Insights into Editorial : Doklam, China’s Strategic Calculus and India’s Policy Options

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Insights into Editorial : Doklam, China’s Strategic Calculus and India’s Policy Options


 

 

doklam region

 

Summary:

Since the beginning of June, Indian and Chinese troops have been facing off across a small meadow called Turning Point at the end of that very valley — an 89 square kilometre pasture called the Doklam plateau, which is claimed by China.

 

Where is the disputed region located?

The trijunction is the point where the borders of India (Sikkim), Bhutan and China (Tibet) meet. The trijunction is disputed — India claims it is at Batang La, while China claims it is around 6.5 km to the south, at Gymochen. Both claims are based on competing interpretations of the 1890 Calcutta Convention between Britain and China. As per the agreement between the Special Representatives of India and China in 2012, the two sides have to maintain the status quo until their competing claims are resolved in consultation with the third party, Bhutan.

 

China’s hidden agenda:

China’s grand strategy encompasses three concise objectives: safeguarding sovereignty, maintaining stability, and sustaining economic progress. China’s assertiveness around its periphery is attributable to its age old belief of a ‘subdued neighbourhood’ being an essential prerequisite for stability.

 

Immediate cause for the tension:

In June this year, India accused China of constructing a road in the disputed territory towards Doklam plateau, an objection that the Royal Bhutanese Army has also raised. India intervened in the crisis supporting Bhutan’s stand and asking China to halt its construction work.

  • Subsequently, Chinese troops asked India to remove two bunkers that were set up in 2012 at Lalten in Doklam plateau. The two bunkers were reportedly positioned by the Indian Army as a backup option. Later, the two bunkers were destroyed by the two Chinese bulldozers on the night of June 6 after China stated that neither India nor Bhutan had any claim over the region.
  • Soon, there was a standoff between troops of both countries with PLA and Indian Army sending immediate reinforcements to the region. At a flag meeting later, China asked Indian troops to withdraw from the Doklam region. In the aftermath of the standoff, China refused to allow the entry of Kailash Mansarovar pilgrims into its territory through the Nathu La Pass on the Sikkim border.
  • China’s action at Doklam is in consonance with its policy of intimidating smaller neighbours. Apparently, China did not anticipate India to step in. The Communist leadership is infuriated with India for abstaining from its signature projects. New Delhi’s growing proximity to Washington and Tokyo has also irked Beijing.

 

What is the significance of the Doklam plateau and the Chumbi valley?

The valley holds strategic significance for India, China as well as Bhutan. India sees it as a dagger pointed towards its so-called ‘chicken’s neck’ sector in the Northeast and rapid Chinese road construction in Tibet could make things difficult for India. At the same time, Sikkim is one of the few sectors where India has an advantage.

  • In the event of war, India’s Brigade-sized military presence inside Bhutan, stationed at Ha, allows it to attack the Chumbi valley from two sides, potentially cutting off Chinese troops stationed facing Sikkim.
  • But China’s recent assertions in the area are portentous for Bhutan which has never faced territorial issues with the Dragon in the past. China, citing the 1890 China-Britain treaty, calls Doklam its own while Bhutan has disputed the fact saying the convention applies to the India-Bhutan border, not Bhutan and China.

 

India’s Policy Options:

In its efforts to engage China, India has followed a policy of appeasement. And its responses to China’s misadventures have been in the form of crisis management. To effectively cope with the PRC’s hostile attitude, India needs to evolve a pragmatic China policy centred on core national interests.

 

What can India do?

  • Firstly, given the China’s policy of asymmetric coercion, India has no option but to narrow the existing CNP gap between the two countries. Developing strategic partnerships, initiatives like ‘Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor’, ‘Act East Policy’ and counter balancing strategies are steps in the right direction.
  • Secondly, national security policy needs clear articulation, based on a realistic threat assessment. Apex organizational structures require streamlining to telescope the decision making process. The current format of military modernization demands a holistic review.
  • Thirdly, in an era of ‘limited wars’, a ‘joint military doctrine’ is a sine qua non and ‘tri service theatre commands’ are prerequisites for synergised application of the war waging potential. In the prevailing scenario, facing the China’s Western Theatre Command are India’s seven Army and Air Force commands, which is a serious lacuna. In short engagements, the timely application of requisite combat power at the point of decision is critical. This calls for creating essential infrastructure on highest priority.
  • Lastly, the border management mechanism needs to be revamped. A single nodal agency is required to coordinate the functions of the various organs. Operational control astride the Line of Actual Control ought to rest with the Army. A well calibrated response mechanism must be put in place, with disputed vulnerable areas effectively dominated and troops fully prepared to meet any eventuality. Paramilitary Forces deployed for manning the borders require urgent upgrade to match the China’s Border Regiments.

 

Way ahead:

Diplomatic engagement can open a way, but a solution that allows both sides to ‘save face’ is not immediately visible. The Chinese have ratcheted up rhetoric through official statements and in state-run media, and the space for a honourable disengagement appears to be shrinking. Though undesirable, an escalation of the conflict remains a possibility. However, both the countries have expressed that they will use official diplomatic channels to reach a solution.

 

Conclusion:

For now, the most likely outcome is that both sides will back away, giving diplomats and military strategists time to think through their options: India’s decision to commit militarily in Bhutan has changed the game for all sides. But no one is walking away from this century-old game just yet. To deal with China on a level footing, the Indian leadership needs to make pragmatic assessments, possess the courage to accept home truths and display audacity for bold decisions.