Doklam: The Tri-Junction Standoff

Sino-Indian Relations

Occasional trespassing, scuffle and strife, deliberate or unintentional, between the troops of India and China is not a new feature. The ill-defined border, growing economic and military status, traditional territorial disputes with neighbours and the tendency of accepting or refuting past agreements at convenience has earned enough notoriety to China which so often trespasses its neighbours with aggression simultaneously accusing the latter as hegemonic and expansionist. Such violations are more frequent in case of India which shares a border with China of approximately 3488 km as per official account involving the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir in the north Himalayas to Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh across the north-east.

Attempts were made by British to demarcate the international boundaries between India and China from time to time but none of them were clearly ratified and implemented in letter and spirit. Consequently, after the communists took over China in 1949 pushing the Chinese nationalists to the tiny island of Taiwan, besides quickly consolidating their stronghold in the mainland, they aggressively started redefining boundaries with neighbours as well as per perceptions and vague historical records. In 1950-51, they annexed Tibet with least resistance from India which was so crucial for India’s defence because historically the large plateau of Tibet played a buffer between India and China.

China had two major issues regarding the sovereignty over two large tracts of land, namely Aksai Chin in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh ( past: North East Frontier Agency) besides some smaller separated pieces of territory here and there. During the Indo-China war of 1962, Chinese captured Aksai Chin in Ladakh region which is now under their continued occupation. But their claim on Arunachal Pradesh in the north-east and few other smaller territories remain a potential source of conflict between the two countries in the region.

However, the current standoff and imbroglio between the two countries is over a piece of land under dispute between Bhutan and China situated at a tri-junction with Sikkim which is strategically important for India’s security too. While Bhutan refers this strategically important plateau as Doklam, China calls it Donglang. In the past, there have been almost two dozen rounds of inconclusive talks between China and Bhutan and the current military standoff started when Chinese side unilaterally attempted to construct a metallic road in June 2017 on the Doklam plateau southwards near the Doka La pass. Bhutan had formally objected to China's road construction in the disputed area but their objections were pushed aside by China forcing India to act on the behest of Bhutan.

Indian Obligation to Protect Bhutan

Let’s see if India really has any obligation to safeguard Bhutan’s political and economic interests in the first place. Bhutan was a protectorate of the British India since 1910 allowing the latter to guide the former in foreign and defence matters. On independence, India and Bhutan signed a Treaty of Friendship in 1949 where under Bhutan agreed to let India continue to guide its foreign policy allowing a close consultation and cooperation in foreign and defence matters, besides the treaty also provided for a free trade and extradition protocols. At least on one occasion in the recent history i.e. after annexation of Tibet by China, the Indian Prime Minister made declaration in the parliament to allay fears of the tiny neighbour that any aggression against Bhutan would be seen as aggression against India.

India continues to heavily influence foreign, defence and commercial interests of Bhutan since long. In 2015-16, India’s foreign aid to the Himalayan Kingdom was of the order of US $985 million (about INR61.60 billion). Besides another INR54 billion (US $819 million) was committed in 2013 for various developmental schemes of Bhutan’s current 11th Five Year plan making the latter the largest beneficiary of India’s foreign aid. India shares about 605 kilometres border with Bhutan which is its largest trading partner in percentage terms, accounting for almost 98 % of its exports and 90% of its imports. The Treaty of 1949 was renegotiated and a new Treaty of Friendship was signed in 2007 where under Bhutan seeks guidance on foreign policy in respect of countries with whom they do not have diplomatic relations, for illustration as in case of China. Thus historically, India and Bhutan share a close bond and friendly relations where under India have certain obligations including protection of sovereignty and integrity of Bhutan.

This dispute gains importance because the troops of India and China are now locked in an obstinate standoff for over two months, neither of them showing any inclination of withdrawal under the loud political accusations and slandering comments from the Chinese media and state machinery on one hand and with a relative calm and determination of Indian army and political establishment on the other. In the past, there have been several instances of Chinese incursions in the Indian Territory, protest and peaceful resistance by the Indian soldiers leading to quick withdrawal of the Chinese trespassing troops, but this time the situation is different.

Doklam is an area comprising of a plateau and valley of approximately 89 square km that lie between Tibet's Chumbi Valley in the north, India’s Sikkim state in the west and Bhutan's Ha Valley in the east. Traditionally, the territory has been under the control of Bhutan which depicts it under Bhutanese map but China also claims it and has occasionally raised the issue with Bhutan. Though the mechanism of bilateral negotiations is in place, but so far they have not been able to resolve their territorial disputes including Doklam despite almost two dozen rounds of bilateral talks.

