External Affairs

Does It Make Military Sense for India to Mount the Barricades at Doklam?

The Modi government must guard against ‘sleepwalking’ into conflict.

There is a real likelihood of armed confrontation between India and China. Credit: Reuters

There is a real likelihood of armed confrontation between India and China. Credit: Reuters

The current standoff between India and China around Doklam in Bhutan could well turn into a military confrontation unless saner counsel prevails all around. The Chinese have held a live exercise in the Tibetan plateau and made it very clear that Indian withdrawal is a pre-condition for any talks. President Xi Jinping has made cryptic remarks about the Peoples’ Liberation Army defeating “all invasions”. Beijing has also explained its position to foreign diplomats and made it clear that its troops are being patient but will not be so indefinitely. Given the public posturing and rhetoric, it is clear that the Chinese side has said and done too much to pull back without a loss of face.

India, too, has demonstrated its determination to not let China go ahead with construction of the road on territory that is seen as Bhutanese. The Modi government has explained its viewpoint in an all-party meeting. The main opposition parties have not questioned the government on this issue so far. All of them have publicly stated their support for the government, as it is ‘an issue of national security’. The government has also authorised the army to directly procure the spares, ammunition etc. required for a short war.

If both sides stick to their positions and do not fully explore a diplomatic resolution of the crisis, a military confrontation may become inevitable. As each side weighs its options, it is essential that India carefully assesses the costs and benefits of what may lie ahead if matters deteriorate.

Countries fight wars for military or political reasons. What would be India’s reason if conflict breaks out with China? Have Indian soldiers been sent to Doklam because not halting the Chinese at this point will irrevocably jeopardise the defences of India? If so, a war might perhaps be unavoidable. However, a reflection on the broad military situation is in order here.

The ‘Chicken’s Neck’ bogeyman

In various quarters, it has been said that the Chinese move to build a road in Doklam threatens the Siliguri corridor, which is the lifeline to the seven states of the Northeast. Is this really the case?

Terrain map of Yadong, Sikkim, Bhutan. Credit: Scribble Maps

Terrain map of Yadong, Sikkim, Bhutan. Credit: Scribble Maps

For China, any substantial success in the mountains is dependent on opening up a road axis. What is the strategic importance of Doklam from this perspective? Does Doklam give China a road axis to the Siliguri corridor, one which is not available elsewhere? It may be seen that a much better road axis is already available close by, where China is already sitting on a road head. Just a few kilometres from Doklam, the axis is already available: Yatung (Tibet)-Nathu La-Gangtok- Siliguri. China has been bringing convoys on this road up to Nathu La for decades now. The capture of Nathu La will provide multiple options with existing roads – to Gangtok or to Kalimpong – both further leading to Siliguri.

With this readily-available road axis, is it still critical for China to capture Doklam and then develop a road in forested, mountainous contested enemy territory to get to Siliguri? In any case, the Chumbi Valley is militarily most unsuitable for any Chinese offensive because the flanks of the maintenance route are exposed to a cut-off by offensive action from two sides – from the west (Sikkim), and from the east (Bhutan).

Satellite map of Chumbi Valley, Doklam region. Credit: Scribble Maps

Satellite map of Chumbi Valley, Doklam region. Credit: Scribble Maps

In any case, if China does intend to go ahead with a ground offensive in Siliguri, what will that achieve? Is it really a likely scenario in which China will occupy Indian territory, and keep it occupied long enough to compromise the defences of the seven northeast states? In the present geo-political scenario, it just doesn’t add up.  Is it at all possible? Of course, it is possible. But countries do not allow themselves to drift into war on the basis of ‘possible but highly improbable scenarios’.

The vice chief of army staff has stated that China is bound to become a threat in the long run. Countries would be justified in trying to quash a threat in being rather than face it later. However, that should be done only when you are sure that this is a deadly and real threat of the ‘clear and present danger’ type and that you will definitely be able to quash it. Is that the case here?

Also, is India militarily ready? The army chief did recently announce that the Indian army is prepared for a war on two and a half fronts. However, just some days before that, the chief of the air force had warned of critical deficiencies in the air forces, quantifying them as akin to going to a cricket match with seven players rather than 11. This major discrepancy between the assessments of war preparedness by two chiefs must be clarified. One of them has to be wrong.

Is politics a factor?

Sometimes, countries flex muscles for domestic reasons, rather than military or political. In 2001, the previous BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee mobilised the armed forces and kept them on the border for 10 months. Reason? The attack by terrorists on the Indian parliament complex. In this endeavour, India suffered 1874 casualties – soldiers killed or wounded while laying or recovering mines, others in vehicle accidents, cross-border firing etc. Such exercises serve to divert the attention of the country from several shortcomings of the government. They also give the government a platform to showcase itself as powerful and patriotic.
Is this the case this time too?  In such a scenario, the question to be asked is whether facilitating a military confrontation to gain further influence over a domestic constituency is a valid use of the army.

