The Doklam Standoff
The Standoff on the Bhutan-India-China trijunction which has reached concerning levels over the past few weeks has its genesis on the Doklam plateau, an 89-sq. km tract in Western Bhutan that China claims to be part of Tibet. This is a long standing disputed territory between Bhutan and China – one amongst three major contested areas across the Bhutan – Tibet border and the two countries have so far held twenty four rounds of talks to resolve outstanding border issues between them, a process that has so far remained ongoing.
On 16th June this year, Chinese troops, along with earth movers and other construction equipment, marched south to a clearing known, locally, as “Turning Point” and demolished two bunkers constructed by the Indian Army in 2012 at Lalten on the Doklam plateau in Western Bhutan. This area is proximate to the Indian post of Doko La, on the border of India (Sikkim) and Bhutan and close to the Siliguri corridor that links India’s Northeast to the rest of the country.
As the Chinese soldiers (and earth movers) had entered Bhutanese territory, they were confronted by Bhutanese soldiers who were however pushed back. It is then that the Indian soldiers, in consultation with the Bhutanese Army and sensing a Chinese resolve to change the status quo on the ground, came down from Doko La to challenge the Chinese ingress. Both China and India sent reinforcements to the area and at a flag meeting held later, Chinese asked Indian troops to withdraw from Doklam and refused entry of Manasarovar pilgrims into its territory, through the Nathu La Pass route.
No fire arms were used, but, human chains were formed by both sides and “jostling” (pushing and shoving), which has become a common feature in such confrontations, took place.
Why Doklam is different from previous standoffs
Such ‘standoffs’, between Chinese and Indian troops are not uncommon. Those that took place at the Depsang Plains in 2013 and at Chumar in 2014 are well-known. But on each occasion, the Chinese by and large reverted to the status quo after making a ‘political statement’ and ‘agreeing to disagree’ during flag meetings.
In the instant case of Doklam however, the Chinese have sought to ‘dig in’. Besides not budging on ground, they have shown a steely determination to push their claim with the actions of their soldiers being justified and supported by official statements and extensive media coverage and analysis. The tone and tenor of language used by the Chinese Government spokesmen and media has been belligerent and threatening with words and phrases like “do not forget 1962”, “PLA will teach India a lesson”, “no talks until Indian troops withdraw”, “option of war is open” and “either Indian troops return to their territory with dignity or will be kicked out of the area by the PLA” and more recently, at a time, diplomatic efforts should have brought some calm, a shrill warning that a ‘third country’s’ Army could enter Kashmir on behalf of Pakistan” – indicative of how serious and different the Doklam standoff really is and the potential for it to escalate.
The Chumbi Valley and Doklam Plateau
The Chumbi Valley lies in the South of Tibet’s Yadong county at the intersection of Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan in adjacency to the Siliguri corridor and holds enormous strategic significance for India, China as well as Bhutan. India views it as a dagger pointed towards it at a particularly vulnerable sector and is apprehensive of China’s motives for the rapid road construction in Tibet.
The Doklam Plateau is an 80-89 square km plateau with average altitude of 4,000-4,500 meters, located in Western Bhutan. It is a salient of Bhutanese territory that juts north into the Chumbi Valley with India (Sikkim) to the north-west, west and south-west and Tibet to the north, east and south-east.
Map released by Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman indicating places and giving out their perception of borders
The trijunction of India, Bhutan and Tibet is on the north-western edge of the Doklam Plateau where the Batang La post of India is located and north-west of which along the crest line are the Indian defences of Sikkim.
Sikkim is one of the sectors where India has a relative advantage. With a sizeable military presence at Ha within Bhutan, it can attack into Chumbi valley at a short notice from two sides, potentially cutting off Chinese troops stationed facing Sikkim.
