Spectres of War

For more than a decade the spectre of war has been haunting South Asia. Like any other spectre, it can never be suppressed once and for all. Middle East, Afghanistan, North Korea—all are flash points. It’s a matter of time that South Asia may be drawn into the vortex of a limited war with a nuclear panorama. All the ingredients are there and all now depends on the actors who will perform the show. Those fearing the menace of war look too passive to defeat war-mongering by the so-called hard-liners in the ruling establishment. They all repeat in chorus the same catch-phrase : Dialogue is the best way to resolve any contentious issue and avoid military confrontation. And yet there is no positive initiative to start meaningful dialogue among the warring parties. It’s somewhat fashionable in diplomacy to talk of dialogue-oriented solution and peace. In reality there is no possibility of resolving any contentious issue through dialogue across the table. The stand-off between India and China over Doklam is now more than 2 months old, but they have so far failed to initiate dialogue over the crisis, not to speak of its resolution. For all practical purposes the situation is drifting towards anarchy. If New Delhi sticks to its stated position that ‘Doklam’ belongs to Bhutan and China’s plan to develop infrastructure in that area of strategic interests is not acceptable, Beijing may apply force to dislodge Indian soldiers to have its way. At government level they are interacting at so many forums and yet at borders they frequently exhibit their hostilities towards each other. In addition to Doklam, fresh conflict between Indian troops and China’s army took place over the Ladakh lake area. This time, however, military officials from both sides discussed the issue. Surprisingly, the Dalai Lama in one of his recent public meetings described ‘Doklam’ as a minor issue though his sermon was totally uncalled for. Initially, Bhutan didn’t react over the ‘Doklam’ flare-up, but later, perhaps under India’s pressure Thimpu asserted their claim over the Chinese held territory. For China, they won’t budge an inch from their contention that India has intruded into Chinese territory. Even if there remains one Indian soldier in Doklam, as the Chinese ambassador to India, said the other day, they would treat it as aggression.

All along the line of actual control in the Himalayas, there are so many contentious points that ‘Doklam’ like scenario may occur any time because both New Delhi and Beijing have not set a time frame to resolve the border dispute permanently. China made it clear in no uncertain terms that the only way to end the stand-off in Doklam was for India to unconditionally withdraw its troops from the area, a day after Home Minister Rajnath Singh hoped Beijing would soon make a ‘positive’ move. In other words Mr Singh hoped somewhat against hope that Beijing would vacate the area in favour of India. No, that is not going to happen. China may soften the stand for the time being but they won’t leave the area permanently.

If anything the Doklam issue may worsen bilateral and multinational relations further. In truth the Doklam imbroglio cast shadow over the five nation BRICS summit to be held in the Chinese coatal city of Xiamen from 3 to 5 September. All five BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—expressed their desire to hold the annual summit as scheduled despite the Doklam incident. Whether Beijing would take risk to jeopardise the all-important annual summit by escalating tensions at the border at this juncture is open to question. If gun roars, the possibility of Modi’s visit to China would be in jeopardy leading to the postponement of the summit. And this development would not be a happy moment for President Xi Jinping as the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China is going to be held in November. The ‘Doklam’ stand-off seems to have affected his image of a shrewd statesman, both domestically and internationally.

Whether they admit it or not, the regional grouping BRICS of five major emerging economies, has done precious little to project itself as a counter-veiling force to American domination. These regional groupings are at best some tea clubs with the aim of doing some cosmetic surgery here and there without really challenging the hegemony of America. Ultimately, what matters most is bilateral relations. All the five members in the BRICS have divergent strategic and economic interests in relation to America which actually stands in the way of developing genuine opposition to American over-lordism.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s South Asia policy, as announced recently, seems too hard for India’s arch rival Pakistan. Come what may America is not withdrawing from Afghanistan in the foreseeable future. Or the low-intensity conflict, rather war, will continue for years to come. What is more, emboldened by Trump’s new strategy on Afghanistan, India is likely to have more say in Afghan affairs in the coming months.

As India is getting more and more integrated in America’s strategic fold, it is unlikely for New Delhi sultans to do anything concrete against America’s hegemony, in forums like BRICS. Even Russia, not to speak of Brazil and South Africa, is in no position to challenge America militarily and economically. Only China, the lone crusader in the southern hemisphere, aspiring to become a real competitor to America in re-division of global market, is making some noises, against Trump as they recently warned Washington that new US sanctions targeting Chinese firms linked to North Korea ‘‘will not help’’ in the on-going nuclear crisis in the Korean theatre. As we go to press both India and China agreed not to disagree on temporary  disengagement ‘under vefitication’ paving the way for smooth sailing of BRICS summit.


Vol. 50, No.9, Sep 3 - 9, 2017