History of Doklam Dispute

Except for the seasonal occupation by Bhutanese shepherds and grazers, the plateau remains uninhabited during large part of the year due to harsh climatic conditions. In the Bhutanese map, Doklam is constantly depicted as Bhutanese territory for several decades. The first Chinese intrusion was observed in 1966 when People’s Liberation Army (PLA) backed Tibetan grazers entered the pastures near Doklam in Bhutan. The Government of Bhutan then issued a statement to the Chinese government in protest stating the area has been traditionally part of Bhutan and China had never asserted any claim or disputing its boundary in the area in the past. Bhutan simultaneously also requested India to raise the matter with China but the latter rejected India’s role stressing that the matter essentially relates to China and Bhutan and, subsequently, no further assertion was made by China for a few years.

Notably, no diplomatic relations formally exist between China and Bhutan. The two countries commenced border negotiations in 1972 with Bhutan attempting to associate India in a supporting role but China categorically sought the exclusion of India. In several rounds of bilateral negotiations, the disputed area was brought down to about 269 km in the north-west region by the end of twentieth century. Apparently, China also offered a package deal offering to give up their claims of about 495 sq km in the central region in exchange of the alleged 269 sq km in the northwest, including all areas adjoining Chumby Valley along with Doklam. The reason behind this bargain was the strategic value of the Northwest Territories, the possession of which offered strategic depth to the Chinese forces with easy access to the Siliguri Corridor of India that Bhutan turned down apparently under the Indian persuasion.

Having turned down the stated package deal, the subsequent rounds of talks did not yield progress after 2000. Around 2004, China started unilaterally developing infrastructure by building roads in the border areas ignoring repeated protests by the Bhutanese government in the light of the mutual Peace and Tranquillity Agreement of 1998. According to reports, the Doklam plateau has been the most contested area in the region and Chinese had earlier already built road over the plateau by 2005 in the disputed area up to the Doka La pass facing the Indian border post on the Sikkim border.

According to the Royal Government of Bhutan the present Chinese road construction on the Doklam Plateau would lead to unilateral alteration in the disputed land in violation of the 1988 and 1998 agreements between the two countries which inter alia also strictly prohibit the use of force, encourage the opposite parties to resolve differences through peaceful means pending a final settlement of the boundary question and maintain status quo as before March 1959. Notwithstanding these agreements, the PLA troops reportedly took control of the Chumby Valley rear Doklam, have often threatened the Bhutanese guards, seized and occupied their posts in the past besides numerous other violations in the form of intrusions, grazing, infrastructure and road construction in the area all along.

Current Tri-junction Standoff

In 16 June 2017, China took a fresh initiative by sending a team with the earth moving and other equipment backed by PLA in the area populated by the Bhutanese shepherds to extend metallic road from Yadong to southward on the Doklam plateau. According to the Bhutanese government, China attempted to extend the road that earlier terminated at Doka La towards the Bhutan Army camp, Zornpelri near the Jampheri Ridge about two km to the south, the territory on which Bhutan has a traditional claims and India too considers it strategic to their security perceptions as it provides an access towards India’s crucial Siliguri corridor. As it appears the initial resistance from the guards of the Royal Army of Bhutan was brushed aside by the PLA to forcefully commence work at the site and at this stage the Indian troops entered Doklam on 18 June with an objective to protect Bhutan’s territorial integrity by preventing the road construction. Significant in the present case is that despite consciously being aware of the possible ramifications, India showed determination to protect Bhutan’s national interests as per the bilateral understanding under 2007 agreement.

During stand-off, reportedly there was scuffle between the armed soldiers of the two countries for some time and thereafter both armies disengaged and camped with their personnel and equipment at the arm’s length of hardly about hundred meters. While China blamed Indian troops of hegemony and illegal trespassing in its territory, India alleged that the Chinese troops violated sovereignty of Bhutan by entering the area and attempted illegal construction of a road. Since the day of dispute, the Chinese government controlled media and Foreign Ministry have issued an angry stream of almost daily denunciations of India and its alleged illegal trespass and hegemony with repeated demand that New Delhi withdraw its troops forthwith, if it cherishes peace. It has been two months now of stalemate in a tense proximity with no solution in the offing because China is pressing a precondition of unilateral withdrawal of Indian troops for any on ground or diplomatic talks while India holds that that both sides should simultaneously withdraw to resolve the dispute by a peaceful dialogue.