The Doklam Plateau would give the PLA the advantage of outflanking from the south west, the defences of Sikkim, where India has a major terrain advantage. Therefore, if the Chinese have their way, India not only loses its major advantage of a strategic offensive/counter offensive from Sikkim but also provides the Chinese a launch pad for an offensive through the Rangpur River valley towards Kalimpong without requiring to enter Bhutanese territory. Hence, India just cannot afford to surrender its advantage and instead let a vulnerability be created by the Chinese taking possession of the Doklam Plateau and giving it a perch to choke its own vital lines of communications running through the Siliguri Corridor to the North East. Stakes, on both sides, are high.
For the Chinese to attempt a thrust towards the Siliguri corridor would however need a force strength of several divisions, itself implying a situation of total war. With the existing road communications and limited deployment space (the Chumbi Valley at Yatung being only 25-30 km wide with high vulnerability to both air and ground counter-offensives by India), it is improbable for the Chinese to execute an operation of this nature.
China’s Position and Stance
In sharp contrast to its conduct during earlier standoffs, this time the Chinese position has been singularly rigid. The official statement of its Foreign Ministry stated that “China has repeatedly asserted its claim over Dangling (Doklam)”. It accuses Indian troops of trespassing and that “to cover up the illegal entry by Indian troops into the Chinese territory, Indian side wants to infringe upon Bhutan’s sovereignty and they try to confuse right from wrong. This is futile. We have no objection to normal bilateral relations between India and Bhutan but are firmly opposed to the Indian side infringing on Chinese territory using Bhutan as an excuse”, adding that China will take all steps to ensure its territorial sovereignty.
The Chinese position is in accordance with Article 1 of the Convention between Great Britain and China Relating to Sikkim and Tibet (1890), “the boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its affluents from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other rivers of Tibet. The line commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier, and follows the above-mentioned water-parting to the point where it meets Nepal territory” from which it becomes clear that ‘Doklam belongs to China’.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry released the above shown map to elaborate their claim that the Trijunction is marked at Gyemo Chen (Mount Kipmochi). The dotted line on the map running through Sinche La shows the Indian and Bhutanese perception of the Trijunction and the boundary.
As the water-parting in the area where the Indian troops trespassed is distinct, China concludes that it is ‘an irrefutable fact’ that the Indian troops had illegally crossed into the Chinese territory thereby violating provisions of the boundary agreements between China and India and as such, their withdrawal is a necessary precondition for any discussions to take place.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry alongside also released the following pictures of Indian troops entering into Chinese territory:
The statements of the Chinese officials and its media are intimidating and blatantly threatening stating that while on its part, “China avoids making an issue of border disputes, which has indulged India’s unruly provocations” but this time, “the Indian side needs to be taught the rules”.
In the perception of the Chinese, “India cannot afford a showdown with China on border issues. It lags far behind China in terms of national strength and the so-called strategic support for it from the US is superficial” and adding that while “China has no desire to confront India. Maintaining friendly ties with New Delhi is Beijing’s basic policy. But this must be based on mutual respect. It’s not time for India to display arrogance toward China”.
The Foreign Ministry spokesman’s statement takes a dim and denigrating view of Indian economy and military capabilities, mentioning that “India’s GDP is only one-quarter of China’s and its annual defence budget is just one-third (of China’s). Having a friendly relationship and cautiously handling border issues with China is its (India’s) best choice”.
The Ground Position
India and Bhutan consider that the trijunction is located at Batang La. While the Doklam Plateau is in the possession of Bhutan, it secures its possession with only one post at Zompleri, which is occupied only during summers.
On ground, India holds the posts of Batang La and Doka La to the north-west of Doklam Plateau as part of its defences in Sikkim.
China however lays claim to the entire Doklam plateau and as per its version the Trijunction is at Mount Gipmochi (Gyemo Chen) which is 7-8 km to the south-east of the de facto present position.
