India’s Polite but Firm Stand at Doklam that has Unnerved China
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 18 Aug , 2017

The Doklam standoff between India and China is now almost two months old, longest in recent history of stand-offs between the two Asian giants. On 16 Jun ‘17 when china started this mischief against Bhutan of road building in Bhutanese territory, threatening India’s Siliguri Corridor, they never expected India to come in support of Bhutan. They were very sure that they will be able to pressurise and isolate tiny Bhutan. With India coming in and stopping Chinese road building, not only it has surprised China it has left them with no other option but to somehow save face. Recently India’s polite but firm stand on Doklam has been praised by an American Think Tank while they have called Chinese act of churlishness on the issue as childish.

In last 50 days of this imbroglio China had been saying that it will only talk to India on the issue when India withdraws its forces from Doklam. Now it has agreed to talk on Doklma issue. One meeting between Maj Gen rank officers from India and China has been recently held in Nathu La Pass in Sikkim. Another meeting is be held soon. So this is quite a climb down by China. There is no doubt that this has happened after China has gauged the world opinion going against its intransigence. In Doklam China has used all three of its recently perfected strategy of Three Wars without firing a bullet by using its state controlled media, Foreign Office Psychological warfare, and legally distorted facts verging on lies. However, this strategy is failing against India’s cool and calm response. It first said that it has no border dispute with Bhutan but later on accepted it. Then it resorted to lies that Bhutan has no objection to China constructing road in Doklam, this has been officially denied by Bhutan. It is harping on the  1890 Anglo-Chinese treaty but at the same time it is not talking of 2012 treaty between India and China on the issue.

China after its Fifth military reforms has emerged as a strong military power suitably backed by its sound economy. After its current President Xi Jinping took over reins of power just over three years back, it has started flexing its muscles. It is following a policy of first taking out history book and start claiming territory which once upon a time it controlled in history. Then it starts brow beating small countries, forcibly pushing through its claims. Its claim of sovereignty over three fourth of South China sea, building of seven artificial islands in South China Sea and placing missiles over them thereby refuting claims on various islands of Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Brunei and even Japan are all cases in point.  Currently China is projecting itself to the world as very reasonable country which is only interested in development of trade and commerce by better connectivity between various parts of the world. Towards this end it is investing billions of dollars in its One Belt one Road project by which it wants to connect its restive Xinjiang province to Pakistan, as also via Pakistani port of Gawdor to Middle East taking maritime route. Till date no country has actually challenged China on the ground in its shenanigans. India is the only country which has done it now in addition to US. However as far US is concerned, it was more of a shadow boxing in South China Sea .Nothing direct. India is challenging China in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation in Doklam.

India did not join China in month of May this year, in the inaugural Belt Road Forum in Beijing despite China requesting India many times. This was quite a jolt to China specially so since India raised the issue of sovereignty in POK where China is involved in a big way in its CPEC project. Now India has physically stopped China in its mischief in Bhutan. To China this is first experience of resistance to its Psychological operations which China has been successfully carrying on against claims of ASEAN countries in South China Sea till now. China knows that it cannot launch military operations against India because results could go either way and if China loses then it will be end of its OBOR project. It also knows that any border war with India, apart from heavy loss of life and limb, will put an end to its current projected image on OBOR of a peace loving country only interested in developing communications and trade in other countries.

Several factors ranging from India’s better military posture along the contested border to improved economic heft can be cited for the India’s new approach. However, the biggest reason for India to stand up to China ironically is the blatant attempt by President Xi Jinping to force a China-centric order in Asia, a proposition that no government in New Delhi can agree to under any circumstances. Under Narendra Modi, politically the strongest Prime Minister in India for three decades, accepting China’s hegemony is out of the question, given his muscular national security policies. Very early in his tenure Modi had decided to depart from convention on dealing with China. He broke a long standing taboo of not inviting representatives of the Tibetan government-in-exile and that of Taiwan to official functions, lest Beijing feel offended. The Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government-in-exile and Taiwan’s trade representative were among the select invitees to Modi’s oath taking ceremony in the summer of 2014, setting the tone for a more robust policy towards China.

