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.