Researchers have established that countries sometimes sleepwalk into conflict. This happens mostly when hawkishness is high and risk aversion is low. In the India of today, increased hawkishness and decreased risk aversion are quite evident. Even a university like JNU is looking to place a battle tank in its premises to increase the ‘nationalism’ of its students. The process followed for the demonetisation drive of last year showed that the Indian government is quite ready to take completely unassessed risks.

Brinkmanship is a very dangerous game. One just cannot predict when the matter will slip out of hand. Admittedly, it is to one’s benefit to build such credibility in one’s actions that the adversary takes the threat to be genuine. And that, hanging by the precipice, is also its greatest danger. One must never dare it unless prepared to go through the consequences of its downside. This aspect can also be studied through game theory.

What game theory suggests

Game theory is a branch of strategy that guides us in decision making in matters of uncertainty. Uncertainty is when the outcome cannot be predicted, due to influences beyond one’s control. War is surely one such situation. All decisions have costs and benefits, and different strategies exist for decision making, depending on whether you are more bothered about costs or benefits.

In a scenario of uncertainty, one could go in for a Play To Win (PTW) strategy or a Play Not To Lose ( PNTL) one. During a pinball game, in which slot the ball will finally drop cannot be controlled by anyone. That is uncertainty. What one can control is the decision making regarding which bets to accept. Depending on the cost-benefit preference of the decision maker, this decision will  be guided by either the PTW strategy or the PTNL one. In PTW, you take the high gain, high risk option. This strategy is recommended for the ‘wealthy gambler’. If the ball does drop in your slot, you win big, which is your main motivation. If not, you lose big, but that doesn’t bother you since you are wealthy. In game theory, this is also called a maximax strategy, since the aim is to maximise the gain/maximum (if it happens), never mind the chances of a loss.

On the other hand, in PNTL, you take the low gain, low risk option. This is the recommended option for the ‘impoverished gambler’. If the ball drops your way, you gain little but will surely be delighted. However, even if it falls in the wrong slot, you only lose small and you still retain reasonable resources for survival. Here your guiding motivation is to ensure that bad fate doesn’t kill you completely. This is also known as a maximin strategy, since the aim is to minimise the loss, should fate decree it that way.

We need to decide which of these two strategies suit India at this point of its development. Is the game worth the candle?

If indeed India is critically threatened and we have reached the point of no return with China, war is very much justified. If really so, it would be foolish to hold off war on account of any economic considerations. The economy and well being of citizens can only be ensured in an independent India. However, is it really the case that India is critically threatened or that the political advantages of cutting off the growing influence of China far outweigh the downsides of a war? Each of us must decide this on our own. War is too serious a business to be left to generals, bureaucrats or politicians.

Colonel Alok Asthana is a retired infantry officer with a command tenure in Jammu and Kashmir. He can be reached at alok.asthana@gmail.com.

  • alok asthana

    A reminder of some facts is in order —
    1. Bhutan is not a protectorate of India nor is there any defence pact between India and Bhutan. At one point in history, Nehru stated in the Lok Sabha that the defence of the territorial uprightness and frontiers of Bhutan was the responsibility of the Government of India.This statement was immediately objected to by the Prime Minister of Bhutan, saying Bhutan is not a protectorate of India nor did the treaty involve national defence of any sort.
    2. In 2007, the bonds between Bhutan and India were further weakened. In that, article 2 of the 1949 treaty between Bhutan and India was removed, freeing Bhutan from even seeking India’s guidance on foreign policy and obtaining permission over arms imports. In fact there is a lot of resentment in Bhutan over the July 2013 withdrawal of all subsidies by India on cooking gas and kerosene, which visibly strained bilateral ties. This was done by India between two phases of Bhutan elections, ostensible to influence one particular candidate of Bhutan.
    3. It is alleged in many quarters that Bhutan wants to reach some border settlements with China but India is not letting it do so. A large sections of Bhutanese resent it.

  • Chirag Sharma

    Sir, I agree with everything you said, if I can recall correctly, this is probably not with full accuracy to conclude that troops may be withdrawn by winter. I saw in a DD documentary that it was a mistake we made in 1962 war when we wrongly anticipated the probable routes for chinese advances, thus making tactical errors. For eg., the surprise we received at yumtso la; the tactical mistakes of guarding 5 bridges of Namka Chu river only, goes only to show that it would be not be wise to expect only easy manouvres from the chinese forces.

    Furthermore, the question of blinking first, for normal, even professional relations, this blinking first question may be a subsidiary one, but never to an administrator. In fact, it would be immature for an administration to relegate this matter to indifference. Chinese understand it well, and they are very particular about it.

    In addition, with reference to this article, I agree that this is true from short term perspective, but from long term perspective, the threat to siliguri corridor is very real and dangerous. How? The answer is two fold, [both from long term and short term]:-

    1. Chinese approach has been to first hold the border tightly [by developing the infrastructure like roads], then go for inward developments [towards the interior]. This is just like in India, when we purchase a property, we construct the boundary wall to secure the property first, and then go for full scale construction, which takes time.