A border standoff in Ladakh in September 2014—coinciding with President Xi Jinping’s maiden visit to India—witnessed a rare display of India’s new approach of not succumbing to Chinese bullying. After 1,000 Chinese troops intruded into Chumar, a remote border outpost in South-east Ladakh, New Delhi rapidly built up a 9,000-strong force in two days, forcing the PLA to back off. Another similar face-off at Yangtze in Arunachal Pradesh in 2015 with the same result further demonstrated India’s resolve.

That resolve is being backed up with an improved military posture. Building on the modest beginning made under the previous government to improve infrastructure all along the northern frontier, the current government is quietly building capabilities to counter China militarily. Consider this:

  • India’s indigenously developed missiles—Agni, Akash, and Brahmos—are either ready for induction or already inducted into the armed forces, providing potent weapons for use against China.
  • The development of a family of K-Series of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM)—although mostly shrouded in secrecy—is in a fairly advanced stage, keeping India on track to complete its nuclear triad.
  • After initial reservation against the proposed Mountain Strike Corps (sanctioned by the previous government), the Modi government has revived its support for the project. Two Mountain Divisions meant for the Strike Corps are about to complete their raising in Northern and Eastern Commands. More air assets are planned for Strike Corps. The eventual aim is to build flexibility in its deployment and allow swift switching of forces from one theatre to another.
  • The formation of a Special Forces Division and a cyber and space agency, as prelude to formation of separate tri-services Special Forces, Cyber and Space Commands, has commenced in recent months.

In the East, the 56 and 71 Mountain Divisions, raised from 2009 onward, are now firmly placed and deployed on the ground, making more troops available to defence planners. The Air Force has also staged forward its assets both in the North and the East by deploying the Sukhoi-30 planes at bases close to the Chinese border. Completion of the project to revamp eight Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) in Arunachal Pradesh will mean improved connectivity and increased capacity to insert troops in the high altitude areas. The reported deployment of Brahmos Missile regiments along the northern frontiers in the past couple of years means India now has additional offensive capability. Strategically important roads high in the Himalayas, planned almost a decade ago, are now getting a more focused attention with more tunnels at high altitude passes being built to allow all-weather traffic. The Indian Navy, the smallest of the three armed forces, is in the midst of an expansion, although the strength of its conventional submarine fleet remains a matter of concern.

There are of course many weaknesses in India’s higher defence management, its procurement systems, and pace of military modernisation. Military leaders have spoken about a high degree of obsolescence across the three forces as a result of years of neglect and apathy in military modernisation. What is really worrying is the recent CAG report on ammunition management. The CAG report says that the out of  170 kinds of ammunition ,thanks to then UPA Government , only 27% was available for 20 days intense fighting, While in Sep 2016, 80% of ammunition was below the required levels. The situation has only improved marginally till date. This has resulted in great shortfall in training of the troops that has suffered 77% to 88% shortfall.

Needless to say whether it is Modi Government of last three years or Congress led UPA Government of UPA of ten years, all our political masters have been playing with our security. They fail to understand that each country has its own intelligence agencies which keep a tag on war preparedness of other countries. If China is trying to brow beat us in Doklam, and threaten us in Kalapani area as also POK and Pakistan enhancing its sponsored cross border terror incidents, is because they know our level of war preparedness.

The Modi government will have to redouble its efforts to overcome the shortages and restructure the management system of the military expeditiously to meet mounting challenges from China and Pakistan. Currently China is spending 7% of its GDP amounting to 150 Billion dollars on its defence; While Pakistan is spending 10% of its GDP. We in India this year are spending just 1.65 % of our GDP. This is pittance, less than even 1962 when we so shamefully lost to China. The current day scenario in the world is of short and intense wars which may take place without any notice. In other words we will have to be ready to defend our country at all times with a moment’s notice. Modi Government in consultation with three services chiefs must work out what is minimum needed to defend the country at all times. The Chief of Defence Staff system lying sanctioned since 2003 must be implemented now without delay. India must have a full time Defence minister.

Overall, however, India’s military strength is right now adequate to hold off any Chinese adventurism across the Himalayas, but not strong enough for an offensive posture. Truth is China will think twice before initiating any conflict with India since Indian soldiers are better trained and battle hardened compared to the PLA troops. That said, neither side will gain anything substantial from any military conflict but we in India must be militarily fully prepared and ready for any possible conflict. 

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Brig Arun Bajpai

Defence and Strategic Analyst

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