The month-long standoff between the Indian army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the Doklam sector of Bhutan, though pretty civilised so far, has become the longest ever. Briefly, the stand-off story so far is this: The PLA has clandestinely been encroaching on Bhutanese territory since the mid-1960s with a long view to build a Class-40 road which can carry medium tanks and artillery through the strategic Chumbi valley which abuts India and Bhutan to a tri-junction point which is the very tip of the Chumbi dagger which is dangerously close to a bottleneck encompassing Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. This time around, the PLA road construction party was initially cautioned by a Bhutanese Army patrol. Later when they failed to stop them, the Indian soldiers in the vicinity arrived to help the Bhutanese to deter the PLA from bulldozing its road construction through territory claimed both by China and Bhutan. This is the first time India has confronted the PLA on third country soil in Bhutan. India has a long-standing commitment to Bhutan’s defence and security even if there in no formal military alliance.
Two issues arise from this illegal and unauthorised activity – the intended road would transgress Bhutanese territory at Doklam and its destination, the tri-junction, is also disputed. According to bilateral agreements between India and China in 2012, and between Bhutan and China in 1988 and 1999, the disputes are to be resolved through the existing dialogue processes. While India and China have had 19 rounds of Special Representative talks, China and Bhutan have engaged in 28 rounds of border talks though Thimpu has no trade or diplomatic relations with Beijing. In their conversations with Bhutan, China, in 1999, offered a package deal to swap territory in the north with land in the west comprising the eastern shoulder of the Chumbi valley, significantly including the Doklam plateau.
This is not the first time the PLA has attempted its ‘creep’ strategy to first commandeer territory and then offer to negotiate after having violated standstill agreements. Grabbing Aksai Chin in the late 1950s and more recently its unilateral and illegitimate activity in the South China sea are examples. The sequence of events played out now at Doklam has an uncanny resemblance to intrusive activity in the same area in 1966-67. The history of the incident is encapsulated in an article by sinologist Claude Arpi in The Pioneer. More interestingly, the Chinese then, as now, were trying to unhinge Bhutan from its defence relationship with India. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had to remind the Chinese that India would stand by Bhutan, come what may.
The Chinese propaganda machine has launched a relentless psy war campaign which is unprecedented in recent times. It has turned obfuscation to a fine art, deftly combining history and legacy while cherry-picking portions of agreements (1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention) that are laced with coercion. On a daily basis, the foreign ministry, the PLA, Global Times, Xinhua and think tanks are issuing statements and threats, warning India about a repeat of 1962 and teaching it another lesson. They accuse India of reneging on Panchsheel and are repeatedly demanding Indian soldiers retract from the confrontation at Doklam by withdrawing first if any dialogue is to follow. Beijing has put itself in a corner leaving it no wriggle room or a face-saving option. As events have shown, India will not budge as the stakes are too high for it to blink first.
For New Delhi, Indian troops have gone to the aid of a neighbour, Bhutan, because the intended construction of a strategic road from Lhasa-Shigaste to Yadong in the Chumbi valley towards the disputed tri-junction would confer profound strategic military advantage on the PLA. The Chumbi valley dagger would pose a threat not just to Bhutan but also to the critically narrow Siliguri corridor, linking mainland India with its north-east. Moreover, it would send the wrong signal to India’s neighbours that it does not stand by its friends and allies and treaty obligations. Being locked in the valley also poses risks for the PLA.
The most celebrated incident of the Indian Army challenging the PLA incursions was in 1986 at a tiny grazing ground in Wangdung near Sumdorong Chu where they established a post west of Tawang. Like at Doklam, the PLA was in the valley dominated by high ridgelines occupied by the Indian army. The dispute was over the alignment of the watershed with India claiming it was north of the grazing ground and China contending it was south of it. India’s strong stand dragged the confrontation for ten months culminating in the landmark visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to Beijing in December 1986. Both sides agreed to withdraw simultaneously from positions they had occupied before the intrusion. During this near eyeball confrontation for ten months, not a shot was fired.
Given the evidence of the recent face-offs, it is unlikely the current stand-off will escalate into a shooting match at Doklam where the PLA is hemmed in by two ridge lines of the Chumbi valley occupied by Indian and Bhutanese troops. Doklam is 40 km from Yadong which is the PLA logistic base. In any short and sharp skirmish in this area, the PLA will not win the argument. On the other hand, it will suffer much greater losses than the Indian troops as it did in the Nathula clash of 1967. Doklam could go the Sumdorong Chu way leading to a meeting of high officials to defuse the crisis.
It would be unwise to link the increased presence of Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean Area with the stand-off. It is more likely to be monitoring the ongoing Malabar naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal involving ships from the US, Japan and India. Similarly, the Doklam intrusion is unlikely to have been designed to undercut Prime Minister Modi’s visits to US and Israel. Also comparing the Depsang and Chumar intrusions with Doklam would be inappropriate. Doklam is the culmination of the cumulated angst of the Chinese over India’s constant needling and challenging of Beijing over its obduracy in blocking India’s admission in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, sanctioning Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Masood Azhar as a UN designated global terrorist and refusal on clarification of Line of Actual Control (LAC). India’s rejection of Belt and Road initiative, especially the strong objection to China Pakistan Economic Corridor on grounds of sovereignty which was endorsed by the US has angered China. The Dalai Lama in India is a visible symbol of challenge for Beijing’s One China policy. The latest threat to rekindle the independence of Sikkim is clearly shooting in the wind.
For the PLA, road construction to the tri-junction to Doklam was a tester. It did not anticipate Bhutan and India would respond in unison. Instead China accused India of trespassing into its Tibetan Autonomous Region in an area that belongs to Beijing and for trying to contest the location of the tri-junction which was fixed by the Anglo Chinese Convention of 1890, which Claude Arpi says, is factually flawed.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s brief meeting with Prime Minister Modi and his remarks at the BRICS meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit this Friday advocating ‘political and peaceful settlement of regional conflicts and disputes’ indicates the face-off will cool down. At the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit, Modi told Xi the two nations must not turn differences into dispute. China’s conditionality that Indian troops must withdraw first for any dialogue to start can be softened by employing the principle of simultaneity. As has happenend in the past, both sides can withdraw together from Doklam and prevent the dispute escalating into a bigger conflict.
Ashok K. Mehta, a major general, is a founding member of the erstwhile Defence Planning Staff now the Integrated Defence Staff.