The US and Doklam: Look beyond rhetoric

India's Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman (L) speaks as U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis looks on during a joint news conference in New Delhi, India September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi - RC1A247B5D40

Some have been wondering recently whether Washington’s commitment to its allies and partners in Asia has been steadfast and overt enough. And there have been calls for the Trump administration to reassure U.S. allies and partners in the region of its commitment through public statements. However, in one recent case in Asia—the Doklam stand-off between China and India—strong American statements would not necessarily have been helpful or indeed what America’s partner was seeking.

The China-India standoff came to light with an official Chinese statement on June 26—even as President Trump and Prime Minister Modi were meeting in Washington—alleging that Indian soldiers had crossed over into Chinese territory. India stated it had done so to stop Chinese road building—and a unilateral change in the status quo—in an area that both China and India’s close partner Bhutan claim. The face-off continued until August 28, when the two sides agreed to disengage.

During this time, the Trump administration said relatively little, prompting criticism that Washington should have said more to support India and to draw parallels to broader Chinese behavior in the region (including vis-à-vis the South China Sea). Critics contended that Washington’s relative silence raised reliability questions about the United States. In comparison, some pointed favorably to comments from the Japanese ambassador to India.

It’s true that there are long-standing reliability concerns in the U.S.-India relationship. However, in the case of this China-India incident, it is worth taking a second look at the Trump administration’s response, and how the Indian government might have seen it. There are five aspects to consider:

What Washington said

First, the administration was not entirely silent about the standoff. The State Department expressed concern and urged “direct dialogue aimed at reducing tensions.” A Defense Department spokesman echoed the call for dialogue and resolution “free of any coercive aspects.” Then, in mid-August, an unnamed senior administration official went further:

“We support return to the status quo…We’re also concerned about Bhutanese sovereignty issues. We’re concerned in general terms about sovereignty issues and adherence to international law…I think that certainly pertains to this particular issue…We hope that India and China can find a negotiated solution to return to a peaceful state of affairs in the area. We are just watching it very carefully and we are in conversation with the Indian government about the issues. We stand ready to help if that is desired. But, for the time being, we’re monitoring the situation carefully.” (emphasis added)

There is little doubt that the United States has equities with China that shape its response in such situations. Other factors possibly affecting the administration’s response could have been its other preoccupations, as well as the level of staffing. But, the statements it did make together clearly emphasized four elements:

  • Referring requests for information to China and India,
  • Encouraging China and India to negotiate (even as Beijing was publicly insisting it would not negotiate without a unilateral Indian withdrawal),
  • Emphasizing peaceful, non-coercive steps (even as Chinese officials’ and official news outlets used forceful rhetoric, the Chinese military undertook a military exercise in the area, China closed a pilgrimage route for Indians, and issued a travel advisories for India),
  • Supporting the status quo ante (essentially, the Bhutanese and Indian objective).

What India wanted

Second, the Indian government may not have wanted the U.S. government to say more publicly. With a limited objective, what it really wanted, in this particular case, was to keep the situation from escalating. This was evident from its own restrained public statements. New Delhi itself did not draw parallels to recent Chinese actions vis-à-vis its other neighbors—frankly, this was unnecessary, since the echoes are not lost on anyone in the region and perhaps help explain how little support Beijing received for its position. Greater American rhetoric in the midst of the crisis would not have helped this Indian effort to limit the situation.

There are also broader dynamics at play: One involves the U.S.-India relationship and the other involves India’s role in the region.

  • On the U.S.-India relationship, analysts and officials in China have alleged or suggested that India is part of an American encirclement strategy to contain China, or that the United States is causing problems between China and India, or that Washington is encouraging Indian aggressiveness that, in turn, is destabilizing the region. This is not new: During the 1965 India-Pakistan war and 1967 China-India clashes, for example, Beijing indeed partly held the United States responsible for Indian actions. In the Doklam context, strident American statements could have exacerbated the situation, potentially fueling Chinese suggestions of U.S.-India collusion, making it harder for China to take the off-ramp, and making Beijing less willing to heed any private American advice.
  • On the regional or leadership factor, India is portraying itself as a major power that is “shouldering [its] responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security” and seeks to be a “leading power.” Officials have Delhi has also repeatedly stated that China and India have and can manage such situations with “strategic maturity.” The way the situation was resolved allowed Delhi to demonstrate its ability to tackle this situation independently, and, along with China, manage differences without requiring a third-party assist or mediation. Had the situation escalated or continued, India’s position on American statements might have changed (American calculations would have changed too), but Delhi would have likely wanted to wait to seek such support.

