Doklam Standoff: The Real Reasons And How Far Can It Be Taken

by Syed Ata Hasnain - Jul 27, 2017 03:42 PM +05:30 IST
Doklam Standoff: The Real Reasons And How Far Can It Be TakenAn Indian Army convoy.
  • There is no alternative for India but to do more than lip service to its dire need for better infrastructure and military capability for a two-front conflict.

    Doklam will not be the last time it will face intimidation.

The standoff in the general area tri-junction and specifically the Doklam Plateau on the China-Bhutan border has now been on for over six weeks without a bullet being fired. There is rhetoric on both sides but many times more by the Chinese public relations and propaganda machinery to send home the most intimidating messages seen in a long time. The status is stuck on national egos with both sides under public pressure. In such standoffs, situations can go out of hand with the faintest of wrong gestures, words or even perceptions. The Nathula incident of 1967 comes immediately to mind where large-scale casualties were reported by both sides once the standoff developed into a conflagration.

A few facts will set the tone for this analysis. The Chumbi Valley is a narrow wedge of territory between Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim. The boundaries of China, India and Bhutan meet at the disputed tri-junction near the southern end of the valley. Doklam is an 89 square kilometre plateau on the eastern side of Chumbi. The Chinese claim it as theirs and so does Bhutan.

The issue in contention is that the Chinese commenced constructing a road on the disputed plateau to bring an artery to the southern end of the Chumbi Valley. The road, if completed, will alter the operational picture quite drastically as the Chinese can more effectively develop operations southwards, although they would be reasonably unsure of success with their base wedged between two potential adversaries. India's objection is from two angles. First is that the road construction alters the strategic and operational scenario. Second that it transgresses disputed territory of a country with whom it has a mutual assistance treaty.

So if the Chinese are really professional why have they chosen to address this border issue where they are at operational disadvantage? There can be much conjecture on that, commencing from the question whether this entire standoff is an accidental one, which the Chinese did not think through sufficiently, to whether it is a deliberate selection of a point of dispute where the complexities are large; the Chicken's Neck and the involvement of Bhutan making it a little more out of the ordinary than Depsang Plateau or Chumar in Ladakh, where the standoffs took place in 2013 and 2014.

The answer lies in a couple of factors, which have not emerged in recent analyses. It's a question of forcing India to remain fixated on the continental dimension of its security. To do that, it is important for China to draw India into these standoffs to keep the threat of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) alive and making it two front by also playing the Pakistan card. This is the domain, where India is all alone as land boundary disputes do not draw as much international attention as maritime disputes or even just the entire gamut of the maritime domain. The latter draws far greater attention with sea lanes, continental shelves and exclusive economic zones.

China's strength lies in the continental dimension; that is the matter of detail that chairman Deng Xiao Ping, the father of modern China, possibly misread and did not direct as part of his four modernisations. Although the military domain was the last in priority, within that domain the PLA Navy received even lower priority. That was surprising because China's actual security priority lies in the maritime zone. Its economy is dependent on energy transported by sea. Its disputes in South East and East Asia are both in the oceans.

The Indian Ocean in its huge expanse is vulnerability for China, because located at the crown is India, which with a strong navy can remain a threat in being against China’s sea lanes of communication (SLsOC). These SLsOC carry almost 80 per cent of the energy needs especially to the well-developed eastern seaboard. That is the reason for China focusing on its string of pearls strategy, which off late has received a bit of a fillip. None other than Raja Menon, the doyen of India’s maritime experts, has argued for long along the above lines. In fact, China’s New Maritime Silk Route is partially based upon the need for strengthening its outreach to overcome the weaknesses of its stretched SLsOC.

Thus China must keep India pegged to the continental security domain to prevent it from concentrating on and developing its maritime security capability. The increasing cooperation of the Indian Navy with other naval forces, primarily the US, Japan and Australia, is not in China’s interest and this phenomenon keeps it worried. The politico-diplomatic reasons for China resorting to intimidation along with the above rationale can only be traced to three issues.

First is the moral victory, which India appeared to have scored over the Dalai Lama visit to Arunachal Pradesh earlier in 2017. Second is most likely the refusal of India (and Bhutan) to join in even the basic sensitisation discussions on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) conducted by China in May 2017; China’s self-perceived magnum opus. Third, perhaps are the increasing indicators of a stronger and more strategically emerging relationship between the US, India and Japan. The plain deduction in the Chinese strategic mind would be the necessity to intimidate India and show it its place in the international strategic scenario at a time when the world order seems more confused than ever before.

The choice could have been anywhere along the disputed areas; Doklam made response and subsequent handling by India more complex. Little did China realise that the complexity will also become a millstone around its neck after India refused to be intimidated and came to Bhutan’s assistance. So where does it go from here? The viral propaganda in the official Chinese media, quite uncharacteristically impolite by any international standards of behaviour, is also a crude attempt at intimidation with the hope that it will force India into submission. The reverse has happened.

However, it is not something for India to be happy about because it does not seek conflict anywhere along its borders and is committed to its economic growth and betterment of lives of its people. China too has to realise that in its relationships it cannot expect nations to acquiesce to its strategic desire at the cost of their self-respect.

Such politico-military-strategic situations cannot simply be glossed over without at least a brief commentary on the military aspects. The most noticeable thing this time is China’s attempt to employ hybrid aspects with psychological warfare at the core. Its aim is to create fear in the minds of the Indian leadership and paint a scenario of India’s helplessness in comparison to China’s economic and military strength. There hasn’t been any subtlety about it reflecting crass attitude in the hope that India will back off.

It is a misnomer for China to think that it can walk all over India’s armed forces. What it is achieving in the bargain is the buying of new generation enmity, which will last into the future. While it may not be correct to assume that we have the fullest support of the international community yet China-Pakistan collusion to target India is not going to be viewed very positively either.

A long standoff stretching into winter, which analysts are speculating about, is not in anyone’s interest as a single spark can anytime put a full border on fire. Bhutan, which has unfortunately been caught between the interests of its giant neighbours, could actually hold the key to a potential dilution of tension. Considering that mutual withdrawal is being considered as a potential Indian success, Bhutan’s request to India to withdraw its troops alongside stoppage of all construction activity by the PLA with a follow up of a resumption in China-Bhutan talks could be a face saver for all. Bhutan could insist on subsequent PLA vacation of Doklam and return to status quo ante for the talks to resume.

The important thing is that with this incident the next may not be too far away. There is no alternative for India but to do more than lip service to its dire need for better infrastructure and military capability for a two-front conflict. Doklam will not be the last time it will face intimidation.

The writer is a former GOC of India’s Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

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