Saturday 15 December 2018, 01:24 PM
Stand-off at Doklam: Symptom of a Larger Malady
By Brgd. Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd.) | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 8/25/2017 2:54:46 PM
Stand-off at Doklam: Symptom of a Larger Malady

For over two months now, border guards of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been locked in a stand-off with troops of the Indian Army and those from the Royal Bhutan Army at Doklam, a small plateau near the India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction at the southern tip of the Chumbi Valley. In blatant violation of their agreement that neither side will attempt to alter the status quo while negotiations were being conducted to resolve the boundary dispute, Chinese soldiers were engaged in building a road on the Doklam plateau on the territory that had been under Bhutanese control for long. On being requested by the Government of Bhutan, Indian troops intervened on its behalf to stop further construction activity.

The PLA is clearly seeking to gain operational advantage by grabbing a sensitive piece of land that would facilitate the launching of future operations to cut off the narrow Siliguri corridor that links mainland India with Bhutan and India’s seven north-eastern states.  The duration of the transgression across the Line of Actual Control (LoC) at Doklam is the longest since the signing of various border management agreements starting with the first one in 1993.

The border management agreements signed by the two countries include the Agreement on Maintaining Peace and Tranquillity Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, September 7, 1993; the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, November 29, 1996; the Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question, April 11, 2005; the Protocol on Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in India-China Border Areas, April 11, 2005; and, the Agreement on Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, January 17, 2012.

In order to remove the anomalies and impracticalities of these agreements, India and China signed the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), in October 2013. The BDCA commits the two sides to “periodic meetings” of military and civilian officers and to exchange information – including information about military exercises, aircraft movements, demolition operations and unmarked mines. It emphasises the avoidance of border patrols “tailing” each other and recommends that the two sides “may consider” establishing a hot-line between military headquarters in both countries. Apparently, the PLA opted to ignore all of these provisions and acted in a surreptitious manner.

Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary, has written: “Of late, China has been resorting increasingly to unilateral actions seeking to alter the status quo… The Chinese side maintains that in the "Convention Between Great Britain and China relating to Sikkim and Tibet", the southern-most point identified as the peak of Gipmochi, is located on the Bhutan frontier but further south. On this basis, China has laid a claim to Doklam, but this has been contested by the Bhutanese side. The Chinese side has recognised this as disputed territory… Although both China and India accept the alignment of the Sikkim-Tibet boundary as laid down in the Convention…they have agreed that as far as the tri-junction is concerned this can only be settled in consultation with Bhutan.  The current impasse has arisen because the Chinese side has gone further by attempting to build a defence class road through the area… This will significantly elevate the potential security threat to the Siliguri corridor which is a vital transport artery for both India and Bhutan. China should have shown greater sensitivity in this matter.”

He then goes on to recommend a way out: “The Chinese side has demanded that the issue should be resolved by India withdrawing its security personnel from the Doklam area.  In fact, the issue can be defused by both sides agreeing to restore the status quo and mutually disengaging their forces. This is how earlier such incidents were resolved satisfactorily.”

According to news reports, the stand-off was triggered at least in part to “force an unwilling India to accept its (China’s) one belt-one road (OBOR) programme and that the incident was deliberately publicised when the Indian Prime Minister was on a visit to the US to meet President Donald Trump in Washington. While this will remain in the realm of speculation, China’s growing military assertiveness and belligerence in the Indo-Pacific region is unmistakable.

The root cause of most transgressions and patrol face-offs is the non-demarcation of the LAC, which leads to varying perceptions about where it runs.Serious Chinese incursions across the LAC are endemic and tensions continue to persist. Several incidents of reckless behaviour have occurred in recent years. The well-known transgression by the PLA at Depsang near Daulat Beg Oldie in May 2013 could have led to an armed clash if the PLA had not backtracked. When President Xi Jinping was meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the bank of the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabadin September 2014, Chinese and Indian troops were locked in a tense stand-off at Chumar in Ladakh.

