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India-China Relations: Engagements and Disengagements

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The mutual disengagement by Indian and Chinese forces in Doklam has ended the stand-off that lasted for more than 70 days. Still it is evident that China has continued to make provoking statements. The fact is that the disengagement has been achieved by the combination of India’s strong diplomacy combined with China’s internal compulsions. India’s success lies in exploiting China’s pressing issues such as the BRICS Summit, upcoming meeting of the Communist Party of China and beginning of winter and snowfall. This stand-off highlights various factors which would enable India in dealing with China in totality and not just border issues.

A few days before the disengagement, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj spoke of working on the overall bilateral relations with China and not just on one incident. Incidents like Doklam stand-off could be prevented if there is continuous diplomatic engagement and trust building in bilateral relations. This statement was made at the time when China was threatening India of grave consequences of the stand-off. India has been consistent in its policy all along that any dispute should be resolved through dialogue and peaceful means. Diplomatic engagement is the way that is always preferred by India.

However, the differences in world views of India and China have prevented the exploitation of the full potential of their relations. Co-operation, equality and mutual benefits form the basis of India’s foreign policy. On the other hand, irredentism is an important factor in China’s foreign policy. Falling back on historical reference for justifying its expansionist policy makes China an unequal and overbearing partner in bilateral relations with any country. It also makes meaningful engagement with China difficult. This especially applies to India.

In addition China’s economic power has enabled it establish control over relatively weaker countries. This further paves way to implement its policy of expansion even if it is at the cost of overriding international law. Again this becomes an area where India’s policy of honouring international law differs from China.

India and China are termed as emerging superpowers. From India’s point of view competition with each other for the top spot is a natural phenomenon. China’s policy does not just stop at competition. Its policy extends to preventing its competitors from concentrating on development by creating distractions. This is the very reason that China has been supporting Pakistan and North Korea in order to keep India and Japan engaged in their neighbourhood.

Using economic and military resources China has been expanding its influence across different regions. This expansion has raised questions as to how can India compete with or even counter China which is trying to ‘encircle’ India. But the Doklam stand-off could be a good example and even a lesson for both India and China. For India of course it is a positive outcome which shows that China can be stopped and countered. For China, the lesson is that bullying tactics do not always work and expansionist policy can be challenged. Here Bhutan also deserves credit for standing up to China and holding its ground.

It is important that the strategic and diplomatic momentum gained by India at the moment should be continued. China’s compulsions in initiating the disengagement must not be overlooked. The disengagement in Doklam would most probably lead to an ‘engagement’ in other sector. India’s entire boundary with China has always been disputed from China’s side. In case there is absence of confrontation from Chinese side of the border, China would ensure that the Pakistani side would increase its activity. The timing of the current disengagement must be understood from the context that beginning of the winter is the time when there is highest possibility of infiltration in to India from Pakistan.

As mentioned above despite these situations India continues to favour dialogue as a mechanism of settlement of disputes. However, the Doklam stand-off should push the balance towards India’s side even while conducting dialogue. India has leverage over China since it is the large market for China’s businesses. So, China has high economic stakes in India. This should certainly take India towards parity while dealing with China.

The Doklam stand-off has also sent across the message that China can be stopped. This would encourage particularly the smaller countries in Southeast Asia with which China has disputes in South China Sea. India should look forward to increasing co-operation with these countries to increase its leverage. For India various combinations of engagements and disengagements should be continuously explored and implemented in order to contain China.


(The author is an Independent Researcher based in Vadodara and can be reached at –

Niranjan Marjani

(The views expressed by the author in the article are his/her own.)

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