The outcome of the months-long stand-off at Doklam is likely thanks to India’s enormous tactical advantage in the region.
Short of a military showdown, the only outcome to the Doklam crisis was the restoration of the status quo as of June 16. And that is what appears to have happened. The best outcome of diplomacy – to resolve a crisis that could have led to an armed clash – is one where both sides can declare victory. That is exactly what we are seeing in this case, with spin and selective briefings in both countries targeting domestic audiences.
Even so, by all measure, it is India that has come out on top in the current situation. It wanted a halt on the construction of the Chinese road from the Doka La area to the Jampheri ridge, and it has succeeded. For how long is another matter.
Just what has been the impact of its action on China and Bhutan is difficult to assess from public statements. Suffice it to say, there will be longer term consequences, which could either be benign or malign.
Though the contest at Doklam at 16,000 ft over a few square kilometres of land – the Chinese had complained of an encroachment of just about 180 metres – had strategic implications, its outcome may have owed itself to the enormous tactical advantage India had in the region.
The Chinese had a single road coming to the Doklam bowl zig-zagging from their major base in Yatung. It was dominated for a significant part by Indian positions on the watershed between the Amo Chu and the Teesta rivers. The point from where the Chinese wanted to build the road was actually overlooked by the strong Indian positions in Doka La. For them to start a confrontation there did not make sense anyway.
But perhaps the most important reason may have been the fact that for the Indian side, the Jampheri ridge is considered a vital operational requirement for the defence of Sikkim and the Siliguri Corridor, while China has no important stakes there. It would certainly have an advantage in surveilling the Siliguri Corridor by occupying the ridge, but its forces in the Doklam bowl are vulnerable at all times to Indian interdiction. In essence, India’s security concerns outweighed the Chinese concerns over its sovereignty, which, in any case, was legally contested by Bhutan.
What has come about as a result of de-escalation
Four things have happened, all signaling that the can has been kicked down the road.
First, there has been no solution to the underlying issue, which remains as tangled as ever. The Chinese have vigorously asserted their claim, and the Bhutanese, by calling for a restoration of the status quo, have obliquely affirmed theirs.
The second is that India and China have probably agreed that the status of Doklam will be akin to that of the disputed parts of the Sino-Indian border, which is marked by a Line of Actual Control and is not delimited in any map. Both sides have their own notion as to where it runs and therefore patrol to the extent of their claims. They are also bound by agreements to not undertake any civil construction – bunkers or roads – in these contentious areas. However, in this case, the weak link is the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA), which does not have the capacity to match the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has, after all, been patrolling the area for some years now.
Third, the issue may have ensured that the Sino-Bhutan border negotiation must now be embedded in the Sino-Indian process.
Fourth, India has subtly side-stepped from accepting the validity of the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890. All it says it accepts is that there is an agreement on the “basis of alignment” of the Sikkim-Tibet border, something that needs more work to be finalised into an accepted international border.
The loss of the Doklam area to China would not be a catastrophic loss for the Indian side, which occupies strongly grounded positions around the area. As it is, contrary to the impression that is often made, the Chinese deployment in Tibet is quite minimal and nowhere near the numbers India has on hand – ten Mountain divisions and a Strike Corps being raised. Many of the forces are located at high altitude and are acclimatised, whereas the bulk of the Chinese forces committed for Tibet are in lower lying regions east of Tibet. China is supposed to have designated some airborne forces for rapid deployment in the Tibet region, but anyone with experience with those altitude knows that most of the forces would come down with mountain sickness if they were not systematically acclimatised.
Even though India has signaled just how important the Jampheri ridge is to its operational posture in the region, a lot hinges on the Sino-Bhutan border negotiations, should Bhutan concede the area to China, there is little that India can do. There is the matter of the tri-junction that needs to be determined, which India, citing the minutes of the 2012 Special Representatives understanding, says must be done with the concurrence of all three parties.
Here too Bhutan’s outlook is crucial. If it concedes the Doklam area, by definition, the tri-junction, as accepted by India and Bhutan till now, will move southwards from its present position near Batang La, possibly conceding the Jampheri ridge to China.
Bhutan itself also presents a vulnerability to Indian defences because, were the Chinese to move through Bhutan, there is little that India could do since the RBA is a token force and is not geared to dealing with military threats of the kind the PLA presents.
For the present, China will not find it easy to wind back the rhetoric that threatened war repeatedly in the last couple of months. It will certainly be smarting at the surprise Indian action that compelled it to compromise. The Doklam stand-off and its resolution could be an inflection point where China decides that it needs to focus on economic restructuring and quickly settle the border issues with India and Bhutan, which are born more out of prestige than any strategic consideration. Or, it could bide its time to follow through in its project of cutting India to size, as a pre-condition for emerging as the undisputed hegemony in the South Asian-Indian Ocean Region (SA-IOR).
Impact on Bhutan
Bhutan’s predicament is more palpable. Doklam does not really affect Bhutanese security. But it does have implications to that of a country that is vital for its well being. There have always been voices in Bhutan calling for a quick settlement of the border issue so as not to lose more territory through China’s incremental nibbling strategy. These could be strengthened by the recent events.
So, in the coming period, it means that India needs to adopt a strategy of holding its friend Bhutan close. Certainly South Block needs to learn some lessons from its poor handling of its neighbours. Having witnessed the emergence of significant Chinese equities in Nepal, India cannot afford to allow a repetition of the process in Bhutan. As for the Indian military, it needs to urgently follow through on structural reforms to be able to effectively deter the PLA’s increasingly assertive posture in the SA-IOR. The PLA, which enjoys considerable autonomy in the Chinese system, cannot possibly be pleased with the current outcome and there will be some hard thinking on ways to get back at India.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.