiya Jan Sangh and their fellow travelers in the Swatantra party, the Praja Socialist Party and among the Lohiaites continued to oppose the Colombo Plan for a ceasefire. They kept raising the slogan “War to wipe out national humiliation”. The right wing was incredibly naïve to demand more war after India’s humiliating defeat, wishing perhaps for greater ignominy. The New Age commented, “It was not the naiveté on part of the right wing but ‘a matter of downright knavery’ that made them sound patriotic, only to sell the country to their foreign master”.

The external affairs ministry’s statement announcing the disengagement at Doklam reiterates the primacy of diplomacy in solving border issues. However, one must ask why diplomacy was abandoned in favour of the use of force. The ministry’s statement says that the “Indian policy is guided by the belief that peace and tranquillity in the border area is an essential pre-requisite for further development of our bilateral relationship. Differences should not be allowed to become disputes”. If India believes in these principles, why then did it not prioritise its relationship with China, especially in the light of Bhutan’s reticence on the issue. Has India endeared itself to Bhutan or pushed it towards China? Going forward, the efficacy of the Indian strategy shall be measured not by the length of the road that China may build on Doklam but by the strength of the diplomatic bonds China establishes with Bhutan.

Unfortunately, our perspectives on India-China border security continue to be guided by the thinking of Curzon’s frontier officers. “Neck”, road and plateaus continue to define our security concepts in the 21st century where drones, satellites and missiles have brought distant parts of India under Chinese surveillance. The problem is, as MK Bhadrakumar says, that we have almost nobody within the establishment, to “throw the gauntlet at our foreign and security policy experts and think tankers and taunt them to do some original thinking”.

Atul Bhardwaj has recently completed his doctorate in history from Ambedkar University, Delhi.