Earlier, a stand-off at the LAC had resulted in a prolonged shooting match at Nathu La in 1967 with large-scale casualties on the Chinese side. Then again, in 1986, the Chinese transgressed into the Wang Dung are along the Sumdarong Chu. India has airlifted an infantry brigade to face them. After a long stand-off, the Chinese finally withdrew without a shot being fired. Despite these setbacks, the Chinese continue to make attempts to unilaterally alter the status of the LAC.

Waging War through the Media

From its recent actions it appears that China has been afflicted by some form of insecurity complex vis-à-vis India, possibly stemming from India’s strategic partnerships particularly that with the US. Some examples of China’s adamant behaviour are givn here.

China’s spokespersons and the media have been using every conceivable occasion to denigrate India, let it down and damage its standing in the comity of nations. China has once again blocked India’s application for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). At the 27th plenary session of the NSG, held at Bern on June 22-23, 2017, China continued to insist that the Group should formulate the criteria for the admission of new members first, before making exceptions for any country. China holds the view that NSG membership should be given to Pakistan also along with India, despite Pakistan’s abysmal record as the world’s worst proliferator.

As expected, China’s long-standing technical hold on Masood Azhar, head of the Pakistan-based terrorist organisation Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), being designated an international terrorist by the United Nations sanctions committee, has still not been lifted. Although India was finally admitted as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) at the Astana summit on June 9, 2017, China made sure that Pakistan was given the same status simultaneously. 

In the past, China had objected to India’s Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) prospecting for oil off the coast of Vietnam after winning a contract from its government, even though the area was within Vietnam’s territorial waters. China, of course, claims the complete South China Sea as its territorial waters in complete disregard of the Law of the Sea Treaty.

China’s leadership loses no opportunity to show its annoyance with India over even inconsequential issues. In March 2017, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it was "strongly dissatisfied" with India for inviting the Dalai Lama to open an international Buddhist conference in Nalanda, Bihar. Beijing protested even more loudly when the Dalai Lama visited Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh a few weeks later. China claims the state of Arunachal Pradesh as its own territory.

Chinese state-controlled media have made it a habit to periodically warn India of dire consequences on one pretext or another. A few examples from the Global Times, a Communist Party-controlled English language newspaper, are cited here to show China’s efforts to raise the ante through the media.

A commentary in the paper earlier this year had warned India not to ‘meddle’ as China’s Defence Minister visited Nepal and Sri Lanka. An editorial in June 2017 threatened to engage India in a ‘geopolitical game’: “With a GDP several times higher than that of India, military capabilities that can reach the Indian Ocean and having good relations with India’s peripheral nations, coupled with the fact that India’s turbulent northern state borders China, if China engages in a geopolitical game with India, will Beijing lose to New Delhi?” ‘Turbulent northern state’ clearly refers to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

China has shown no concern for Indian sensitivities while finalising plans for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that will pass through Gilgit-Baltistan, an area that is part of J&K, but under Pakistani occupation. India’s refusal to participate in President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Forum – a summit-level meeting – prompted the Global Times to once again warn India that its short-sighted attitude could damage Sino-Indian relations.

On other occasions, the Global Times has warned India to resist the temptation of resorting to ‘protectionism’ to shield local mobile phone makers and threatened to take counter measures; and, advised India not to play the ‘Taiwan card’. After India had tested the Agni 4 ballistic missile, an editorial pointed out ominously that if the development of long-range missiles by India continues, “The range of Pakistan's nuclear missiles will also see an increase.”

Commentingon the establishment of the India-Afghanistan direct air freight corridor (Pakistan denies India access to Afghanistan through the land route), the Global Times called the plan India’s“stubborn geopolitical thinking”. China is deeply suspicious of the growing Indo-US strategic partnership and on the eve of Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with President Donald Trump, it put out that a close watch would be kept on what is discussed.Most recently, the paper’s editors had gone ballistic over India’s handling of the stand-off at Doklam near the India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction.

Why is China Annoyed with India?

Clearly, despite a stable relationship at the strategic level, China is annoyed with India and the reason is not difficult to discern. China thinks of itself as a great power and, as part of its grand strategy, seeks to dominate the region and gain geo-political influence. Also, the Chinese leadership believes in China’s “political, social and cultural superiority over its neighbours”. In short, the Chinese believe that their civilisation is far superior to the civilisations of their neighbours.

