Using sports idioms to hash out issues of war and peace may seem inappropriate, but it is possible to say that the month-long India-China military standoff on the border near Sikkim is about to enter the home stretch this weekend.
The last curve on the racetrack is approaching in a couple of days, and what is clear is that there can only be one winner.
If the expectation was that the visit by Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to Beijing to attend the seventh meeting of BRICS High Representatives on Thursday and Friday could provide a window of opportunity for a meaningful conversation to find a face-saving formula to resolve the standoff, that now seems unlikely.
On Monday, Beijing drew the red line for the benefit of Indian policymakers huddling to finalize Doval’s “talking points” in Beijing. The red line is that India must leave “Chinese territory” unconditionally, unilaterally, without further delay.
For the first time, the Chinese Defense Ministry waded into the discourse, with its spokesman Senior Colonel Wu Qian asserting that the People’s Liberation Army will defend Chinese territory “at all costs” and disclosing that Chinese border troops have “taken initial countermeasures at the site and will step up targeted deployment and training”.
Wu urged India to “abandon any impractical illusions” over the PLA’s “unshakable determination to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang hinted at a regular media briefing on Monday that a meeting between Doval and his Chinese host State Councilor Yang Jiechi “to exchange views” could not be ruled out.
Curiously, the Communist Party tabloid Global Times in an editorial on Monday highlighted that Doval was the problem rather than the solution, saying he was “believed to be one of the main schemers behind the current border standoff”.
An accusing finger has been pointed at the Prime Minister’s Office in New Delhi. Doval reports to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Global Times has a pronounced nationalist outlook, but making allowance for that, something seems to have changed fundamentally in the Chinese rhetoric.
It may be risky to be dismissive about the Chinese articulations as mere rhetorical flourish. The PLA has appeared on the front line as the lead actor. And China’s Military Commission is headed by none other than President Xi Jinping.
The Global Times editorial underlined that New Delhi should give up any “illusions”, since PLA forces “are being deployed to the border area, and will take effective countermeasures”.
Importantly, it ended with a political message that the Modi government may face self-invited humiliation. An analogy has been drawn that India may face “its most serious strategic setback since 1962”.
On the other hand, right-wing opinion in India continues to be that this is all Beijing’s “psywar”, and that China is only bluffing.
In this optimistic view, India is well prepared militarily and in reality China is “rattled” by the resoluteness of the Indian action to cross the border – something no previous Indian government before Modi’s leadership dared to do.
The argument that this is platinum-grade “muscular diplomacy” is predicated on the belief that what ensues may be “a short intense war” in which the PLA simply cannot muster the forces necessary to overcome the three Indian Army divisions deployed in the vicinity of the theater of contestation in Doklam.
The core assumption here is that China has no option but to accept as fait accompli the new fact on the ground, which the Indian Army has created. One analyst wrote: “Nothing is likely to happen other than more ejections of more hot air and gas from the Chinese side…. The PLA has just about another month to start an affray before the weather begins closing in. Beijing apparently doesn’t rate the PLA’s chances highly. Otherwise, it would, by now, have done something instead of just raving and ranting.”
Analysts close to Indian military circles assess that if China does not contest the new fact on the ground in Doklam, it will constitute “victory” for New Delhi and a strategic defeat for China.
Of course, a case can be made that “you live only once, so make the best of it”. But in the life of nations, there are assumptions and assumptions – and certain assumptions a nation makes at defining moments must be absolutely ironclad, with zero margin of error.
In 1962 India failed the litmus test with disastrous consequences. The assumption that the PLA is a paper tiger may be stretching things too far.
Besides, wars are never fought at the military level alone. Comprehensive national power invariably comes into play.
How long and weary the home stretch is going to be may become clear by this weekend.