Tensions on the shared land border have always been the barometer of Sino-Indian relations. Each year, both countries claim that the other’s armed forces and border patrols trespassed into sovereign territory, leading to escalation of threats from both sides. Every decade or so, such an incident flares up. The Doklam (known variously as Doko-La or Donglong in Chinese) Standoff, as it has come to be known, is the latest in this series. This time, however, the trigger incident was unprecedented as the Indian army troops crossed the international boundary into the plateau which lies in Bhutanese territory to stop China from constructing a road. China claims that the plateau is disputed and pending settlement with Bhutan. As the troops on both sides square off awaiting diplomatic parleys between New Delhi and Beijing, there are issues worth talking about that make these deadlocks significantly consequential for India.

Primarily, India’s real China problem is not the threat of war. If there were to be war and India feared defeat or large-scale destruction, there would at least be visible aversion to it in some form. Despite prioritizing economic cooperation with China and witnessing growing trade imbalances, there exists a lot more appetite for the talk of war within India than there is in China. Indian elections are contested over who can better respond to threats emanating from Pakistani and Chinese aggressiveness. Our governments are therefore liable to clarify the dynamics of these threats and present a sustainable national action plan to tackle them. Unfortunately, the pitch of such threats seems to be intensifying while we still appear lacking in preparedness. India’s real China problem lies in persistent avoidance of the fact that the status quo in Asia has already transformed and that it is viewed by China as part of the old order. Therein also lies India’s most significant opportunity for ushering in a change in the tenor of bilateral relations. 
A fundamental shift in the understanding of the Sino-Indian international boundary has been underway: ever since independence (and especially since the 1962 war) the border was seen as wholly inviolable, even sacrosanct in memoriam of the Indian soldiers who lost their lives. For China, on the other hand, the entirety of its territorial demarcation as established by treaties during the colonial period had to be renegotiated, since these treaties were “unequal” and the Qing Empire did not agree to them from a position of sovereign equality with dominant countries such as Russia or Britain. China did not recognize the McMahon Line, which still represents the India-China border on official Indian maps, and went to war in 1962 over these conflicting perceptions. 
Ever since, each new standoff has brought to light an increasing number of disputed patches of territory all along this boundary from Jammu and Kashmir to Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Today, even the highest levels of the government including the armed forces shy away from stating concrete facts about the Indian position on the land boundary and the trade-offs being made with the Chinese each time the two sides agree to climb down the escalation ladder. What are the different perceptions about the Line of Actual Control in the Western sector between India and China if both armies frequently “trespass” the Line? How much of the Indian territory is actually under Chinese occupation today? It may be in the national interest to keep such questions unanswered until an indefinite point in the future but this approach needs to be balanced with honest communication with our citizens. Otherwise it fuels grave doubts and lack of faith in India’s national vision and core capabilities. 
Furthermore, it is not only India’s dispute with China that is at Centre stage in Doklam but also New Delhi’s historical policy to act as Bhutan’s primary ally and benefactor. There are opinions now being voiced in the Indian strategic community that India has not understood well the nuances of Bhutan’s growing preference for strategic autonomy in its bilateral dealings, particularly with China. As it is, the common Indian rarely takes interest in becoming more aware of India’s neighbours in South Asia other than Pakistan, a country with which India’s experience has led to an over-securitization of the entire neighbourhood among the Indian populace. It is rare to not view Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar and now even Bhutan as either drawing closer to China or playing into the hands of Pakistani agencies. 
There is, however, decades worth of neglect towards understanding both South Asia and China, especially, in terms of how India is viewed in these countries and whether the long-standing foreign policy doctrines can address apparent shifts in perceptions. The Indian state and organs of Indian society are mistaken if our negotiating position seems to be one of strength. The growing inner uncertainty mentioned before and the strategic inability to forge regional cohesion under its leadership could only make us vulnerable to a repeat of the incident at Doklam ad infinitum. 
A new approach to rebuilding national confidence and crafting a South Asian community is desperately needed. Without India’s lead, South Asia is a vacuum asking to be meddled with due to the subcontinent’s specific historical experiences in the 20th century and India’s growing geopolitical prominence in the region today. China’s influence in all its neighbouring regions of Central, Northeast and Southeast Asia has already grown to a great extent. Therefore, India’s unwillingness to strike a compromise in the bilateral disputes and declared intentions of balancing China’s power lie at the core of Beijing’s unease and displeasure. 
Moreover, the new normal is not merely that of Chinese dominance and its unfettered expansion. China represents a huge swath of the world population rapidly gaining prosperity and has turned into a magnet for drawing human aspirations from all over the world. India can no longer solely focus on capturing a place of prominence in the global governance frameworks buoyed by a US-led world order. Its long-term interests now also lie in deepening its understanding of China and that should pervade all levels of Chinese polity, society, and economy. India could perhaps look at Meiji-era Japan and post-1945 Britain to appreciate how in the face of global power shifts, these countries adopted diverse approaches to deal with the great powers on the rise and shape new regional orders. 
By acting as a stakeholder commensurate with its size, diversity, and unique openness alongside the Chinese growth story, India can reaffirm its indispensability to a new Asian order. India’s emphasis on its core values and their articulation in its foreign policy must address its South Asian neighbours and China foremost. This would have to include promoting extensive socio-cultural and economic institutional exchanges between China as well as South Asian countries and India even though many disputes remain unsettled. India’s response to Chinese accusations of being closed, insecure, and exclusive must be to project even greater confidence in all spheres of its foreign relations. The Indian media must take greater interest in positive developments inside our neighbouring countries and the fraternal humanistic aspects of our foreign relations. 
India would also have to make it clear that on many issues it may not share China’s vision but that it still feels secure and remains open to accepting the Chinese people into its society and economy. It can take lessons from how China has gained the most from Japanese and American interest and investments into the Chinese economy and not allowed thorny issues to derail cooperation. The US has also always projected openness and acceptance towards people from countries it has hostile relations with. There is no reason why India should not develop the institutional mechanisms and cultivate the self-assurance needed to turn this challenge into an opportunity.