Doklam has set a benchmark for Sino-India relations for the future
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 19 Oct , 2017

The Doklam stand-off between India and China, which lasted for 72 days, and which took place in a remote area of the forbidden heights of eastern Himalayas, is symbolic of the continued lack of trust that exists between India and China, ever since the ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ slogan was turned on its head by Chinese aggression in 1962.

The humiliating reverses suffered by India in the 1962 war was a direct consequence of Nehru’s haughty moralizing on the conduct of diplomacy at various international fora, without backing it up with the required degree of military preparedness. On the other hand, averting a conflict in Doklam, without compromising our stand (our objection to China constructing a road till the tri-junction, as they define it), has been a welcome diplomatic victory, even though it may prove to be a short-lived one.

In all previous violations of the McMahon line by Chinese troops, the confrontation would be directly between the two belligerents, India and China; but not this time. This time it was not a routine violation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) by the Chinese troops that needed an Indian response. Militarily and diplomatically, there was much in the Doklam stand-off that was different.

Doklam plateau falls in the Bhutanese territory. There is a pre-existing territorial dispute between Bhutan and China in this region. Therefore, to start with, this time there was a third (sovereign) country whose territory was violated. India got involved for various reasons; the most important being the fact that India and Bhutan have a defence treaty (Mutual Defence Agreement) which stipulates a specific role for India in Bhutan’s defence and external policies. But more importantly, the issue involved much more than merely standing by the ‘Treaty’.

As the summer of 2017 turned the valleys within the cold plateau into pleasant grazing grounds, the Chinese graziers began to bring their live stock for grazing into the lush green valleys and meadows. But shortly thereafter the India troops stationed in the Chumbi Valley noticed heavy road-construction equipment being parked by the Chinese on the tracks which led to their posts. It was not long before the middle of June 2017, that Chinese started constructing a road towards the Tri-junction. It is at this point that Indian troops physically intervened to prevent the construction activity, resulting in the stand-off.

The Chinese had planned to construct a road through Bhutan to a disputed Tri-junction point involving India, China and Bhutan. When completed it would link Lhasa-Shingatse to Yadong in the heart of Chhumbi valley. The dispute arose because this would seriously change the status quo. As a matter of fact, it was only in 1960 that Chinese graziers for the first time started bringing their live stock into the area; whereas the Bhutanese graziers have been using this area for centuries. In 2012, it had been mutually decided to determine the tri-junction points between the three affected countries, China, India and Bhutan and it was further agreed that none of the affected parties will take any unilateral action on the issue.

In the Treaties of 1988 and 1998 it was agreed by China and Bhutan to maintain peace in the area, pending a final settlement. It may be mentioned that the exact location of the Tri-Junction point between India, Bhutan and Tibet had not been agreed upon. According to the watershed theory, which India is wedded to, the Tri-junction is at Batangla, which is nearly 8 km north of where Chinese claim it to be, i.e., Gyemochen. As a matter of fact, a joint survey of the area was also carried out. After holding 24 rounds of talks with China, the Royal Government of Bhutan said, “On June 16, 2017, China started constructing road from Dokla to Dhoklam area towards the Bhutan Army Camp at Zomplri without informing Bhutan…”

It is not that the area has suddenly come to the notice of the Chinese as theirs, and which needed immediate occupation. Letters about the area were exchanged between the two big neighbours, India and China, as far back as 1966 (Vol 13 & 14 of the correspondence of Ministry of External Affairs, 1966- White Paper on China). In 2005,India and China had agreed to a formulation on a ‘ settled population’ as one of the ‘Guiding Principles’ for a boundary settlement, but within a year, the Chinese envoy claimed all of Arunachal Pradesh, while at the same time, claiming 496 Sq Km in eastern Bhutan and 286 Km in the western sector, which included Doklam area.

Clearly this created apprehension in the minds of Bhutan Government which saw a threat building up to Phuntsling, the entry point for Bhutan from India. If China were to occupy the disputed area, they would control the high mountain ridges, putting Haa, Paro and Thimpu, Bhutan’s three most important cities, within Chinese artillery range.

