Chinese troops transgressed into Doka La, Sikkim, two weeks ago, on the eve of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US.
While such a transgression from the Chinese side is not new, the nature of this move is different from that of the earlier transgressions.
India should not see this as a one-off move and focus on increasing its preparedness along the border.
The latest border face-off between India and China in Doka La sector of Sikkim holds significant geopolitical and strategic implications, and lessons, for India. This is the first time in recent years that China’s People's Liberation Army (PLA) has made a determined bid to not only transgress into Indian territory but also hold onto it.
In the past, border transgressions by PLA troops have generally been shows of strength aimed at reaffirming the disputed nature of the borders between the two countries, or to send a strong political message. But the transgressions in Doka La, the destroying of at least two fortified bunkers of the Indian Army, and the determined bid to hold on to the area tell a different story altogether. To understand the Chinese design, it is thus important to understand the importance of Doka La.
Strategic Importance of Doka La
Doka La adjoins Chumbi Valley (see map), a narrow strip of mountainous territory of Tibet abutting India and Bhutan. Chumbi Valley holds tremendous strategic importance for China since it is close to the Chicken's Neck (or Siliguri Corridor) that forms the vital but fragile link between Northeast India and the rest of the country.
But China finds itself severely restricted in the Chumbi Valley because of the terrain. The Valley is very narrow, and flanked by tall mountains. The little ground that allows manoeuvrability there, and where a PLA garrison is stationed, is barely 500m wide. If China wants to go on the offensive against India through Chumbi Valley, it will have to amass troops there, but those would become sitting ducks for the Indian Air Force and for India’s artillery.
Sikkim, which lies to the west of the Chumbi Valley, is the only sector along the 4,057km Indo-China border where India enjoys a strategic and terrain advantage over China. Indian troops look down on to the Valley, and PLA troops stationed there can come within easy range of India’s artillery positions, which can be moved forward in the event of hostilities. Gaining control of the high mountain ridges in the Doka La sector of Sikkim, which offer Indian troops tremendous terrain advantage, would thus make eminent sense for China.
China’s latest transgressions in the Doka La sector are not an isolated bid to wrest India’s strategic and terrain advantage from the strategic region. China perhaps has far more sinister plans, and may actually be laying the ground for a future offensive against India. China has occupied a substantial slice of territory in West Bhutan, adjoining Chumbi Valley. This 400 sq km territory in Bhutan’s Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulimpa and Dramana regions are already under Chinese occupation. These areas have always remained part of Bhutan, and Tibet had, at no point in time, ever exercised any suzerainty over these areas. China is offering Bhutan 900 sq km of land in North Bhutan that the Himalayan kingdom rightly claims as its own in return for Bhutan giving up claims to the 400 sq km in the west that China has occupied illegally.
China claims these areas in Bhutan with the sole objective of widening its shoulders in the Chumbi Valley and overcoming its severe disadvantage there. Despite China and Bhutan signing an agreement in 1998 to maintain status quo along their borders, China has not only been silently pushing forward into Bhutanese territory, but has also built roads and bridges in the Charithang Valley of Bhutan. Many PLA posts have also been set up in these Bhutanese territories forcibly occupied by China.
At the same time, China is building a high-speed rail link from Xigaze (Shigatse) in Tibet to Yadong county in the southernmost part of Chumbi Valley. The railway line from Lhasa was extended 250km to Xigaze only last year. The extension of the line to Tadong will take about two years to complete. China has already upgraded its highway from Lhasa to Yadong – the 500km journey takes a little over six hours to complete (in stark contrast, the 50km distance between Sikkim’s capital Gangtok and Nathula on the Indo-Tibet border takes over three-and-a-half hours to traverse).
China is building two forward air bases in the Chumbi Valley and is currently strengthening its garrison in that area. More PLA troops are being inducted, and China’s latest J-20 stealth fighters as well as its FC-1 Xiaolong light combat aircraft are being deployed in the Chumbi Valley. The entire objective is to build up robust military presence in Chumbi Valley, negate the strategic disadvantages of Chumbi Valley by occupying territories to its west in India and east in Tibet and, when the time comes, push into the vulnerable Siliguri Corridor to cut off Northeast India from the rest of the country.
