New Delhi: It is not clear what made India confront China on Doklam which is essentially a disputed area between China and Bhutan. Today, China snubbed speculations about military infrastructure build-up in the disputed area asserting territorial sovereignty over Doklam. Having caught the Narendra Modi government in a bad moment with China, the Congress party has waded into the troubles to draw political mileage. There are other issues for that. India’s Doklam troubles are not going to disappear anytime soon. It would help though to admit for a start that the Modi government has made a complete mess of relations with China.

China has a thirty-year politico-economic head start on India and it replaced the dying powers of Western Europe not long after the end of the Second World War to become the third Great Power after the United States and Soviet Russia. Indian policymakers who are generally unversed in geopolitics fail to appreciate the depth of China’s power. Having not even entirely emerged from a debilitating civil war, China plunged into war in the Korean peninsula engaging a multinational force led by the United States. It managed incredibly to draw the contest. China was definitely mauled by the Korean War but the United States was damaged no less. It made both powers wary of one another and it taught the United States in brutal fashion not to take China casually. There are lessons here Indians haven’t learnt even after the equally brutal experience of 1962.

China, on the other hand, has learnt a great deal from the blunders of the former Soviet Union. Its state power is based on a strong centralized communist party structure and on a world dominating economy. Since China has never known democracy for any length of time, the authoritarian state structure will continue. China is not going to cease being a Great Power in the foreseeable future. Like Otto von Bismarck, Deng Xiaoping has rebuilt China to last. If China does not blunder into world war, it could probably outlast the United States as a Great Power. The Narendra Modi government and the military establishment consider China a pushover. It is not. While the political economy is China’s main concern, it cannot have lesser powers face it down. The rules of the mafia apply wholly to geopolitics. If China does not “show India its place”, as its egotistical leadership is likely to evaluate, it will encourage other subordinate countries to defy China.

For domestic political and economic reasons, China defused the Doklam standoff. India tom-tommed it as victory for Narendra Modi’s muscular nationalism and broadcast it to the world. India failed to notice that not one country backed India’s Doklam action. The United States was studiously silent and remains so. India felt encouraged by China’s tactical withdrawal to lend support to other states menaced by China. India did not appreciate that these countries could use and abandon India in a crisis. If their venture of defiance failed, they could always blame India while repairing relations with China. Where would it leave India? In the doldrums.

This has, incidentally, already happened with at least one tiny nation. India went into Doklam ostensibly to protect the interests of Bhutan. Did Bhutan ask for help either formally or informally? Bhutan has maintained a terrified silence to date. Indeed, Bhutan is hedging its bets. It is not sure it could trust to India’s security guarantee and sagacity in relation to China. It is turning to the United States. That provides only limited insurance. In any case, it does not assist with India’s security crisis in the Indian territory facing Doklam, where India’s chief land link with the North East narrows to a vulnerable “Chicken’s Neck”. India has to secure this territory as best as its ingenuity permits. It cannot march into foreign lands to secure it, which is what the Doklam action amounts to. India does not quite realize that it has enraged China beyond reason. India has to take urgent initiative to defuse tensions. It would considerably help if the Modi government, the military establishment and the Congress party seal their collective lips and not aggravate matters with destructive jingoism.

Moreover, if the latest testing of Agni V is to impress and intimidate China, it will not. China and Russia fought a vicious border war in the late 1960s under a nuclear overhang. China did not sue for outside help but Russia did, trying to get the United States on its side by portraying China as aggressor. US analysts came to the exact opposite conclusion. One should have a sense of proportion about nuclear weapons. The threat from nuclear weapons is so great that it is strategically virtually unemployable. It retains some value as a theatre weapon to deter conventional strikes, and Pakistan’s success with India on that score should get the government to devise similar countermeasures in the Chicken’s Neck region. The Doklam action cannot be repeated, however. It was misadventure. The neighbourhood is returning to the crisis situation that marked the decade leading up to the end of the Cold War. India needs as well to return to cautious and conservative geopolitics.