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Panel Discussion on “Post Doklam Imperatives?”

C3S Report No: 0016/2017

The Chennai Center for China Studies and the Department of International Studies,  Stella Maris College collaborated on a panel discussion for college students and academic scholars on 13th September, 2017 at Stella Maris College, Chennai. The topic of the discussion was “Post Doklam Imperatives?”

As the audience made their way to the conference room of the beautiful Stella Maris College campus, the guests and the panelists shared some tea and insights on the issue at hand. Before the main event, intern Marc Unger introduced the young people in the audience to a new writing opportunity with the Young Minds of C3S publication on the Medium platform. The audience was then welcomed by Professor Aarti Santhanam, the Head of the Department of International Studies at Stella Maris.

Commodore R.S. Vasan welcomed the audience with a brief address. Students from the International Studies Department introduced the panelists one by one, in order: Ambassador M. Ganapathi IFS (Retd.), Colonel R. Hariharan VSM(Retd.), Air Marshall S. Varthaman PVSM AVSM VM VSM (Retd.), and Commodore R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.). Each panelist brought a different public service perspective to the issue, with the diplomatic corps, army, navy, and air force represented. Then, the moderator, the Ambassador, gave opening remarks on the Doklam issue. He described the Doklam standoff as a distinct event. China tries to ‘correct’ distortions in history according to its own perspectives. It is in the interest of China that disputed areas like Doklam remain contended. It was heartening to see how India used tempered and measured language, and how reason won out in the end. His recommendations included monitoring the bilateral landscape, leveraging the Indian Ocean to India’s advantage and breifing our well-wishers.

The Colonel talked with the help of detailed maps, directing the audience through various specificities of the tensions. He stated that China knows that Doklam affects the security of Bhutan and India. According to him, one reason for China’s Doklam action was to drive a wedge between India and Bhutan. However, China did not succeed. Besides, China never repeats its mistakes and will bear this stand-off in mind.  The speaker urged the students in the audience to be objective as scholars of international relations, and to not be influenced by the media. In fact, the Chinese media’s language and legal rhetoric was similar to that used during the South China Sea dispute reporting. Nevertheless, the Doklam standoff does not affect the way India handles China at international forums. India’s national interest continues to be paramount.

The Air Marshal used his time to talk at length about the Indian Air Force and their hypothetical role to play in botched diplomatic relations.He emphasized the potential power on both sides, showing the strengths and weaknesses of Indian and Chinese military infrastructure. He gave examples of fighter jets and other equipment used by the air force for defense and deterrence. India’s Air Force has more international exposure than China’s. IAF can handle any situation which China puts forth. India has flown with U.S.A and France. We need to project our air power.

The Commodore explained the maritime implications, shedding light on Chinese goals and Indian means to slow the process. He emphasized the importance of controlling sea trade routes and military exercises with hegemonic powers. The islands in the South China Sea gave another example of border expansion like that found in Doklam. India enjoys a phenomenal advantage thanks to its geography. The cyber domain will be a major area where India and China will cross paths. We must never underestimate or overestimate our adversary. We must take into account China’s weaknesses: It is not battle-hardened; North Korea; South China Sea; East China Sea and long supply chains. China also faces threats of U.S presence, rise of Japan and India, economy slowdown and internal threats like Xinjiang. In this light, India must use its maritime advantages. MAUSAM is one way forward.

Amb. Ganapathi summed up the panel discussion. He added that China uses its linguistics to appear ambiguous.

During the Q&A session, questions about letters from Nehru and China’s role in Afghanistan steered the discussion further into previously unmentioned aspects. Insightful answers were given by the panelists. Amb. Ganapathi mentioned how Doklam will not make any difference to the BRI as certain states are happy to get China’s economic assistance.  Cmde. Vasan said that BRI must be seen from the perspective of bilateral relations between China and its BRI partner countries, not as a mere multilateral venture.Col. Hariharan emphasized that we must take counter-measures to BRI. It is a matter of concern that BRI is causing problems in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Amb. Ganapathi concluded that we must learn to compete and cooperate simultaneously.

The vote of thanks was given by Ms. Rajeswari Thilagan, Assistant professor of International Studies at Stella Maris College.

(Compiled by Asma Masood, Research Officer, C3S and Marc Unger, Intern, C3S.)

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