Beijing’s Geopolitical Message
Beijing always sends out very subtle messages to the rest of the world through its actions and gestures. Its incursions into Doka La, apart from trying to neutralise the strategic advantage India enjoys, was also aimed at sending out multiple messages to New Delhi. More so since China’s cross-border military adventurism into India had sharply reduced after the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement was signed between the two countries in October 2013. Also, New Delhi and Beijing had an unwritten agreement not to question each other’s suzerainty over Sikkim and Tibet.
Chinese troops transgressed into Doka La two weeks ago, on the eve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States (US). Experts say Beijing may have wanted to send out a warning to Modi not to gang up with President Trump against China and not to deepen strategic and defence ties with the US. It is a different matter that the message was apparently ignored by Modi.
According to senior army officers, the PLA’s aggressiveness along the border has increased ever since the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh (large parts of which China lays claim to) in early April. The visit was vehemently opposed by Beijing, but New Delhi disregarded China’s protests, thus angering China (read this article on the visit). Beijing also wants India to call off the Dalai Lama’s planned visit to Leh later this month. Beijing is mortally scared that the Dalai Lama may announce his successor or provide hints about the identity of his successor during such visits, thus derailing Beijing’s plan to install a rubber-stamp as the fifteenth Dalai Lama.
After inflicting a crushing and humiliating defeat on an ill-prepared India under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962, China has been expecting India to bend over backwards in accommodating Chinese concerns. In fact, the ghost of the 1962 ignominy hung so heavily over New Delhi that successive governments thought it prudent to meekly submit to most of Beijing’s demands. It is only recently that India has been asserting itself, and Beijing is none too pleased with this change. The border transgressions are Beijing’s way of sending the message about its military might.
India’s decision to raise a China-specific strike corps (the 17 Mountain Strike Corps), the furious build-up of physical and military infrastructure along the Indo-China border, the opening of advanced landing grounds in Arunachal Pradesh, the recent opening of a vital bridge over the Brahmaputra to connect Upper Assam with Arunachal and such other projects have raised Beijing’s hackles. Thus, Beijing has felt that it is time to send out a strong message to New Delhi, along with a rap on its knuckles.
Senior officers at the Indian Army’s Eastern Command headquarters in Kolkata told Swarajya that China’s belligerence this time has been quite uncharacteristic. “In all such cases earlier, flag meetings were held promptly and the standoff defused. But this time, despite repeated requests, the PLA did not agree to a flag meeting between local commanders and insisted that our troops move away from Doka La first. We refused and dug in our heels. It was only after many days that a flag meeting was finally held,” said a Major General who did not want to be named.
The Indian Army also foiled the Chinese design to hold on to Doka La by moving additional troops swiftly to the border. More than a thousand Indian troops were mobilised and engaged in a face-off with PLA troops. “Not a single shot was fired and our men and officers only physically prevented PLA men from advancing further into Indian territory,” the army officer said. Video clips of the standoff show Indian troops bodily preventing Chinese troops from advancing into Indian territory.
China had also publicly insisted this time that India withdraw its troops from Doka La, which China claimed as its own. Never before has China made such a demand after its troops transgressed into Indian territory. “This only shows China’s new belligerence. The PLA had perhaps thought that it could occupy Doka La very swiftly and not only present a fait accompli to India but also demoralise India and the Indian Army with the conquest of Doka La without firing a single shot,” said a former diplomat who had served in Beijing.
But this definitely won’t be the last such attempt by China. Not only does India need to increase vigil along the border, the ongoing and proposed projects to improve and build road, rail and air links to the border areas need to be put on the fast track. Financial roadblocks delaying our military’s modernisation plans need to be removed and the new strike corps has to be raised, trained and deployed double-quick to thwart all future attempts by China to enter and capture Indian territory.