According to a Chinese saying, “One mountain can accommodate only one tiger.” The Chinese look at themselves as the tiger on the Asian mountain and refuse to accept that there can be place for a second tiger like India. If India were to play second fiddle, if Prime Minister Narendra Modi were to carry a platter of gold coins and pay obeisance to King-Emperor and Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping, the Chinese would be overjoyed. They would welcome their Indian brothers with open arms and radiant smiles. There would be more shouts of the deceptively enthralling slogan of the 1950s: “Hindi-Chini, bhai-bhai”. And, China and India could then live happily ever after. Unfortunately for China, that is not how the script plays out in the minds of India’s political leaders and those of its citizens.

India has been inward looking for far too long. Resurgent India is poised at a breakout moment in its history. India’s leadership isawarethat China’s growing power and influence pose long-term strategic challenges, not only for India but also for the entire Indo-Pacific region.  However, India is itself growing at a rapid rate and is confident of closing the gap quickly. Vis-à-vis China, India looks at itself as a co-equal power in Asia – a rising power that is conscious of its regional responsibilities and increasingly more willing to contribute positively to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Clash of Competing World Views

Hence, the China-India geo-political stand-off is a clash of two competing world views and will not end any time soon. China is engaged in the strategic encirclement of India through its proxies like Pakistan and its ‘string of pearls’ strategy in the northern Indian Ocean. In the South China Sea dispute as well, China has exhibited a remarkably high degree of belligerence.

General V P Malik, former COAS, had written in June 2017: “In the coming days, we can expect more of coercive diplomacy and bullying tactics from China. More incidents along the LAC, even border skirmishes cannot be ruled out. China may also encourage Pakistan to create new diplomatic and security pressure points over India. India will require greater political ingenuity, determination and more effective military response capability to safeguard its national interests.” The management of the Doklam stand-off by China’s state machinery is indicative of this approach.

As long as the territorial and boundary dispute with China is not resolved and transgressions by patrols from the PLA continue across the LAC, a Doklam-type incident could escalate rapidly from a stand-off to the exchange of fire. The Indian armed forces of today are not like the ill-equipped and poorly clad army of 1962. Even in the firing incident that took place at Nathu La on the Sikkim-Tibet border in 1967 and the Wang Dung stand-off in 1986, the Chinese had blinked first and withdrawn to their own side of the LAC. The Indian armed forces today are far better trained, armed and equipped. Two new infantry divisions have been raised in the last ten years to beef up defences on the LAC and SU-30 MKI fighter-bomber aircraft have been positioned in the Eastern Theatre.

However,India is unlikely fight a future war on a single front. Given the deep collusion between China and Pakistan in the nuclear warhead, ballistic missiles and military hardware fields, India will be confronted with a two-front threat as a war with one may draw in the other as well. After all, China has guaranteed Pakistan’s territorial integrity. The CPEC project has brought Chinese soldiers to Pakistan and further strengthened the collusion between them. At a time when the army, in particular, is already deployed in large numbers for internal security and counter-insurgency duties, loosely described as half a front, a two-front was is unsustainable. The state of defence preparedness leaves much to be desired as there are large-scale equipment and ammunition shortages.Many obsolescent and some obsolete weapons and equipment are still in service. War will also have an adverse impact on the rate of economic growth, which is India’s number one national priority.

Hence, war – even a short, sharp, border conflict – is not in India’s interest. India’s interestslie in seeking the immediate demarcation of the LAC on the ground and on military maps in order to reduce the number of transgressions. This should be followed in an early time-frame by the resolution of the territorial and boundary dispute. It is towards these ends that the Government of India must steer the course of future meetings with China’s political and military interlocutors.Meanwhile, since war cannot be completely ruled out, it would be prudent for India to keep its powder dry.

(Editor’s note: At the time of going to the press, the stand-off at Doklam had still not been resolved.The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.)


Brgd. Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd.)




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