Doklam Plateau, though part of Bhutan, has however not been physically held strongly by the Bhutan Army. The PLA has in fact been routinely patrolling this area. India too has been patrolling Doklam in mutual agreement with the Bhutanese Army. There have even been instances of confrontation between the respective patrols but each time, these have been resolved by ‘agreeing to disagree’ and to maintain status quo for peace.
At the diplomatic plane, China acknowledges that there are various areas of dispute with Bhutan including the Doklam Plateau and that several rounds of negotiations have so far been held. In 1998, China and Bhutan signed a bilateral agreement for maintaining peace on the border. In the agreement, China affirmed its respect for Bhutan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and both sides sought to build ties based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence.
There is also a formal agreement, the India-China Agreement on the Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs signed in 2012 between China and India.
India-Bhutan Security Cooperation
As per the 2007 treaty, India and Bhutan have agreed to cooperate with each other on issues relating to their “national interests” and not allow the use of their territory for activities harmful to national security and interest of the other. This translates, in effect to Bhutan being guided by India in its defence and foreign policies and makes India responsible for the defence of Bhutan.
Both India and Bhutan have been restrained in their responses to the present stand off and have urged China to maintain status quo ante pre-June 2017 and respect the interim agreements with respect to Trijunction points reached with India in 2012, besides the two agreements in 1988 and 1998 with Bhutan and to maintain the status quo pending final settlement.
Why has China upped the ante
There are several reasons, both long term and immediate for China to have adopted its present ‘tough’ posture:
• India stands out as the is the only country in the region that has refused to accept Chinese political hegemony.
• China perceives India as an economic and political competitor with the potential to challenge its pre-eminent hegemony in the region.
• China views the growing Indo-USA strategic cooperation as a threat.
• India is seen as the principal instigator of the Tibetan struggle for freedom through the ‘Dalai Lama Card’. It is extremely upset with India’s decision to go ahead with the recent visit of the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh in spite of its cautions and threats.
• India, as also Bhutan, refused the invitation to participate in the Belt and Road Forum held in May 2017 and to be part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
• Chinese decision to alter the status quo at Doklam is therefore a deliberate and well thought out one, intended to embarrass India and drive a wedge between India and Bhutan. Its strategy is to make India lose face by forcing it to withdraw and thus get Bhutan into its own sphere of influence.
• The contents of various Chinese media analysis, especially the critique of Bhutan’s ‘happiness index’ and threats to support a freedom movement in Sikkim reveal a deep seated intent to include adjacent Buddhist majority areas into a larger Tibet.
Options for India
This is a critical moment for India in its relations with China and one in which its options are limited and serious.
• To accept the Chinese position in Doklam and ‘blink’ would be an unacceptable ‘loss of face’ both domestically and internationally. The ‘Doklam model’ could then come to be applied across other hot spots across the entire boundary at will.
• As has been the experience in the 1967 confrontation in Sikkim and in 1986-87 during the Sumdrong Chu incident, China understands the language of strength. India must therefore hold out till at least a mutual withdrawal to pre-June 2017 positions is agreed.
• While diplomatic engagement should continue, India must make a candid assessment on the need to mobilise in order to call China’s bluff and even be prepared for border skirmishes, in the area and elsewhere along the LAC. Perhaps even for a limited war.
• China is very well aware of India’s locational and psychological advantage and there is a desperation that the high pitch and shrill of Chinese statements reveal a realisation of having overplayed their card and worked themselves into a corner.
• It is typical Chinese tactics to make border incursions in areas that are disputed or in no man’s land, to build roads and outposts closer and closer to Indian (or in this case Bhutanese) territory and to retain a territorial or infrastructural advantage even after resolution.
• India’s advantage lies in its ability to cut off the Chinese intrusion at Sinche La and to build up for a military confrontation much faster than China. How long the ‘standoff’ lasts will depend on for how long the Chinese would be able to support its troops at Turning Point while military and diplomatic talks seek to resolve the issue. Meanwhile, the hope remains that China sees sense and accepts reversion to status quo.