The peaceful resolution of the dispute has been Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s biggest geo-strategic wins to date. It further demonstrated the success of a quiet leadership – where cold and calculative moves beat chest-thumping rhetoric and where results speak for themselves. The past 70 days of the public stand-off and private back-channel discussions makes for a classic case study of multi-party negotiations. In such complex negotiations, a factor called BATNA – Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement – plays a crucial role. A well-calculated BATNA is the most important leverage a negotiating party has. For the first time, India went to the negotiating table with a clearly articulated and demonstrable “best alternative” – that it would not shy away from a limited border skirmish if negotiations failed. The demonstrability of this option confused China, which seemed to expect that India would softly relent from its position.
While Prime Minister Modi and his team need to be lauded for the resolution of the crisis, we need to be careful about the chinks in our Northeast strategy being exposed. The Doklam dispute doesn’t look like a one-off case of Chinese aggression. India, therefore, needs to continue strengthening its BATNA to improve its diplomatic negotiating power. For that, reducing the enormous strategic and economic pressure on the 22 km wide Siliguri corridor, which links mainland India with its north eastern states, is a must.
The Doklam standoff had two inter-connected aspects. One was the plot of Chinese troops to advance and occupy the Doklam plateau, which is Bhutan’s territory. The second was to push the tri-junction area that holds the borders of India-Tibet-Bhutan about 10 kilometres south of the present position. It was the latter that directly threatened the Siliguri corridor.
In view of this immediate vulnerability, India needs to find alternate means to reach its northeastern part quickly and effectively. Indian policy makers have spent the last decade envisaging new projects like the Kaladan multi-modal transit project to connect the Northeast to mainland India via land, sea and inland waterways. The Kaladan project was planned to connect the Kolkata port to Sittwe port in Myanmar, then use the waterways of the Kaladan river to reach Mizoram. This offered India a circuitous yet alternate route for moving goods from the mainland into the Northeast via Myanmar. The other ambitious project was the trilateral highway connecting India-Myanmar-Thailand through Moreh in Manipur. Similar road and rail projects have been envisaged via Bangladesh to offer quicker and cheaper access to Tripura and Assam. These projects had the potential to be India’s own OBOR (One Belt One Road), connecting new economies and strategic regions and reducing the pressure on the “Chicken’s Neck” Siliguri corridor. However, the progress on several of these projects has been dismally slow.
Even if we manage to find alternate ways of reaching the periphery of India’s Northeast, the road infrastructure within the region remains e the main bottleneck for movement of goods. When India was ready to oppose tooth and nail the Chinese road-building party in a small barren patch of land in Doklam, some 14,000 feet above sea level, what stops the country from prioritizing highway construction in its very own northeastern region? For the past seven decades, the political and security regimes in the Northeast were not even clear on a basic question – should we build roads in Northeast or not? They feared that if they built these highways, they would be used by insurgents. The Modi government thankfully recovered from this brainless and perverse policy paralysis and prioritized long pending projects like the Dhola – Sadiya and Bogibeel bridge projects. In spite of this renewed focus, there is a lot to be done to fully secure our Northeastern territory.
As security analyst Brahma Chellaney puts it, China blended psychological warfare, media warfare and manipulated legal arguments or lawfare to counter India’s position on the Doklam standoff. In the future, we cannot rule out China using proxy warfare through Northeast insurgent groups to open old wounds and new fronts against India. The Chinese state mouthpiece Global Times recently tried to poke its nose in the highly polarized debate around the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system in Manipur. This shows that China will remain invested in India’s northeast problems to suit its strategic interests. It is therefore imperative that India rethinks its priorities in the area before we find ourselves in another diplomatic standoff.
Both India and China suffer from severely claustrophobic geo-strategic settings. China desperately needs access to the Bay of Bengal, preferably through Myanmar’s Irrawaddy river, in case its South China sea route is choked. Similarly, India is wary of its Northeast getting isolated if its Siliguri corridor is choked. This sense of unease will continue to draw both India and China into confrontations in the future, as pointed out by Michael Wesley, author of Restless Continent. While geographies can’t be changed, how India and China ease this claustrophobia will determine Asia’s strategic future.
(Rajat Sethi is a public policy graduate from Harvard Kennedy School and Political Advisor to the Chief Minister of Manipur)
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