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Lessons and Takeaways from Doklam Standoff; By Commodore R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.)

C3S Article no: 0078/2017

That the Doklam standoff has been resolved peacefully without a single shot being fired on either side is good news on all counts. The reasons for China backing off  have been analysed threadbare under headings of leadership issues and internal contradictions in China, the forthcoming BRICS summit where India’s absence was not desirable, the impending onset of winter that would have prolonged the face off in Doklam with no end in sight, international pressure to ensure that all other means are not exhausted.

This paper will not be discussing the reasons for the peaceful resolution of the crisis but will look at both lessons and takeaways from this episode that need to be factored in the long-term calculus of bilateral relations.


While being prepared for a limited or a full blown war in the contested area of Doklam tri-junction, India and China kept up the process of dialogue to give diplomacy a chance. With all the background noise of the shrill media, threats and innuendos, the task of conducting this task would have been the most challenging task since 1962. The process of disengagement was inevitable as both sides did not want a war that would throw out of gear the excellent economic trajectory of both India and China. The hard bargaining and discussions that went on behind the scene in Beijing, Astana and Hong Kong at the level of the Foreign Secretary, the Ambassador of India to China and other ministerial levels finally has yielded results that augur well for both countries. India has come out on top without doubt by ensuring that the dialogue lines were open and were able to convince China that they were totally wrong in trying to alter the status quo against the spirit of agreement in 2012.

It is a must to uphold the sanctity of friendship treaties and support small neighbours. That India was unwavering in supporting Bhutan which does not have diplomatic relations with China and has long standing dispute at the tri-junction would have been noticed by the rest of the world and many would like to take a leaf out of this book. India itself was a beneficiary of such a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971. But for the support of the Soviet Union, it would not have been possible to liberate Bangladesh.

Support from Other Nations

That Japan openly supported India would have been very unnerving for China. Such bonhomie and strategic understanding from other nations are increasingly important while confronting a known offender of international and bilateral laws.  It is therefore important to ensure that all the diplomatic missions in India are regularly briefed and also the leaders of the other countries. While this may have been done, it was not in the public domain. The External Affairs Minister of India did an outstanding job while defending India’s actions and made it very clear in the parliament that other nations have been taken into confidence.

With this action of support to Bhutan, in addition to ensuring that its long term strategic interests are not compromised India’s stock has gone up many notches in the comity of nations. Littorals in the Pacific who have disputes with China particularly in the South China Sea would now be encouraged to look China in the eye and shape their responses for the future to protect their legitimate interests.

At the Military Level

While both sides exercised restraint barring a few stone throwing incidents on India’s Independence Day along the borders in Uttarakhand and no shot was fired in anger. The Indian Army, having learnt from its earlier experiences with PLA ensured that it covered the high ground and did not allow to be brow beaten by the psychological warfare and launched by the Chinese Government, the PLA and the media which engaged in no holds barred diatribe against India. In stark contrast, the Government of India and its military did not indulge in war mongering while assuring its citizens that it is fully prepared to take on an aggressive China which was used to having its way with its smaller neighbours. It is not that the military was at its peak in terms of logistic preparedness as was brought out by the untimely CAG report. But the fact that the Government of the day empowered the concerned Vice Chiefs of the three services to make good the deficiencies by increasing their financial power ensured that critical deficiencies were made good.

The issue of the damaging CAG report that was made public needs firm handling. It is even more important as it was the former Defence Secretary who was responsible for the preparedness of the Defence forces that now needlessly brought out the inadequacies for which he was singularly responsible as per the business rules of the Government of India. The Government has to ensure that such reports remain confidential in nature in such situations affecting national security and the morale of the citizens and the defence forces.

War Wastage Reserve (WWR) and Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR)

Questions were raised about the ability of Indian armed forces to support a long drawn out war due to a shortage of the standard WWRs. Likewise, the SPR apparently is well short of the target set by the government. It is necessary to ensure that this situation is used to institutionalize procedures for ensuring that the WWR and the SPR never fall below the targets for a two front war.

