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Even though the trade war between the US and China is escalating and has taken the centre stage of the international discourse, the word Doklam does not seem to have escaped the media’s attention in the context of India-China relations. It is more than one year since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invaded Bhutan’s territory in Doklam Plateau and the Indian Army (IA) stepped in to prevent PLA from constructing a road inside the plateau. A lot has happened since then. High-level delegations have met and supposed to have solved the problem after troops from both sides disengaged from the face-off site. That is what India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had claimed. Both the Chinese President and Indian Prime Minister reached out to each other to find an amicable solution at Wuhan summit in April, earlier this year. In the spirit of Wuhan, both Xi and Modi agreed to open a new chapter in India-China relations to ease out the tensions along India’s more than 3500 km border with China. Since then, there have been a number of border meetings and exchange of high-level civilian and military delegations. In spite of such a visible bonhomie, the PLA continued to develop its infrastructure and boosted its strength inside the plateau.

 

In an earlier article, this author stated, “It could be conjectured that Doklam was initiated by China to probe and gauge India’s response and, thereafter, re-calibrate its defensive posture in order to make it more challenging for the Indian Army, whenever there is similar standoff in future.” This author had also mentioned, “In the part of the Doklam plateau which is under its occupation after 8 August 2017, the PLA is very likely to further attempt to create infrastructures similar to the areas north of the Chumbi Valley, if it has not already been done.” Well, it was a worry then, which has now been vindicated with the PLA bringing up the road construction as close as to the base of the Jampheri (Zompelri) ridge.

 

The MEA however, maintains that both sides have disengaged from the face-off site. Later, in his briefing to the Parliamentary Committee on External Affairs on 18 October 2017, the Foreign Secretary stated, “There is no road construction activity at or in the vicinity of the face-off site. In fact, there have been no new developments at the face-off site and its vicinity since the 28th August disengagement. The status quo prevails in that area.” Even the Defence Secretary reiterated in the same briefing, “Mr. Chairman, Sir, Foreign Secretary has already provided the details. We have provided inputs for the Foreign Secretary's statement. Regarding forces on ground, PLA troops are at present well within their own territory. Their deployment is not unusual, given the training and exercise schedules at this point of time in the year.” In truth, the PLA is now in physical possession of 59 of 89 sq km of the disputed territory of Doklam plateau with no intention of stopping until it physically occupies Jampheri. Meanwhile, it would be reasonable to believe that the IA too has taken adequate precautions to defend the country’s border. Reasons for PLA’s intrusion into Doklam and IA’s response is based on China’s vulnerability of its Chumbi Valley and India’s concern for its strategic Siliguri corridor.

 

The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, with an area of slightly more than 38,000 sq km, borders China to its north and India to its south. There is a disputed territory of 764 sq km along 470 km of Bhutan’s border with China. Out of this, 495 sq km falls in eastern Bhutan and 269 sq km falls in western Bhutan. Doklam plateau, which is a part of the disputed area of western Bhutan, is strategically important to India because of its proximity to the tri-junction of India-Bhutan-China boundary and India’s eastern boundary with Bhutan joining the line Batang La, Doka-La and Gyemochen (Chinese call it Gipmochi).  Strategically and economically, the disputed area does make a lot of sense to India when it is seen in the context of Indo-Bhutan-China relations. It is geographically beneficial for Bhutan to gravitate towards south and lean on India for most of its commercial activities. Bhutan also relies on India for alternative source of income like hydro power generation. Proud of its sovereignty and independence, it is a geopolitical challenge for Bhutan to remain as an economically independent country, settle its boundary dispute with China without hurting the sentiments and compromising the security of India.

 

The history of India-Bhutan relationship goes back to as early as in 1949 to the signing of Treaty of Friendship; the visit of His Majesty, the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck to India in 1954 as a chief guest at the Republic Day parade; followed by the visit of the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to Bhutan in 1958. The relationship, which was finally cemented by establishing diplomatic relations in 1968, started to grow gradually with a special status for India in this relationship. After the inception of democracy in Bhutan, this equation however has come under criticism from some quarters in India, doubting the first democratically elected  government of Bhutan for gradually leaning towards China. As a result, when the ruling party lost the national election in 2013, India’s hand in the events in the run up to the election was suspected.