Apart from the protest on the ground, Bhutan formally registered complaint with China protesting against the construction of road in the disputed territory on 29th June. Almost around the same time, China too released a map depicting Doklam as part of their territory and claimed that the map was supported by British-China Treaty of 1890. On July 3, 2017, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson reiterated their claim that the area of Doklam was well demarcated and it belonged to China and that their claim was accepted by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959. On the contrary, Nehru’s alleged 1959 letter was actually a point-by-point refutation of illogical claims made by his Chinese counterpart making it amply clear that the 1890 convention defined the northern part of the Sikkim-Tibet border and not the tri-junction area under reference.

The problem is the Chinese leadership in the past have kept on raising various territorial disputes with shifting stand while conveniently refuting, ignoring or supporting various treaties or conventions on border issues till date. For instance, in the instant case they claimed on 5 July 2017 that they had a basic consensus for the past 24 months with Bhutan that Doklam belonged to China, and that there was no dispute between the two countries. In fact, they are aggressively trying to sale this idea to international fraternity too to gain support branding India as trespasser and aggressor and self as a victim. To neutralize this disinformation and vicious campaign, Bhutan has reiterated again that their position as taken on 29th June remains unchanged.

China renewed its call for India to withdraw its troops from Doklam on 19th July 2017. This was followed by live firing drills in the nearby Tibet region in a bid to show their strength and muscle power. Again on the 1st August, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a 15 page document accusing India of hegemony and evil designs to interfere and impede the boundary talks between China and Bhutan. In essence it says that the India’s trespassing into Doklam is a violation of the territorial sovereignty of China as well as a challenge to the independence and integrity of Bhutan. In addition, the Chinese state media and spokesmen have reminded of India’s 1962 debacles and own superior military strength several times since the dispute began in June last.

India’s response so far has been balanced, logical and firm on the subject largely ignoring the rhetoric of the Chinese government and provocations from the state controlled media. India has reiterated that the existing framework agreements between India and China provide that no unilateral changes to the territorial status quo in the disputed tri-junction area will be undertaken by any party – in this instance, inclusive of Bhutan – pending a final, mutually-acceptable delineation. In addition, India and Bhutan have close military relations and obligation to assist each-other, the reason why the Indian troops have been tasked to help Bhutan in stopping the Chinese to unilaterally alter the status by building road in the area. Besides, India has also made it clear that it cannot overlook own security concern as the alleged road would provide easy access to India's strategically important Siliguri Corridor, also known as the Chicken's Neck, a narrow stretch of land that connects north-eastern states of India with the rest of the country.

What if Hostilities Escalate?

In the past, there have been several skirmishes and scuffles between the two armies following selective intrusions of Chinese troops across the line of control in the Indian territory and Indian troops’ attempt to stop them but after initial hiccups Chinese troops have invariably withdrawn back to their positions. Remarkably, on no occasion there has been any incident of gun fire after 1962 war. But the Doklam standoff has been prolonged with no sign of tension easing out so for, and if the sequence of events, inflammatory and provocative statements from the Chinese side are of any indication, the dispute does have a potential of taking ugly turn leading to armed conflict between the countries.

One possible scenario could be that the current standoff is allowed to continue despite Chinese media and diplomatic bluffs. They have already gone too far in making statements that the pre-condition for any dialogue is the unilateral withdrawal of Indian troops from Doklam. As Indian troops are not likely to withdraw unless there is an assurance in unambiguous terms from the Chinese side about protecting Bhutan’s sovereignty and integrity, the current stalemate is likely to continue till the winters are onset and the harsh weather compels both sides to quietly withdraw to their respective position. This will provide a senile opportunity to all sides to ponder over the issue and act in a more responsible manner in future.

Another possibility would be that China actually resorts to a military assault to flush out (terminology often used in Chinese rhetoric) Indian troops to capture the disputed land. In such case, their attempt would be take a forceful and swift action and keep it localized to tri-junction area. For this their modus oparandi is likely to remain the usual blame game citing some provocation from the Indian troops as pretext for own so-called defensive measures to ‘teach a lesson’ to the Indian side. Whatever illusions Chinese may carry from their experience of 1962 war, such an offensive is not likely to turn tide in their favour easily as for any short term war Indian troops too are geared up not lacking in terms of skill, equipment and manpower now.