Behind the Scenes

Third, although there was a relative dearth of public rhetoric from Washington during the standoff, the United States and India were in touch privately, as American officials’ comments indeed acknowledged. Historically, public posture has been a topic of discussion behind the scenes. For example, when Indira Gandhi met Secretary of State Dean Rusk in New York in early October 1962, they discussed “the Chinese aggressions,” but Rusk noted that while Washington had the “greatest sympathy” with India, the administration had “done nothing publicly” because it felt “that interjecting ourselves into the matter might be counter-productive by complicating the situation for India.” He added that Washington would take Delhi’s lead and “stood ready to be of assistance should the Indian Government ever conclude that we might be helpful.”

The United States doesn’t normally—and shouldn’t—make statements in Doklam-like situations without engaging with its partners. The idea is to help the situation, not harm it. Washington wouldn’t want to be ahead of New Delhi’s position on the matter or create expectations that it isn’t ready to meet. And New Delhi wouldn’t want a statement from Washington that complicated its calculations or demonstrated a gap between the two partners. After all, both capitals understand that the other has different interests at play, including vis-à-vis Beijing.

Fourth, there are ways the United States could have been—and might have been—helpful to India that are not visible publicly. One reason for rhetoric is to signal, but every government has to prioritize objectives and audiences, and there are other ways for Washington to signal China—sometimes more effective ones, even if they are not public (or perhaps because they are not). For example, during the 1965 India-Pakistan war, even as the United States was internally considering options to support India militarily if China intervened, it privately sent a strong message through the China-U.S. ambassadorial channel in Warsaw to deter China. Washington has also shared information and assessments with India: It did so, for example, after the 1964 Chinese nuclear test or during the 1967 China-India clashes in Sikkim. Thus, “support” can mean different things.

Support, Beyond Doklam

Finally, underlying criticisms of the U.S. public stance is a broader long-standing question that some have: Will the United States and India really be there for each other when push comes to shove? This has especially been a concern because the two countries have had different ways of doing business when it comes to dealing with other countries. The United States has had a lot of experience dealing with allies and adversaries; partners or friends—even like-minded ones—can be more complicated. India, on its part, (mostly) doesn’t do alliances. Successive American and Indian governments have been grappling with this gap to create in some ways an “exceptional” relationship—not entirely unique because the United States has dealt with partners and India with alignments, but different. Part of this difference is recognizing that expectations have to be different too. This means, for example, that India, having chosen to selectively align with countries like Japan and the United States but not ally with them, cannot expect a security commitment from them and hasn’t given them one in return.

That does not mean India and the United States aren’t doing things for each other or have nothing to show for the last decade and a half of engagement—they wouldn’t be partners if they didn’t think they were getting something out of the relationship.

The United States can “be there” for India vis-à-vis China in different ways, indeed in ways that New Delhi might prefer and might prove more consequential, including in shaping China’s perceptions and the regional environment. Washington could:

  • Facilitate or contribute to the enhancement of Indian military and economic capabilities that, in turn, could help India to burden share;
  • Share information and assessments about China;
  • Work with India and others in the network of like-minded partners in the region to build capacity and offer smaller countries a choice; and
  • Continue to be engaged—and demonstrate resolve—in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.

Related to the latter point, more than what the United States did not say over the last few months, what the Indian government will watch carefully is the Trump administration’s broader approach to the Indo-Pacific and its specific approach to China. There is still a lot we don’t know about the Doklam standoff, but uncertainty about the American role in the region does seem to have contributed to Beijing’s sense that it has a window of opportunity to act (out) in Asia.

This was not the first and is unlikely to be the last time Washington is faced with questions of what to do about an evolving China-India situation, and it’s worth planning for related contingencies (including considering the public posture to take). In the near term, there will be opportunities during future high-level meetings for the United States and India to reiterate their support for and belief in a rules-based order rather than a coercion-based one. Secretary of Defense Mattis did as much in Delhi today, stressing the importance of “a strong rules-based international order and a shared commitment to international law, peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for territorial integrity.”