 

The special status for India in Bhutan however has caused worries for China. Therefore, in order to dislodge India from its friendly turf in Bhutan, China has evolved a strategy that includes, continuing to engage Bhutan in the boundary talks and simultaneously creep into western Bhutan by building roads and military infrastructures inside its claimed area. So far, 24 rounds of boundary talks have been held without any progress. India’s relationship with Bhutan is purely on security reasons and China is the most worrying factor. Pandit Nehru, during his speech given to the people of Bhutan in Paro in 1958, had stated, “Freedom of both Bhutan and India should be safe guarded so that none from outside can do harm to it.” It is in this context that the IA prevented PLA from any further incursion on 16 June 2017.

 

The question that arises is, now that the PLA is very close to the base of Jampheri, what would China do next? The PLA however does not get much operational advantage by occupying the plateau except for that it is better prepared to defend Chumbi valley against any offensive design from both east and west by a collusive force of the IA and Royal Bhutan Army (RBA).

 

 

Additionally, by taking control of the plateau, the PLA has managed to effectively block its adversary’s ability to dominate its territory and interfere in its build-up inside Chumbi Valley. At the same time, the PLA remains vulnerable to the IA’s dominating positions on the watersheds from Batang La to Geymochen top. China knows that India would never give in to its pressure to change the alignment of India-China boundary, i.e. accept Geymochen as the tri-junction in place of Batang La.

 

However, with physical possession of Jampheri, which is in the Bhutanese territory, the PLA will be able to partially offset its tactical disadvantage. It is with this aim that China has been claiming that Geymochen is the tri-junction and entire Doklam plateau historically belongs to them. Even though nothing has been clearly mentioned about its claim over Jampheri, it is only a military logic to expect PLA to slowly inch towards the higher points of Jampheri to be able to dominate India’s Siliguri Corridor.

 

Out of the two, PLA’s reach up to Jampheri will be easier because it is in Bhutan’s territory and Bhutan does not have the military capability to defend the ridgeline. When PLA troops moved inside the plateau in June 2017, the IA took a stand and tried to prevent the PLA from building the road. Even though both sides disengaged from the face-off site, the PLA remained in the general area and eventually built more infrastructure inside the plateau. Given the likely political consequences on its own policy of non-interference in other nations’ sovereignty, should the PLA again attempt to enlarge the encroachment up to Jampheri, the IA may not repeat its past performance. Therefore, the best course of action is to support Bhutan to strengthen RBA’s capability in terms of both its strength and armaments to defend Jampheri. In this way, the PLA will be boxed inside Doklam and will turn IA’s operational disadvantage to India’s strategic advantage. On the other hand, any alteration of the boundary line between India and China using military means will mean an all-out war. But despite the big political, economic and military disparity between China and India, an all-out war is not in the interest of either China or India. Therefore, the border dispute in Doklam area and likewise in other areas, will remain the casus belie for India-China relationship, without however escalating the border incidents into a full-fledged war.

 

This present status quo is the ground situation in Doklam and the optical thaw in the relations between the two nations however, should not be taken as an understanding between China and India to cohabit peacefully until the boundary question is permanently resolved. China has not been able to, most importantly after India’s defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962, accept India as an emerging regional power. Earlier, the author observed, “Politically, the decreasing military and economic gap between China and India, India’s growing proximity to the USA, and an  assertive  and  confident government in New Delhi,  can  be  said  to  be  political  challenges  for  Xi  Jinping,  whose  desire  is  to  create  an  image  for  himself  larger  than  Mao  and  Deng  within  the  country.  India’s  sheltering  of  the  Dalai  Lama  for  more  than  six  decades,  inviting  Lobsang  Sangay,  Prime  Minister  of  the  Tibetan  Government  in  exile  to  Narendra  Modi’s  swearing-in  ceremony  in  2014,  and,  most  recently,  allowing  the  Dalai  Lama  to  visit  Tibetan  communities  in  Arunachal  Pradesh  (territory  claimed  by  China),  and  its  opposition  to  the  China-Pakistan  Economic  Corridor  (CPEC)  and  the  One  Belt  One  Road  (OBOR)  initiative  have  turned  out  to  be  an  irritation  to  Xi.  China’s concerns also encompass the possibility of India-based extremist groups that may influence Tibetan affairs in the post-Dalai Lama phase.

 

Granting asylum to Dalai Lama in March 1959 finally triggered the war in 1962 and China wanted to teach India a lesson once and for all. Since then, apart from several instances of China trying to encroach into India’s territory, there has not been any major conflict between the two Asian giants. Now there is a pause in China’s assertive actions and the recent months have witnessed China’s attempts to mend its ties with India. After the Wuhan meeting earlier this year, India has been granted market access to a few selected exports and the rhetoric against India has toned down significantly. Such a sudden change of heart signals some kind of understanding and shift from its earlier clearly visible belligerent attitude towards India, especially during and in the immediate aftermath of the Doklam standoff.  

