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Will the Doklam standoff lead to a second Sino-Indian war?

Both New Delhi and Beijing have every incentive not to start fighting

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The mounting military tensions at Doklam, the tri-boundary area connecting Bhutan, China and India, have generated the impression that India and China are going to repeat their 1962 war. Official Chinese media and think tanks have warned India that conflict can lead to war if not handled properly and India should take a lesson from history. When asked about the possibility of the current dispute escalating, Luo Zhaohui, China’s ambassador to India, did not dismiss the likelihood of such a development. And an article in The Global Times, referring to India’s involvement on behalf of Bhutan, reminded New Delhi that “under India’s logic, if the Pakistani government requests, a third country’s army can enter the area disputed by India and Pakistan.”

In New Delhi the rhetoric is similarly tough. For instance, when Beijing invoked the 1962 war and its humiliation of India, Defense Minister Arun Jaitley replied that “The India of 2017 is different from the India of 1962.” Likewise, Gen. Bipin Rawat, India’s chief of army staff, also acknowledged the possibility of an Indo-China war and said the “Indian Army is fully ready for a 2½-front war.” The government’s recent authorization of the army to make emergency purchases of ammunition, stores and spares for several weapon platforms also point toward an impending short, intense war between India and China.

The fear of an India-China war does not emanate from the Doklam standoff in isolation. The possibility of war between the two nuclear-armed giants of the Asia-Pacific region, with their 2.6 billion combined population, has been one of the significant concerns of the global strategic community for the last few decades. Certainly a war, which could cause thousands of casualties and decimate a substantial part of the global economy, is a pressing matter for the strategic community.

The most significant question regarding escalation is who would fire the first bullet, India or China? Interestingly, answering this question will help us answer the million dollar question: Will there be another India-China war? In my view, either side escalating the current border skirmishes to a short or long war is unlikely for many reasons.

Will India fire the first shot?

If the question is whether India will go to war with China, my answer is a sound “no.” The reasons go beyond strategic calculations, such as strength and numbers of forces and weapons. In other words, cognizance of pure military strength and weakness is not the primary force that stops New Delhi from firing the first bullet against its enemy. It is the structure of the government and concerns of leaders about the domestic constituency that holds back a forward move.

Let me clarify this. War is fundamentally a political act. It is not the military, which fights the war, but rather the political leaders, who declare the war and are accountable for its outcome. A war can bring different incentives for domestic institutions, including a change of government or change of leadership.

In their work “Selectorate Theory of War,” Bueno De Mesquita, James D. Morrow, Randolph M. Siverson and Alastair Smith explain the general tendency of democratic leaders to fight easier wars. According to the theory, democratic leaders are more likely to opt out of difficult wars because their grip on power is more contingent on the support of the population. Compared with other types of regimes, in a democracy the chances are high that the outcome of the war will be reflected in the re-election campaign. Therefore, once a war is underway democratic leaders need to ensure nothing less than victory.

The necessity of a win to secure support from the domestic constituency compels leaders to put in additional efforts, including more military spending at the price of public welfare spending. If they win the war, people will forget all their sufferings in the delight of victory. However, if they lose the people will not only recollect the futile sufferings they underwent but the leaders who brought humiliation to their nation as well. Here, democratic leaders have to ensure that war will not be a destructive force to their support base.

In the context of India, this is very much applicable. The incumbent government is going to face an election in May 2019, and its record so far is not good when it comes to delivering public goods. In any case, a war with China, whether short or long, will have a destructive effect on the economy, which has already been disturbed by reforms and policies such as demonetization. Even if New Delhi won such a war by putting forth massive efforts, the economic and military might of Beijing and China’s strategic advantages will ensure that the battle is unproductive for India. In addition, Indians have been living with humiliated hearts since 1962; a repetition of this defeat would be unpardonable.

Hence, for New Delhi the best option is to prepare for war but not to start it. In fact, preparing for war increases the government’s chance to win re-election through uniting national feelings and sentiments. Considering these assumptions and factors, one can say that New Delhi will not go to war with Beijing, at least until the next election.

Will China take the risk?

To those who follow Chinese provocations and warnings, and their continuous references to 1962, it seems that Beijing is preparing for an imminent and unavoidable war with its neighbor. However, it is sure that Sun Tzu’s descendants will think twice before such a move. First, Beijing’s current priority is translating China’s economic might to global public support in favor of its impending superpower status. Though the international community has acknowledged China as an economic superpower with footprints in every corner of the globe, the world is not ready to accept China as a future leader. The main reason behind this unacceptability is Beijing’s inability to provide alternative norms and rules for the crisis-ridden neoliberal values and Western-led global governance system.

In this context, if China takes the risk of waging war against India, it will only strengthen charges of Chinese interventionism and imperial tendencies. In other words, a war against India would ultimately destroy the image China is desperately seeking — that of a benevolent superpower which emerged out of a peaceful transfer of power. Unless and until Beijing could ensure a war against its powerful neighbor has the generative capacity of remaking the world order, the best option for Xi Jinping is to follow Sun Tzu’s advice: “The skillful leader subdues the enemy without fighting.” Here, the only option left for Beijing is to convince the world that New Delhi is an existential threat. However, it is not an easy task since Doklam is situated in territory disputed between China and tiny Bhutan.

To sum up, while domestic calculations and preferences hold New Delhi back from going to war with Beijing, in China’s case it is its international image that prevents it from doing so. Since the incumbent government in New Delhi is going to face re-election in 2019, a war with an uncertain outcome is not a good option for them. Since Beijing is attempting to step into the shoes of Washington and be the new global hegemon, waging war with its neighbor is a bad look for them as well. Therefore, India and China have only one option: to prepare for an indefinite standoff to satisfy their own constituencies.

Rajeesh Kumar is an associate fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.© 2017. The Diplomat; Distributed by Tribune Content Agency