Yet another possibility for Chinese going to an all-out war with India appears to be remote in the present case. Hypothetically assuming it so happens, let’s see the likely scenario in the event of fall out of large scale hostilities. It is true that in terms of numerical strength of military personnel and war equipment, China has a clear edge and that is why it has been flexing muscles since the current standoff started in June 2017. But the case doesn’t close at the numerical strength. Let’s take India, it has two potential adversaries on western and north-eastern front with whom it has territorial and other disputes. So can India completely divert its troops and war equipment from western to eastern sector in the event of war with China? The answer is a clear ‘no’. Same way China has long borders with as many as 14 countries and it has territorial and other disputes with many neighbours. So China too has similar constraints and compulsions in terms of number and war equipment. Unlike 1962, any future war is not likely to be fought only between land forces, two adversaries will sure engage their air force and navy, including possibly an electronic and economy war. Such a war is going to be very costly and devastating for either country. Besides in such a war, the other global powers cannot remain neutral and will have to perforce take sides as per their political and economic interests. Thus more than a possibility it raises a big question whether China, still struggling to establish as a developed economy and global power, is ready to bear risk and cost of such war in the wake of the possibility of its global isolation.

Besides, the numerical strength of personnel and weapons alone do not guarantee victory in a war. There is no doubt that China significantly outspends on military budget and outnumbers India on majority military parameters. But it should be remembered that China has a far too long land frontier and coastline to defend compared to India necessitating a larger military force and arsenal besides it has conflicts with many neighbouring countries thanks to its expansionist approach. India may be at a disadvantage with China in a protracted conventional war but both countries being nuclear powers with reliable delivery systems, no one would like to accept an ignominious defeat and humiliation at the hands of enemy when the strike options are available. Hence China would have to factor in all possibilities if it ventures to escalate hostilities to that level.

With the escalation of hostilities, the electronic and trade warfare are also looming large. While the Chinese appear to have a clear edge in the electronic warfare, the trade war would hurt them more, current trade being in their favour but it doesn’t mean that India would not suffer.

Chinese Objective

It’s a real mystery to appreciate as to what prompted China to indulge in the current standoff with India and Bhutan. Doklam is a lesser known almost uninhabited and disputed land in remote north-east and one wonders what short or long term objective China contemplates to achieve by transgressing and violating the territory of the tiny Himalayan kingdom. No one would believe that China was unaware of India’s obligation to protect the interests of Bhutan. Was it to simply frighten away Bhutan being too weak to contest forceful occupation of its territory or a part of larger game to alienate it with India? Did China think India would not have courage to risk confrontation with the Chinese might for its tiny neighbour? Do they think that having established their unchallenged supremacy and take-over of the South China Sea, none can challenge their expansion in the region? Are they simply wanted this time their only possible rival in Asia to cut down to size by ‘teaching a lesson’? There are these and many other surmises that instantly come to one’s mind but it is difficult to find a precise answer.

It is true that India was looked down by China and most of the developed West and USA till about eighties as a weak and underdeveloped country. During the last about twenty-five years, it has shown remarkable progress on all fronts including economy and military strength. In fact, in economic growth India has now overtaken even China in the recent years. This has gradually changed the outlook and world opinion about India now which is being seen by many as the next emerging superpower in the global scenario. After 1962 war, the Indo-China relations never really achieve the same comfort level and China has been unilaterally playing against the interests of India. Apart from illegally occupying the Indian Territory in Jammu and Kashmir, they have been arming and encouraging Pakistan against India. They have covertly aided and funded Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programmes and even kept a blind eye over the terrorist activities of the latter. The case in point is their repeated veto in the Security Council on the proposal of getting Pakistan-based terrorist and Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar banned by the United Nations. Besides, China is constantly blocking the entry of India in the nuclear suppliers group (NSG). There are serious differences between India and China over the latter’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) programme. Besides, China is also eyeing on Indian Ocean for increased military build-up and presence by seeking platforms from the countries in the region in lieu of infrastructure and economic assistance.

While all this has been going on unchallenged for years, now the current NDA government in India is more sensitive in safeguarding own interests and regional security. Consequently, it has increased military cooperation and joint exercises with the other important players like US and Japan in the Asia-Pacific region. It is also looking eastwards to enhance its economic and cultural relations with the East Asian countries, constantly overlooked by the previous governments. As against the low-keyed response of the previous UPA governments on the Chinese incursions in the Himalayan border areas, the present political dispensation insists on a firm and befitting response. No wonder these developments and measures have further antagonised the already arrogant and belligerent Chinese leadership.

