All the noise emanating from Beijing is not without reason – China finds itself at a disadvantage with the Indian and Bhutanese armies staring down at it from the strategic heights.
Even standing still in the bitterly cold and windswept Doklam plateau, which is being lashed by periodic sharp showers now, will tax the fittest of men. At that altitude (more than 16,500 feet), oxygen is rare and breathing takes work; many layers of clothing are never enough to ward off the chill that threatens to freeze even the bones.
But hundreds of Indian army soldiers, their arms locked and the automatic rifles on their shoulders pointed towards the ground, have been standing in Doklam and some areas further south for two to three hours at a stretch to form a human chain. The Indian human chain confronts a similar one by Chinese soldiers, and is separated by about 10-12ft of sandy soil on which little can grow. The human chain – soldiers have rotating duties – has been in place for more than three weeks now.
The standoff is necessary – a withdrawal will result in Chinese troops advancing and occupying not only the entire Doklam plateau, which is Bhutan’s territory, but also extending the tri-junction of India-Tibet-Bhutan about 10 kilometres south of the present position. And that would make the Siliguri corridor, which connects North East India with the rest of the country, vulnerable.
Behind the human chains, both sides have amassed troops and military hardware. China has even been conducting military exercises simulating battlefield scenarios. The Chinese have also reportedly tested the Xinqingtan, a new 35-tonne battle tank with a 105 millimetre tank gun, a 35mm grenade launcher and a 12.7mm machine gun. Sounds of artillery and gunfire can be heard from the Indian side many miles away. The Chinese are, obviously, making a lot of noise on Ground Zero.
It is not as if the Indian Army (IA) and the Royal Bhutanese Army (RBA) have been sitting pretty. A lot of armoured, artillery, mechanised infantry and infantry units have been amassed. The IA and RBA are conducting joint exercises to test their combat readiness and coordination. The coordination between the two armies is smooth; not only do the two share extremely close ties and hold regular exercises, the RBA is also trained by the IA itself.
IA officers are, however, not quite impressed by the sound that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is making at Doklam and further south at their side of the existing tri-junction (Map credit: Rohit Vats).
Indian and RBA troops and units have dug in their heels and are well prepared for the long haul. But its not only that. Both the IA and RBA occupy the higher ground at Doklam and Doka La. And, thus, they have a significant strategic advantage over Chinese troops, who are amassed at the narrow Chumbi Valley.
The Chinese have not been able to encroach much into the Doklam plateau and beyond the present trijunction into Doka La area. The Chinese started encroaching slowly and stealthily into Doklam plateau from Chumbi Valley a few years ago. A part of that plateau – about 89 sq km of it, according to Bhutan – is disputed territory between Bhutan and China. But even though treaties exist between the two nations to maintain status quo in such areas, the PLA has been surreptitiously encroaching into Bhutan’s territories.
China has built roads from Chumbi Valley to a high mountain pass called Senche La that leads to Doklam plateau in Bhutan. This road then enters Bhutan before turning west to return to Chumbi Valley. The Chinese have also extended this road down southwest till Doka La, a few kilometres into Indian territory. As they have been doing in other sectors, the Chinese now cite the existence of this road, and their own bunkers and temporary positions in encroached-upon territories, to claim them as their own.
As can be seen on the map given below, China wants to push the India-Tibet-Bhutan tri-junction further south to make Doka La, which is now well within India, into a pass that opens to the Chumbi Valley. The blue line in the map is the present boundary between Bhutan and Tibet; the blue line marks the Chinese claim on Bhutan’s territory that would push the tri-junction further south. (Map credit: Rohit Vats)
The Chinese want to do this for many reasons, the primary being strategic. If the Chinese can push the tri-junction south and occupy the Doklam plateau, they will gain tremendous advantage over the IA and RBA. The vital rail and road links passing through Siliguri corridor would then come within easy range of Chinese artillery from the new tri-junction. That will give China a huge advantage over India since India, aware that China can easily snap links between the North East and rest of India, will then be at the mercy of China. Beijing will be able to bend New Delhi to do its bidding.
If the Chinese game plan succeeds, Beijing would have effectively humbled India and delivered a debilitating blow to India’s ego and prestige. Beijing would also have demonstrated to India’s neighbours that China is the big brother in this neighbourhood and they can safely ignore India. Also, Beijing would be able to force Bhutan to deal directly with China instead of through India, as it happens at present.
But this scary scenario is highly unlikely. That’s because the IA and RBA still hold onto the strategic heights and China has not been able to move enough PLA troops and military hardware onto Doklam plateau to pose any serious challenge to Indian and Bhutanese armies. It would, say IA and RBA officers, be easy to push PLA troops and units back to Chumbi Valley. China has, admittedly, amassed a large number of troops, artillery and armoured units in Chumbi Valley. But these are sitting ducks for Indian artillery now. Chumbi Valley is also within easy range of Indian Air Force fighters based in the Siliguri corridor and south Bengal while IA and RBA positions in Doklam are quite out of range of the PLA’s Air Force stationed in Tibet.
This ground reality is what riles Beijing no end. China knows that it cannot start hostilities on this front since it is still at a severe disadvantage. And that is why the Chinese military, its foreign office and the state-controlled media as well as state-sponsored think tanks are spitting fire on India. The knowledge that if the PLA fires the first shot in Doklam, it will suffer huge losses there, and in the Chumbi Valley as well, is what proves to be a huge setback to China’s expansionism and severely dents its gargantuan ego. And hence all the angry noises emanating not only from behind Chinese positions in Doklam, but also from faraway Beijing.
Hero image credit: Rohit Vats