    2. The assessment of threat, whether it is there or not there, particularly a military threat, cannot be done in a black and white manner as presented as presented here. Much depends on tactical actions and decision during the course of the conflict. Herein, though we are in a better position across the Sikkim border in terms of military infrastructure, if China gets access to Doklam, we shall be facing Chinese from two directions at Nathu La, where exactly there is a better road as the article has already mentioned. It I would not say it would immediately it would come to Siliguri corridor. No, Chinese are not fools like that. In short term, it would simply result in strain on Nathu La and Jelep La posts. But in longer term, they are gaining incremental advantages. They are known to come with full preparations. And that’s where the assessment of threat to Siliguri lies. These short increments are build upon, and in diplomatic parlance, we know these as expansionary tendencies.

    Now, one could say that the Chinese are sandwiched between Bhutan and India in the Doklam, so they could be easily wiped out should the need arises. However, this logic is secondary and less important to this question–Why at all, shall we allow someone else to take probable advantage? And that to Chinese? It would be a grave mistake to do so.

    It is in this line of thought, that we have perceived this as a real threat.

    There will definitely be a war, if India does not recall back. However, we don’t have a choice otherwise. Moreover, we are not impoverished as is presented here. Our opportunities may lie in the geographical and climatic advantages, we need to capitalize on that and keep our morale high.

    Jai Hind!

  • Partho

    A well articulated and thought provoking article sir. Unfortunately those who take decisions on national security are mostly those who do not comprehend and are busy with vote bank politics. Yes, one should not be bullied by any adversary however strong, but it is prudent to be prepared to face the consequences of a confrontation with a stronger adversary and give him a bloody nose, instead of simply being arrogant and ending up with a black eye. The differing statements of our defence preparedness is itself indicative of the hollowness of the claim, not to mention the information of existing ground reality of the defensive and strike formations. The repeated sabotage of various modernisation programmes by the Babu’s in govt have ensured that defence budget allotted is surrendered year after year – so that the overall budget deficit is narrowed and good financial mgt is claimed by them at the end of each financial year. Unless we are able to negotiate from a point of strength our national aim isnt relevant. Is it any wonder that the fourth largest military of the world has no deterrance? Eventually soldiers will make the supreme sacrifice trying to do their job,motivated by regimental ethos, leaving behind their families bereft. And it will all be justified by the P&B Conglomerate as “nothing grows there anyway.”

    • alok asthana

      True, Partho. Ask ANY relative of ANY martyr – is he/she happy with what the govt has done for the martyr, starting 6 months after the sacrifice (when the limelight is no longer on that martyr)? From the parents of highly decorated officers of Kargil to those of the unsung heroes, their replies will deeply trouble the conscience of the many here who are urging India to go to war so that they may enjoy the reality show on their TVs. Sad.

  • alok asthana

    The phrase ‘national interest as the sole driver’ has resulted in a lot of futile wars including America’s war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and others. Both sides of any war claim national interests so we should be quite wary of it. What exactly are the interests here?
    I agree that India is pretty strong now. However, I don’t see that as a reason to go to war. Maybe should use some of the money that goes to make that power to feed our dying, educate our class 5 students, many of who, it is established, can’t even read class 2 books, or take flood control measure in the NE, which kills hundreds each year.

  • alok asthana

    Sometime it happens that when a term is used too often, people forget what it actually means. The image that it popularly evokes, carries the day. ‘Threat to Siliguri corridor’ is one such phrase. A corridor is the narrowed part of any passage. In that sense, the Siliguri corriodor lies between Bangla Desh and Nepal, and not between Bhutan and Nepal or Bhutan and Bangladesh. See map at https://i2.wp.com/thewire.in/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Screen-Shot-2017-06-30-at-10.43.56-PM.png?ssl=1.
    The term ‘Siliguri corridor’ came into being when Bangladesh was actually East Pakistan. Threat from Pak from that side has vanished but unfortunately the shadow of that threat has been cast elsewhere. The only threat Doklam creates is in its (weak) ability to outflank the defences of Sikkim. Such threat of by being outflanked must be taken seriously in desert or plains warfare, not in such mountains. Here, any enemy would do better to bite off some border posts of the Gangtok division, interdict the Jawahar Lal Nehru Marg ( Gangtok – Sherathang (Nathula) – Kupup – Nathang and then sit tight forcing the defender to bash his head in those mountains.

  • alok asthana

    Wrong to say that Indian army stopped the Chinese at NathuLa in 1967. They never attacked so where is the question of Indian army stopping them? They fired by automatics and killed a lot of Indians ( I think, about 70) at Nathu La post, but did not assault it. Thereafter Indian artillery did a good job of killing a lot of Chinese in their defences. No side assaulted the other.