The implication of the construction of the Chinese road to the Tri-junction that it determined unilaterally, would lead to the annexation of the Doklam sector, permitting the PLA to widen the western shoulder of the Chhumbi Valley which would facilitate its military strike through Chhumbi Valley towards Siliguri Corridor, posing a grave threat to India’s security of its entire northeast region. The Chinese intended to take the whole of western shoulder of Chumbi Valley, permitting them to take the road to their version of Tri-junction, i.e., Mount Gyemochen, which is 10 km south of India’s interpretation, i.e., east of Batangla Pass. This would point the Chinese dagger at India’s north-eastern states.

Actually the Chinese objective was to come on to the Zomperi Ridge, 7.5 Km south of Batangla with the aim of buttressing its claims on Doklam. It is pertinent to mention that Indian troops here are at an advantage, as they were in Sumdrong Chu in 1986. This grave threat to India’s north-eastern states led to the Indian local formations in the region getting specific instructions. These were:-

•  Hold the line on ground and prepare for Chinese military retaliation.

•  Maintain Bhutan’s interests, particularly its territorial integrity.

•  Brave Chinese pressure.

Once it became clear to the Chinese that Indian Army was determined to prevent any construction of road in this area, the war of words started in earnest. The threatening statements issued by the authorised Chinese spokesmen raised serious concerns in India. Coupled with fact that China had moved 3 divisions, an artillery, an AD and armoured brigade in south Tibet, forced India to initiate a matching military response; it activated 3 divisions and its AF assets already permanently stationed at bases close to the LoAC in Assam and West Bengal.

Indian Army Chief’s visit to Gangtok during the stand-off did much to reassure the nation that China will not be allowed to dictate its terms as far as the military confrontation on ground was concerned.

As the stand-off turned into a stalemate, the war of words between the two neighbours became frequent and heated. However, it must be said to the credit of India that the Indian Government sources were extremely careful in issuing statements which could be considered even remotely provocative.

Defence Minister, Arun Jaitley’s statement that ‘ India of 2017 was not the India of 1962’ and the Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s detailed and articulate statement in the Parliament was seen as a matured response to the breast beating and threatening statements issued by the State-controlled Chinese media and spokesmen /women of its External Affairs ministry and PLA. Such war of words and threatening posturing by China did not create any panic in India. The latter, by its stead fast military stand and diplomatic mature- handling convinced China that India, this time around, was determined to prevent China from having its way.

The first signs of thaw appeared when the Indian National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, visited China for a scheduled multilateral meeting, during which he also met the Chinese President, Li Xing Ping. Though no statements were issued concerning the Doklam standoff, it was apparent that the ice had been broken. As the press reports subsequently said, Sh. Ajit Doval had made it clear to his Chinese counterpart that ‘Chinese could not claim every disputed piece of land in the Tibet-India border region as its own, as a fait accompli’.

A very categorical statement issued later by the Indian Home Minister, Sh. Rajnath Singh, clearly hinted that the standoff was nearing a resolution. On Aug 21, 2017, while speaking at an ITBP event, the HM said, “I want to assure the nation that Doklam issue will soon be resolved.” A couple of days later, the Chinese withdrew their road- constructing heavy equipment to the pre-June 16, 2017, locations, thereby restoring the status quo ante. Thus ended the Doklam- standoff, which nearly brought the two mighty nuclear-powered nations, to the brink of war.

Major Chinese incursions into the Indian Territory, across the 4000 km McMohan Line, are not new. Sometimes these have been in the form of small patrols getting across, and at other places, company- strength troops have intruded into the Indian side and left after constructing some bunkers or destroying ours. On some occasions they have even tried to change the status quo, as in Depsang (2013), Chumar( 2014) and Doklam (2017). Doklam incursion, however, was a case apart; the incursion did not take place in the Indian Territory, but in Bhutan. Therefore, India, for the first time, had to deploy its troops in a third country.

There has been much debate on the choice of Doklam as the Chinese incursion point this time round, its belligerent posturing during the entire imbroglio and finally, ending the whole imbroglio with a whimper. It is impossible to go into the Chinese mind and improbable to decipher what their inscrutable faces say. At best, there can only be conjectures about the motives of Chinese bid to change the status quo of the LoAC in Chumbi Valley.

