The Doklam stand-off between India and China going on for over a month has added another chapter in the unending differences between India and China with respect to border. The involvement of Bhutan in this matter has only increased the complexity of the matter.
This stand-off has been explained from various angles. China’s expansion plan, refusal of India and Bhutan to join the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project and diversion from the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that India objected due to violation of its territorial sovereignty are said to be behind the Doklam stand-off. While India’s border disputes with China and Pakistan are old and still unresolved, these new developments hardly indicate reduction of complexities for India.
Conventional wisdom dictates that co-operation, engagement and dialogue are the ways to resolve any issue. While these options should be pursued, it is necessary to consider and implement other options. These other options, if not alternative to dialogue, should at least be parallel to it. It implies considering the broader policy perspective rather than resolution of an isolated issue. This would require India respond in a quick and decisive manner to the developments that have going on and also the developments likely to arise in the future. The parallel option calls for a widened focus on strategic matters in conduct of foreign relations.
The border issue with China need not be approached only through the limited prism of land border. China’s expansion plans run through land as well as sea. India too needs to focus more on maritime security than just territorial security. Two themes – ‘Continental Mindset’ and ‘Sea Blindness’ – in India’s foreign policy need to be overcome for addressing any strategic situation.
India’s geography (peninsular location with a long sea line) makes for a compelling case to have maritime strategy as an important part of the foreign policy. However adequate attention was not paid to the maritime domain as compared to territorial boundaries. The potential of India’s maritime location is yet to be exploited to the full in terms of security and connectivity.
It is important that the relative neglect of the maritime domain must be overcome. There have been positive indications in this direction in recent years. The focus on maritime domain has been increasing in both defence as well as economic areas. Modernization and strengthening of Indian Navy as well as development of maritime infrastructure and port development has been receiving thrust. Speaking at the Maritime India Summit in 2016 Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “This is the right time to come to India, it is even better to come through the sea”.
Keeping the option of dialogue and engagement with China open, India should look forward to extend the engagement with the neighbouring countries (like Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives), Southeast Asian countries and Indian Ocean Littoral States. The focus should be on engagement in the area of maritime security and co-operation. Joint naval exercises like Malabar Exercise should benefit India as well as other participating countries. Increasing maritime engagement with various countries should result in regular and increased naval exercises.
Activating strategic arm of the foreign policy with a thrust on maritime domain would not only forward India’s overall interests but it may also aid India at the time of resolution of border disputes. It would mean that as far as China is concerned, such a policy of India would act as a competition as well as deterrence.
The border dispute with China is an old issue. It is true that this one irritant has not affected the relations of India and China in other sectors especially the economic sector. This is an indication of matured diplomacy between the two countries. India on its part has always advocated of peaceful solutions to all the outstanding issues.
However India also needs to guard itself against the expansion plans of China which are detrimental to the former’s interests. A strategically inclined foreign policy which would serve India’s geopolitical interests in a comprehensive manner should be adopted. Making maritime security and naval diplomacy as instruments of foreign policy would act as leverage for India to assert its dominance in the region.
(The Author is an Independent Researcher based in Vadodara and can be reached at – firstname.lastname@example.org)