International Diplomatic Posturing and Response

During the two months of Doklam standoff, most of the European countries have been in a sort of ‘wait and watch’ mode perhaps due to their close economic interests with the both countries. However, US and UK have earlier supported India’s stand to resolve the dispute through a peaceful dialogue and simultaneous troops withdrawal as against China’s pre-condition of Indian troops unilaterally leaving Doklam. In fact, on one occasion during the month a US parliamentarian was on record to say that China had taken certain provocative steps that have escalated into the current standoff on the plateau.

Now Japan has become the third influential country in the world to support India's stand on Doklam standoff. In fact, Japan's unambiguous support for India is significant because earlier about a month back the state sponsored Chinese daily the Global Times had warned India against banking on US and Japan in the event of a conflict over Doklam issue, "India should by no means count on support from the US and Japan because their support is illusory."

On 11 August, the US has again called upon India and China to sit down and have a direct dialogue to resolve their issues - second time since the dispute erupted. Earlier while advising both nations for a peaceful dialogue, the US diplomat had added that India has taken a very responsible role in respecting international boundaries in the wake of the standoff with China and is going by the rule of law.

Sustaining the Resolute Stand

The eyeball-to-eyeball faceoff between the armies of two countries on the cold and rather deserted plateau of Doklam on the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction has been a psychological roller-coaster for every conscious Indian too. The unending tirade and expletives, threats and insults emanating from the Chinese government and state-controlled media almost on daily basis are potent enough to unnerve and explode even the coolest person. A recent action video upload by the Chinese side on the internet for the consumption of the international audience mocking India citing ‘seven sins of India’ is the most provocative and pack of utter lie and disinformation.

But the stated mean tactics are actually age old Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) of China while dealing with countries with which they have differences or disputes, more particularly where they considers the other one to be weaker than them. Contrary to the geographical realities of the modern times, they lay claims on the neighbour’s territory citing history, even some ambiguous treaties or conventions; project themselves as victim; pretend to be serious about settling issues with peaceful means yet issue threats and pressure tactics; and wherever possible they force incursions in the land or maritime territory and start building heavy infrastructure on it. In majority cases, China has succeeded in achieving its objectives by applying these tactics. For illustration, take the recent case of China's gradual intrusion into the South China Sea, where it constructed several artificial islands and military bases over a period of time and has successfully taken control over about 3.5 million square kilometres of maritime territory, despite claims and resistance from other neighbouring nations like Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia, and the verdict by the International Court of justice against the Chinese claim.

Undoubtedly, by taking a principled and resolute stand India has successfully conveyed to its neighbours and world fraternity that it can no longer be bullied by the belligerent China. Also by doing this, China’s motive of making a dent in India’s special relationship with Bhutan by spreading untruth and disinformation has not succeeded.

India's response so far has been measured, reasonable, determinate and free from diatribe and polemics. This and has been acknowledged by US, UK and even international media. While India maintains that dialogue and diplomacy is only credible way to resolve the issue, China has resorted to accusations, shifting stands, disinformation, slandering and mocking India’s position. Some hardliners may look at this approach as India’s weakness but this may in fact help in keeping hostilities at a lower ebb while earning support from the international community in the long run. In a way, the Doklam standoff is a litmus test for India as to how resolute and determinate it remains against the belligerent and hegemonic China in protecting Bhutan’s territorial integrity and safeguarding own honour.

All available indications suggest that the standoff is not likely to get sorted out anytime soon. Neither India nor Bhutan desire a conflict or war with China and aspire for a peaceful resolution of the issue. What needs to be kept in view is that having gone for such a high scale melodrama and offensive accusations by China against a resolute India, very few viable choices have been left, and China might feel obliged to take some precipitate action against India. For such an eventuality, India should not be caught off-guard this time. Within the available resources and constraints, Indian troops should be fully geared up to handle any possible eventuality in protecting country's territorial sovereinghy and integrity as also avenging the debacle of 1962. The other important point is that in the event of war India should not count on US, Japan or any other friendly nation, except for moral and diplomatic support, for the simple reason that in the new world order, economic considerations are for more relevant than military or geographic realities.

Continued to "The Hegemonic and Belligerent Neighbour"


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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