For long, China has been trying to establish diplomatic relations with Bhutan, but without much success. Its aim is to get a foot-hold in Bhutan and then, like Nepal, expand its base for further influencing Bhutan’s policies, particularly vis-a-vis India, with the aim of driving a permanent wedge between India and its closest ally, Bhutan.

It has been unable to digest the rebuff dealt by Bhutan, which has consistently rejected its proposals. It is possible that the entire episode was based on its assessment that Bhutan will succumb to the pressure and vie for peace by offering a proposal for establishing diplomatic relations with China. It is also possible that China wanted to test the strength of the Indo-Bhutan Treaty by hitting at a point which did not violate the Indian Territory but only the Bhutanese region, though seriously impinging upon the strategic interests of India in a crucial sector. If this was the Chinese game plan, it got the message loud and clear; India will not accept any violation of Bhutanese territory, no matter what the cost.

Doklam has proved to the world in general and China in particular, that Bhutan is firmly in the inner circle of India’s strategic imperatives and its net security provider.

Had Bhutan succumbed to the Chinese game-plan and reached an agreement with China, it would have created dangerous geo-strategic precedent for both. China would then go to town, declaring that it has resolved the boundary problem with every State in the south, across the Himalayas, and it was only India which was not keen on doing so. This would have also created a serious trust deficit between Bhutan and India, which would have proved too costly for both the States.

It has been said that Chinese incursion at Doklam was essentially to pay back India for the latter’s refusal to attend the ‘Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)’ Conference in Beijing, which was attended by every country except India. India clearly had good reasons to avoid the meet as the show-piece of the BRI, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), runs through Gigit-Baltistan and PoK, both regions forming part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, which had acceded to India on 26 October, 1947, and is illegally under Pakistan’s occupation. Had India attended the Beijing conclave, it would have legitimized the illegal occupation of India territory by both China and Pakistan.

Chinese strong man, Xi Jing Ping has, of late, consolidated his position in the Chinese hierarchy. Today, he controls all the three wings which control China, bureaucracy, party and the PLA (as Chairman of the Central Military Commission). With the 19th Conference of the Communist Party of China scheduled from 19 Oct, 2017, Xi is trying to project the image of a strong patriot, willing to take risks in order to further China’s strategic interests. This would help him consolidate his position further and become all powerful before the actual conference took place, thus permitting him to make necessary changes in the powerful politbureau, where the next line of Chinese leadership will be selected.

However, this appears to be far-fetched as even without the show of force at Doklam, there appeared little resistance to Xi’s ambitious plans to further consolidate his position in China’s power structure.

It was also surmised that with BRICS Summit round the corner, a favourable outcome at Doklam would enhance Xi’s stature and at the same time, deal a severe blow to the image of India’s P.M. Narendra Modi, Xi’s obvious competitor in Asia. However, as the Doklam narrative did not go as planned, Xi decided to cut his losses and save the BRICS Summit. Even more surprising was a complete volte face by China, which joined other members to pass a resolution on terrorism, specifically mentioning terror organizations being provided shelter on its soil by Pakistan, China’s iron friend.

China’s Central Military Commission in 2003 formulated ‘Three Warfare Strategy’ which envisaged preparing the PLA to fight a modern war not just on ground but also in the realm of overall ability of its forces to influence public opinion, multilateral agencies and addressing the legal aspects of any war that PLA might have to fight. This strategy was refined in 2010, to include Media, psychological and legal warfare.

If one were to relate this strategy to Doklam, one would see a deliberate plan of the PLA to test its own ability while executing the above three dimensions of warfare. They tried every trick in the book to weaken Indian forces psychologically; their diplomatic offensive aimed at isolating India at the international level by aggressively telling the world that India was unnecessarily intruding into ‘what was matter to be essentially resolved between China and Bhutan’, was directed at influencing the world opinion on legal issues of the conflict. However, it was their use of the media which proved to be their undoing. Whereas India was circumspect, China went ballistic.

The standoff, having come in the background of China’s belligerence in South China Sea, and its obstructionist and obdurate stand on India becoming a member of the NSG and designating Masood Azhar, the chief of Jaish e Mohamad as an international terrorist, robbed China of much of international support. Japan went to the extent of coming out openly in favour of Indian stand. The international community’s assessment that whereas China is an aggressive bully, India is a net security provider got a further boost and helped India gather much quiet support in the international community during the standoff. China failed to project India as an intruder. Besides Japan, Vietnam, Mongolia, Philipines, Singapore and some other countries in the Asia-Pacific region gave their quiet support to India.

