Dr. Sumit Ganguly on the India-China Border Dispute at the Doklam Plateau

Sumit Ganguly is a Professor of Political Science, holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations. Professor Ganguly is also a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (elected 2017). He has been named a Distinguished Alumnus of Berea College, received the Medal of the Italian Chamber of Deputies (2006), and the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award from the President of India (2009). He has held fellowships at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, DC and the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. In fall 2017, he is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College.

On September 13, 2017, he spoke with Seoyoon Choi CMC ‘19.

Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Ganguly.

Although tensions at the Doklam Plateau subsided in late August when India withdrew its troops and China ceased activity on its road construction, what are the long-term implications of the two-month standoff at Doklam?

The long-term implication is that this is simply going to contribute to a further deterioration of the Sino-Indian relationship. India will be much more worried and concerned about the Chinese presence on India’s borders. India is going to be very careful about military deployments along the border. This makes it much more difficult to resolve the ongoing border dispute.

Given that Doklam is an unpopulated, remote region, why is the Doklam Plateau important for India and China?

It’s terribly important because the Doklam Plateau is extremely close to a place that the Indians refer to as “the chicken’s neck.” If the Chinese successfully manage to deploy a substantial number of troops and build the road, they could cut off India’s access to the northeast in the event of a conflict. Even though it is a sparsely populated area, it is of enormous significance to Indian security. Consequently, the Indians felt compelled to act since this region has extraordinary strategic importance.

How was the Doklam dispute different from other recent border disputes between China and India, such as the 2013 Depsang incident and 2014 Chumar incident? The timing of the BRICS summit proved useful in resolving a dangerous standoff. Going forward, what are the limitations and potential advantages of the BRICS’ economic cooperation for preventing conflict between China and India?

I don’t think the BRICS meetings in particular will help reduce potential conflict between China and India. The BRICS meetings are for other purposes, such as coordinating various multilateral positions and pursuing other common economic interests. The bilateral relationship between China and India is what is really critical between China and India. To some degree, the conflict was perhaps diminished because neither side wanted awkwardness or tension at the BRICS meeting. To that extent, the BRICS meeting helped, but it cannot be an avenue for conflict resolution on the border issue between China and India. That has to be handled bilaterally. This incident was different from previous incidents largely because of the extraordinary strategic importance of “the chicken’s neck.”

 In the event of another Sino-Indian border standoff, what role could Russia, an ally of both countries, play in mitigating tensions?

Russia cannot play a significant role in mitigating tensions. The Indo-Russian relationship has declined considerably. It was mostly a legacy relationship that involved India’s acquisition of weaponry from Russia. Beyond that, no one cares much about the Indo-Russian relationship anymore. The Russians also do not want to get involved in Sino-Indian border conflicts because they value their relationship with the Chinese. They have developed a much more cordial relationship with China in recent years, largely because of a common hostility toward the United States. Russia would not be particularly interested in expending significant political capital in trying to resolve the disputes between China and India. Historically during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was virtually aligned with India for a significant period of time owing to a common hostility toward China and China’s close relationship with the United States, particularly in the early 1970s and onwards. But that has long since ended. The hostility no longer characterizes the relationship between China and Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union. Consequently the Russians have no particular interest in coming to India’s assistance anymore, barring their interest in selling advanced weaponry to India. And even the sale of weapons is not enough of a basis for coming to India’s diplomatic assistance in the event of a crisis. Consequently, Russia cannot be counted on to be an important player in a crisis in the future.

With the U.S. resuming freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, are India and the U.S. likely to work together to thwart China’s territorial expansion?

In the South China Sea, India’s ability to come to the assistance of the United States is somewhat limited for the simple reason that India does not have substantial naval assets that it can deploy in the South China Sea, at least not yet. India has more immediate threats it must contend with, and consequently India’s ability to augment American capabilities is rather limited. Quite frankly, I doubt the U.S. is counting on India other than to provide diplomatic support. The US has no illusions that India can provide material support to the U.S. While India may take a diplomatic stance that supports the U.S. in the event of continuing tensions in the South China Sea, I don’t see India adopting a wider role in that particular conflict.

Does the Doklam standoff signify India’s will to establish itself as a regional power that could rival China? What does this standoff tell us about India’s regional assertiveness under a Modi administration?

No, the standoff does not help establish India as a regional power. The event does demonstrate that the Modi regime is willing to adopt a tougher stance on China, which it has already demonstrated to some degree. Previous regimes have tried to be much more conciliatory toward China, but Modi is unwilling to maintain that stance. That does mark a shift in terms of India’s policy, but the tougher position in the Doklam crisis does not make India emerge as regional power.

Seoyoon Choi CMC '19Student Journalist

Featured Image by Narendra Modi [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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