Role of Opposition

It was unfortunate that the opposition was not supporting the Government of the day in its stand vis-à-vis China’s aggressive posturing. There can be no excuse for the Vice-President of the opposition party to meet the Chinese Ambassador when the Chinese troops were already in Doklam with the intention of altering the status quo of the tri-junction. There was a clear demonstration of lack of purpose and maturity in the action of his which sent wrong signals all-around. He was well within his rights to seek clarification from the Prime Minister or the External Affairs Minister instead of running to the embassy of China that too in secrecy till it was impossible to hold it as a secret visit anymore.

Media Management

The party mouthpiece Global Times and other state controlled papers (Xinhua and People’s Daily) went hammer and tongs to wage a psychological war and media blitzkrieg to show India in poor light. It continued to threaten India with dire consequences and promised that the PLA would boot out the Indian Army within two weeks. Unfortunately, this backfired and there were not many takers for the continuous disinformation that was disseminated. The social media in China was very active and there was a general angst about the state of affairs as the Chinese media had to a large extent succeeded in misleading its netizens that India was the offender. The tone and tenor of the Chinese media were offensive and unbecoming of a nation that wants to become a super power.

In the initial stages of this confrontation, Indian media likewise engaged in the usual manner by having multiple panellists who essentially indulged in a slanging match depending on their own affiliation and leanings. To the credit of some of the channels, they did try to educate the viewers on the issue with maps and videos which were used by experts. Over all, no one paid much attention to what was an over kill from the Chinese media. The regular media briefings by the MEA were missing and this needs to be carried out on a regular basis on all the channels to ensure that the citizens are informed about the developments to ensure that they are not misled by rumours and propaganda. The case in example is the rumour that Indian soldiers were killed by Chinese in a sustained attack which was subsequently rejected as a doctored video.

Maritime Fulcrum

It was again refreshing to see the discussions in print and visual media about the natural advantage enjoyed by India in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Navy, therefore, was very much part of the discussions and available to the planners to consider the application of sea power for complementing the war effort should there be a spill over in the maritime domain. Geography has conferred enormous advantage both by the long coast lines in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea and the far flung Islands. The Tri service command with its ideal location in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands would continue to be a major factor in monitoring the sea lines to and from the Malacca Straits and the Andaman Sea.

However, the Indian Navy again would have realised its own shortcomings in terms of ASW helicopters and submarines and some of the weapons which are not available to its underwater fleet. Mere geographical advantage will not help unless the means and methods are refined and available to the Government of the day. The deficiencies of the Navy in all the four dimensions including cyber space to be made good without any complacency and further delays.

Weather and timing for campaigns

It is obvious that China wanted to alter the status quo before winter sets in. India itself had decided in 1971 to choose a winter campaign to liberate Bangladesh to ensure that China did not open up another front to support Pakistan.  However, in the present stand off, the calculations misfired as India stood firm ground and was willing to wait out for the onset of winter while keeping its diplomatic channels active. The calculations of the Chinese leadership to score over India and use it as a winning point during the forthcoming 19th Party Congress in the autumn of 2017 went awry.

Trade Warfare

More than ever before, the fallacies of a trade deficit with China came to fore. Many social groups were clamouring for a total ban on Chinese imports and also address the issue of huge trade deficit. Some of the components being imported from China are extremely important for technology intensive industries and India cannot afford to be dependent on imports from China in critical/strategic areas. This will give China a handle to apply pressure and also indulge in industrial espionage. The telecom industry has seen a quantum jump in Chinese investments and there is a security angle to the entire gamut of mobile, data services which are prone to intrusion by the OEMs. There is a need to critically examine the list of items being imported from China and also engage in full earnest in “Make in India” which has to translate from sloganeering to actual achievements.

In conclusion, it is evident that India which stood its ground and did not hesitate to keep up the diplomatic pressure has finally won this round with China. However, there are ample lessons for the future to ensure that India is better prepared for contingencies such as the one. There is an implicit need for both sides to resolve the border issue once and for all to be able to derive the peace dividend along the borders.

[Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd) is the Regional Director, Chennai Chapter of the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi and Director, C3S The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, C3S, the Indian Navy or the Government of India. He can be reached at]

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