It must, however, be said to the Chinese credit that once they realised that they were on a weak wicket, they did not stand on ceremony nor did they let false pride come in their way. They cut down on their aggressive rhetoric, thereby allowing behind-the-scene negotiations to bear fruit. After the standoff had receded to the background, China came out strongly against its hawkish elements for their belligerent stand.

Maj General Qiao Liang, a strategist and a serving officer of PLA, while addressing such elements within China, wrote in Global Times, “China and India are both neighbours and competitors, but not all competitors must be treated in the toughest way. Doklam confrontation was solved in the way it should have been….we should spare no effort to avoid pushing the country into a war as peace is the best outcome.” It is noteworthy to mention that during the entire Doklam crises, it was for the first time that PLA spoke about avoiding war.

Speaking about the Chinese compulsions of building a road, which created the crises in the first place, Maj Gen Qiao Liang further wrote, “ Many people would say that road construction in China’s territory was none of India’s business. Is this belief right? It is reasonable to some extent because road construction in this area is not matter of right or wrong, because we need to understand that it is not always right to do something right at any time. Only doing the right thing at the right time is correct.”

He even criticised those within the Communist Party who hawkishly recommend China using its enormous military strength to achieve a dominant position. Gen Qia, while addressing these elements wrote, “Many people think that….. Only war can demonstrate China’s power. But resorting to war is irresponsible….Whenever there may be a way to solve a conflict without war, war should be avoided.”

Ever since independence, India diplomacy has had a chequered history of ‘hits and misses’. Doklam can certainly be termed as their moment of glory, for India avoided war, stood its ground, did not yield to threats and show of force and yet ensured that its original objective (preventing China from constructing a road and changing the status of existing Tri-junction) was achieved without a bullet being fired, and more importantly, taking China on board as far as BRICS declaration, made a few days later, was concerned.

Doklam has set a bench mark for Sino-India relations for the future; the status quo on LoAC cannot be changed unilaterally by use or threat of use of force. The ending of the Doklam standoff is no guarantee that China will not resort to such tactics in future. India has at best postponed the crises and at worst got a few months reprieve. For far too long has India neglected the development of infrastructure on the Indo-Tibetan border, whereas, since early eighties, China has put in enormous resources in developing its military capabilities in Tibetan Plateau which directly threatens India. Therefore, India must make use of this opportunity to strengthen its defences, build roads and forward landing fields so that force levels can be built up in a short span of time as and when any emergency arises.

India must also make it abundantly clear to China that both countries cannot afford war. Therefore, it is in their interests to resolve the boundary question. After all, India-China annual trade runs to a huge 72 billion dollars, with India running a big trade deficit. With India growing at an average of 6 to 7 % annually, China has a big chance to invest in India and be a valued partner in its growth. Therefore, it is in the interests of both the countries to shun war and embrace peace.

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One thought on “Doklam has set a benchmark for Sino-India relations for the future

  1. No sir, Col. Tikoo, the Doklam confrontation is not yet the bench mark. Chinese generals in Tibet are out of control. They time their confrontation just when an important visit is about to happen. Whether they are directed by the highest political circles are not, we would never know.

    What these impossible, out of control generals need is avenue 3300another confrontation elsewhere. Whether it indulged in shooting war or just firing from the mouth, is not of any consequence. What they need to know is that India is not ready to back down.

    Everytime this type of confrontation happens and India does not back down, Chinese stature is dismissed and that is what Chinese political leadership does not want. Without an another one, they will continue to pretend invincibility.

    Then only the generals of Tibet will be transferred or disgraced. Until that happens, the Communist politburo will continue to encourage. It should be remembered that President XI is not fully in control of the Army. Some other members are behind the generals outburst at the border.

    President Xi may get full control of the Army after October meet of the Communist Party, still it will take him a year or two to fully establish himself Like Mao Tse Tung or Deng. Until then a message has to be delivered to the PLA that India is ready.

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