View: China may be fighting the Doklam war on Pakistan front
China cannot start a war with India, even if it's a localised conflict over a small piece of high-altitude land that remains hard to access most of the time.
China cannot start a war with India, even if it's a localised conflict, over a small piece of high-altitude land that remains hard to access most of the time. Such a misadventure will carry heavy diplomatic, economic and even military costs.
China has begun to project itself as a responsible global power as it seeks to enlarge its international footprint. Its huge debt—about 300 per cent of GDP — even if most of it is state-owned and thus manageable, remains a big economic challenge. India is a nuclear power, and there is no guarantee a local conflict won't blow out of control.
Then why is China risking a costly war? The answer to this question lies in two biggest developments in the subcontinent in the past few years: India's surgical strike inside the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir last year and China planning to build a global network of roads, ports and railways which it calls 'One Belt, One Road' (OBOR). India boycotted the grand launch of OBOR because a part of it—China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
India's opposition to OBOR is the biggest sore point between India and China today. And that could be the reason behind China's Doklam posture. Border disputes have lingered on for decades and have rarely led to such a prolonged stand-off.
So, the actual theatre of Doklam war might not be the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction where Indian and Chinese soldiers are facing off. It could be thousands of kilometres away—the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. In Doklam, China might be maneuvering to secure CPEC, its biggest strategic asset in the region.
CPEC is a network of roads, railways and energy projects linking China's Xinjiang region to the Gwadar Port in Pakistan. It can give China an alternative to its main trade route that passes through the Strait of Malacca and the Indian Ocean. CPEC will provide a shorter and cheaper access to markets in Asia, Africa and even Europe. More importantly, it will not be vulnerable to disruption by India which can now cut off Chinese supplies through the Indian Ocean.
The Chinese move at Doklam might have been prompted by India's aggressive military posture against Pakistan after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power. For the first time, India under PM Modi openly supported rebels in Pakistan's Balochistan who pose a serious threat to CPEC. Two Chinese citizens working on CPEC were abducted and killed by Baloch rebels two months ago.
A restive Balochistan is not the only challenge to CPEC.
CPEC passes through PoK, and that's why India had boycotted China's ambitious OBOR project. India has always laid claim to PoK but now it has also started talking of getting it back from Pakistan. Local leaders in PoK often speak favourably of India. India's surgical strikes on Pakistan-sponsored terrorists in PoK last year signaled its aggressive military stance and the will to dominate in the disputed region.
India's assertion in PoK and support to Baloch rebels are threats to CPEC. India's military dominance on Pakistan means CPEC may not materialise at all. By engaging India at Doklam, China might want to divert Indian military away from the Pakistan border and thus reduce the threat to CPEC.
CPEC is going to be the showpiece for China's OBOR project which it hardsells as a global economic partnership that can lift less-developed countries out of poverty.
OBOR has economic as well as strategic importance for China. It will not only provide China vast markets and ownership of infrastructure projects in dozens of smaller countries in Asia and Africa, but also offer strategic assets in host countries which, unable to repay expensive Chinese debt, will sooner or later submit to its plans.
India's military aggression against Pakistan—to check its sponsorship of terror in India—will ensure CPEC does not have a smooth going. If India remains engaged on the eastern front—at Doklam or any other similar spot— its focus will shift away from Pakistan and give China an opportunity to complete CPEC smoothly.
When Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat said in June that India was ready for “two-and-a-half front war”—a war with Pakistan, China and terrorists within India—maybe he was responding to China's hidden ploy.
A major scuffle, which included stone-pelting, took place between Indian and Chinese soldiers along the Line of Actual Control at eastern Ladakh in the western sector on Tuesday. The confrontation between the rival soldiers took place on the north bank of the Pangong Tso (Tso means lake) in eastern Ladakh. This skirmish too could be part of the Chinese strategy to engage Indian military at different points to dilute its focus on Pakistan.
(DISCLAIMER: Views expressed above are the author's own.)