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Doklam is a mindgame and India needs to be ready: Shyam Saran

Sadiq Naqvi | Updated on: 20 July 2017, 23:51 IST

The repeated Chinese threats over the Doklam standoff are part of a “mindgame” in line with the country’s brand of “psychological warfare, Shyam Saran said Thursday. 

However, “it would not be prudent to rule out the possiblity of frustration driving punitive action,” said the former Foreign Secretary while speaking on whether a China-centric world order was inevitable. 

Unanticipated action by the Bhutanese and the Indian armed forces could have caught China on the wrong foot as they might have believed India wouldn’t opt for a faceoff in a third country despite being unhappy, Saran said. 

The situation on the ground, of course, is different.

“This time what is new is a signal that we see of Chinese intentions to establish a permanent presence in this region,” Saran said He pointed to Chinese road construction teams, earth-moving equipment, road rollers and a substantial number of personnel from the People’s Liberation Army’s construction corps.

The former diplomat drew a parallel with how China slowly established a permanent presence in South China Sea, which largely went unopposed even by the United States. That, he said, might have emboldened China to take similar steps in Doklam.

“From the Chinese point of view, it’s a very successful strategy,” he said and stressed how China has been able to establish a permanent presence on the South China Sea islands without much opposition.

“This assumption was belied this time by both Bhutan and India. And what may have been a low-cost, low-risk activity for which there were sufficient precedents has now been transformed into a high-risk one.

“Hence the high decibel threatening posture designed to compel a stand-down by Indian forces which would hopefully, from their point of view, in the end validate their original assumption with which they began this operation,” Saran said, explaining how frustration may lead to punitive action.

He did not rule out the possibility of a long standoff like the one in Wangdung (1986-1992).

According to Saran, the enhanced activity in Doklam was for:
* Weakening India's closed and privileged relationship with Bhutan
* Opening the door to Chinese entry into the country
* Seek the settlement of the Sino-Bhutan border to advance Chinese security interests over India’s.

“Unless properly handled, there will be more such incidents which we may have to face,” he said.

Saran said India needed to choose issues on which to confront China. “There may be Chinese actions which may cause us annoyance but may not be vital to our interests. CPEC is, but UN listing of Pakistan-based terrorist group is not,” he said perhaps referring to India's repeated insistence that China supports its stand on Masood Azhar being designated as a terrorist by United Nation.

“Focusing on China also implies an effort to narrow the scope of confrontation on other fronts. An escalation of tensions with Pakistan and an ominous revival of violent militancy in Kashmir valley only serves to increase Chinese external leverage against India,” he said.

Saran stressed that India needed to redirect the limited human and economic resources to securing the neighbourhood. The focus has to be on creating an empowered vehicle for expediting projects India has promised its neighbours, he said.

First published: 20 July 2017, 23:51 IST