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News | Sept. 6, 2017

A Failure of Strategic Vision: U.S. Policy and the Doklam Border Dispute

By Thomas F. Lynch III Strategic Insights

India and China

On Monday, August 28th, China and India announced a de-escalation of their two month old confrontation along the tri-border area with Bhutan near Doklam. Beijing and New Delhi made this announcement about a week in advance of Prime Minister Modi’s simultaneously-announced intent to visit to China from September 3-5 for the annual BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) Summit. 

The peaceful dénouement of this latest dust-up over unresolved Himalayan boundaries between India and China – this time involving Bhutan – appears to have been artfully managed by New Delhi. After 72 days, tensions were diffused as both sides agreed to stand-back from the point of the border dispute. India withdrew its troops and China withdrew its military heavy road construction crew. 

The Chinese official version of the settlement omitted mention of its road crew withdrawal while highlighting the Indian troop stand-back. India chose not to challenge the Chinese claim, keeping the terms of the disengagement under wraps. This was a prudent move, for it allowed China’s President Xi Jinping to host the September BRICS Summit free from an ongoing and awkward dispute between host and a guest; and, it allows Xi to enter the upcoming Chinese Communist Party Congress with a claim that he resolved the Doklam dispute without making concessions. 

Ten days before the dispute resolution, on August 18th, the Japanese Ambassador to India came out in support of India’s position, responding to reporter questions by stating, “What is important in disputed areas is that all parties involved do not resort to unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force, and resolve the dispute in a peaceful manner.”  

Sadly, the United States never did join Japan in giving China a clear rebuke for its unilateral activity in the Doklam dispute. The Trump administration, seemingly pre-occupied with internal strife, an ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election, and the challenge posed by a bellicose nuclear North Korea, never made an official White House or National Security Council statement about the India-China stand-off. In response to reporter questions in separate events, spokespeople for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Defense called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis without addressing the obvious issue of Chinese provocation. U.S. Pacific Commander, Admiral Harry Harris, also demurred when asked about the similarities in Chinese coercion in the South China Sea and Doklam, stating, “I think that’s a determination that India is going to have to make itself. I don’t want to speak for India …I believe that their (Chinese) actions in the East China Sea and the South China Sea are aggressive…And they are coercive to their neighbors…” 

In these tepid statements, the Trump administration side-stepped the obvious parallels between Chinese coercion in the South China Sea and that witnessed in the Doklam events. In the South China Sea, China used its coast guard and government controlled construction crews to seize, hold and build upon disputed atolls and shoals. China did so in a way that disadvantaged smaller states who were party to the dispute and in a fashion that confused and limited any timely military move by allied states – particularly the U.S. – to contest China’s unilateral change of the status quo. At Doklam, China pushed forward a paramilitary road construction crew in an effort to pave over an unimproved road claimed by both Beijing and by Bhutan, a much smaller state. Informed by decades of border dispute experience with China and acutely sensitive to a move by Beijing in the Himalayas that looked frightfully similar to the pattern of Chinese coercion of smaller states in the eastern Pacific, India moved with alacrity and purpose. New Delhi’s move of its paramilitary and military forces into position to blunt the unilateral Chinese action upped the ante, demonstrating that India viewed Chinese moves in a security context – as a coercive attempt to change the status quo without regard to appropriate diplomatic resolution of territorial ownership.  

By taking this first move with security forces in the Doklam dispute, India peacefully secured several important strategic objectives. First, the Chinese road building crew won’t finish its assigned task in 2017. India’s military detachment blocked China from improving this disputed road before arrival of the monsoon rains of September and the subsequent harsh winter in the Himalayas. Second, India exercised resolute and successful support for a longstanding regional ally, Bhutan. China’s road improvement gambit was seen in Bhutan and New Delhi as a grab of disputed land claimed by Bhutan, and a violation of the 2012 agreement that tri-junction boundary points are to be decided only through consultation between all three parties. Third, India displayed an ability to arrest a Chinese effort to unilaterally alter facts on disputed ground by “exercising” jurisdiction on the territory with unchallenged physical activity. In this sense, India thwarted China from achieving what it has been doing successfully in the South China Sea: unilaterally changing the physical facts in a disputed area to enhance its claims over that territory by land building.  

In this final strategic achievement – blunting a Chinese effort to unilaterally change the status quo with physical activity prior to consultation or accord with contesting parties – India accomplished something worthy of international acclaim. Where U.S. and international response to China’s island-building in the South China Sea has arguably come too little and too late, the Indian military seized the moment and got security forces in front of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) bulldozer crews on June 16th before the Chinese could build-on and hold disputed territory. The Japanese understood the parallels, thus the Japanese Ambassador to India was unequivocal in calling out the Chinese attempt at coercion. 

Washington’s failure to join Japan in a clear-throated rebuke of China’s Doklam activities hurts U.S. credibility with its two most significant security partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region: India and Japan. The U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region, signed by President Obama and Prime Minister Modi in January 2015, commits both parties to avoid the threat or use of force in pursuit of territorial and maritime aims and to resist those who do. This commitment is very similar to Japan’s commitment to India in their December 2015, Japan and India Vision 2025 Special Strategic and Global Partnership. Since the Trump Administration has not announced any alteration or adaptation to the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision aims, New Delhi and Tokyo had reasonable expectations that the U.S. would voice publicly this shared strategic interest – in support of India and in warning to China. Washington’s timidity may have been linked to U.S. efforts to keep China on-side with American efforts to arrest North Korean behavior. If so, this is an unconvincing rationale. President Trump has been working with Beijing on the North Korea problem at the same time his Administration investigates Chinese predatory economic practices with an eye toward imposing future sanctions. The administration has been willing to confront China while at the same time collaborating with it. 

The Trump administration can still make good on the clear U.S. national interest in calling-out China for unilateral, coercive action in territorial disputes. Now that the September 3-5 BRICS summit is over, and before the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress anticipated in October, the Trump administration should have a senior official make a public statement commending China and India for their peaceful resolution of the Doklam crisis. That same U.S. policy statement should then refer to the common Washington and New Delhi interest, clearly stated in the January 2015 U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, in seeing that territorial disputes are resolved peacefully and that all parties refrain from coercive, unilateral moves toward occupation of disputed territories. While late to the gate on the Doklam stand-off, such an unambiguous senior U.S. government official statement made in September 2017 will still matter.  

Although India has quietly ‘won’ this round against Chinese encroachment on disputed border areas, there will certainly be more. As Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat said on August 26th, China is continuously trying to change the status quo on its border with India and incidents like Doklam are only likely to increase in the future. Now is the time for the U.S. to be on record in opposition to any similar future Chinese moves in South Asia as in the South China Sea. 

Thomas F. (Tom) Lynch III is a Distinguished Research Fellow for South Asia and the Near East at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. The opinions expressed here represent his own views and are not those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the United States government.