 

Despite the reducing military gap in terms of troops, armament and overall capability  between China and India, India’s growing proximity with the US, its opposition to Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its assertion in the Pacific Ocean are few of the issues that have been of concern for China. More importantly, it is the personality of China’s President Xi Jinping, probably the most powerful leader after Mao Zedong, which is steering the trajectory of the country towards becoming another superpower. As stated in an article published by The Economist, “President Xi Jinping has since promoted his “Chinese Dream” of a nation that stands tall in the world.” Doklam therefore, was the right card for China to remind India that any alteration in the regional balance of power will not be acceptable.

 

China presently stands at the crossroads of political, economic and domestic challenges, which makes its position in the world order critical; and the trade war with the US has further contributed to the worsening situation. Its softening approach towards India should be seen more as its compulsion to retain its position in the world order and less out of choice, benevolence and reconciliation of its earlier stand. There are also similar compulsions for India. For example, its strategic setbacks in the immediate neighbourhood and fearing its negative impact on the forthcoming national election in 2019 have influenced India’s decision to accept China’s extended hand. Accordingly, in order to assuage China’s concern, India has also taken a number of steps. The most important ones are, downgrading its enthusiasm for Dalai Lama, resumption of talks on maritime affairs and renaming Taiwan in its airlines maps. At the military level, there have been exchange of high-ranking military leaders to address both nations’ concerns on the border.

 

China struggled for 2000 years to unify its vast area. China wants to be an assertive global power and will not allow anyone to come on its way. China’s push for global ascendance goes beyond this region. In Africa, China, with its huge investment, mostly in natural resources, has been able to leave India behind with a huge margin. For instance, at the recent African Summit held in Beijing on 3-4 September 2018, President Xi pledged for an economic aid of $US60 billion for the continent. Along the India-China border, there are a number of disputed and sensitive areas, as already known. Given that it will be nearly impossible for China to take control of the disputed areas by military means, the best bet for China is to use the disputed areas as leverage against India in the regional power play. India too probably knows this well and hence is being careful not to tilt the balance of power completely. In order to keep its options open, India has gone ahead to sign the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) with the US.

 

It is however difficult to predict the result of such an open-ended strategy when it comes to dealing with our neighbours. Probably because of the alleged overbearing demeanour of India towards its smaller neighbours, the latter also keep their options open to shift their tracks, as required. In Sri Lanka, after the present ruling coalition government under President Maithripala Sirisena came to power, there was hope that ties between India and Sri Lanka would improve, in comparison to what it was during the reign of his predecessor, Mahindra Rajapaksa. However, the political crisis in Sri Lanka, following Sirisena’s recent move to replace the sitting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, on 26 October 2018 with Rajapaksa, has now emerged as a challenge for India, amidst fears and signs of Sri Lanka falling deeper into China’s clutch as the debt trap worsens.

 

The present reset between India and China cannot be regarded as a fundamental shift in their strategy to influence the regional power balance. In the words of Shidore, a senior Stratfor analyst “All this amounts to a broader easing of tensions between the two Asian giants on multiple fronts beyond border security. But it still falls well short of a shift in grand strategy on either side. India and China will remain vigorous geopolitical competitors, but their rivalry is unlikely to take on the contours of a “cold war” in the foreseeable future.

 

Currently, India is going through difficult times, both domestically, in terms of economy, as well as regionally, in terms of its relations with its neighbours. Therefore, India can ill afford another standoff with China. Like India, even China will not give up its military positions in the disputed areas. Therefore, finding a middle path to settle the boundary will be more in India’s interest than for China. Such an exercise can begin sector wise, by converting the line of actual ground positions to some kind of understanding that guarantees no more future encroachment. Jaideep Saikia, a prominent security analyst, calls this – The Line of Amity. Saikia has advocated this idea in a work co-authored by him and the author – Mind over Matter: Effortless Conversation about the Demanding (2013). This way, the IA will be able to pull back its troops to their permanent locations, which were earlier pushed forward after the Doklam stand-off and thus, save the exchequer from a huge economic burden. Most importantly, China will be deprived of its standard weapon of leveraging the disputed areas against India in pursuit of its strategic goals.

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.