India’s willingness to intervene forcefully in a bilateral Bhutan-China dispute is a reflection both of India’s own vital interests in the Chumbi Valley and of its commanding position in Bhutan, which might otherwise have ceded the Doklam plateau to China. While both countries have hardened thier stand, there is a reasonable chance that this standoff will end within weeks, with China quietly halting road construction and Indian troops returning westward to their posts. The risk of escalation appears low, says Vasudeva.
By PK VASUDEVA
In the first week of June 2017, China had bulldozed an old bunker of the Indian army at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan in Sikkim. The Indian army had refused to remove the structure after being asked to do so by China. China, on its part, has alleged that Indian soldiers crossed the boundary into China to interfere with the construction of a road within its territory.
The incident took place in the Doka La (Doklam or Donglang as Chinese call it) tri-junction area, where India had earlier objected to the road that China is building towards Bhutan. The Chinese claim that they were constructing the road within their territory, which led to jostling between the two sides and demolition of the Indian bunker resulting in a standoff.
The incident was also significant as it takes place in the Sikkim sector, where the border is settled. The earlier standoffs between soldiers from the two sides have usually taken place in the western and eastern sectors, where the status of the boundary remains unresolved.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said in response to a question that delineation of China’s boundary with India at Sikkim was based on a 127-year-old treaty signed between the Qing Empire and Great Britain – the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890.
“Both China and the successive Indian governments recognise that the Sikkim section has been delimited. It has been confirmed by the relevant Indian government document and the Indian delegation at the special representatives’ meeting with China on the boundary question, India and China share common view on the 1890 convention’s stipulation on the boundary alignment at the Sikkim section. To observe the relevant convention and document is the inescapable international obligation of the Indian side,” said Lu.
Lu accused India of impinging on Bhutan’s sovereignty by attempting to fight its battles. “We hope that all countries can respect Bhutan’s sovereignty. Although the boundary between China and Bhutan is yet to be demarcated, the two sides have been working on that through peaceful negotiation. Any third party must not and does not have the right to interfere, still less make irresponsible moves or remarks that violate the fact,” he said.
A “third country’s” army could enter Kashmir at Pakistan’s request, using the “same logic” the Indian army used to stop the Chinese military fromconstructing a road in the Doklam area in the Sikkim sector on behalf of Bhutan, an analyst at a Chinese think tank said.
“Even if India were requested to defend Bhutan’s territory, this could only be limited to its established territory, not the disputed area,” Long Xingchun, director at the Centre for Indian Studies at China West Normal University, said in the article he wrote in the Global Times.
Wedged between Bhutan, India and China are few areas of dispute — together accounting for just over 750 square kilometres. Among the disputed areas is Doklam, which is just about 90 square kilometres where the present dispute has taken place. For Chinese to reach the China-Bhutan border posts, Doklam provides an easy way to construct their road, and they have been trying to do so and India has consistently objected to it.
At the military level, India has good reason to prevent Chinese road building near Doka La. Chinese activity has steadily increased in the area beneath Bhutan’s claim-line, pushing the area under its de facto control about 5 km southwards, towards a crucial ridge-line. This has a number of implications. It would widen the area of Chinese control in an otherwise very narrow valley, from around 8-9 km (Batang La to the Amo Chu river) to 12-13 km (Gamochen to the river), thereby easing the logistics of moving large convoys, guns and troops. Control of the dominating ridgeline would also give China a strategic advantage, by some accounts even domination, over Indian posts to the west, and Bhutanese ones to the south and east.
India is still well short of matching the impressive infrastructure development in Tibet over the past decade, with two-thirds of sanctioned roads on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) still un-built. But Chinese forces moving through the Chumbi Valley — 90 km from top to bottom — would have long, exposed flanks. India has a formidable set of forces arrayed to the west, with mountain divisions in Gangtok, Kalimpong, and Binaguri further to the south, all of which are part of the Siliguri-based Corps. Furthermore, the mountain division of India’s first mountain strike corps, raised for the purpose of offensive operations into Tibet, is headquartered in Panagarh and will reportedly be operational this year.
The bilateral relations between the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan and the Republic of India have been traditionally close and both countries share a ‘special relationship’, India remains influential over Bhutan’s foreign policy, defence and commerce. In 2012–13 fiscal, India’s budgetary support to the Kingdom country stood at $600 million (around INR 30 billion). It steadily rose over the years to reach $985 million (INR 61.60 billion) in 2015–16 making Bhutan the largest beneficiary of India’s foreign aid.
Another of India’s military advantages is its privileged relationship with Bhutan. This allows it to bring to bear large forces from the east. A sizeable Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) is permanently based in western Bhutan, while other units regularly cooperate with the Royal Bhutan Army. Bhutan’s involvement highlights the way in which Sino-Indian competition is increasingly channelled through third countries, as China relentlessly expands into India’s periphery through strategic investments, trading relationships and arms sales. India’s willingness to intervene forcefully in a bilateral Bhutan-China dispute is a reflection both of India’s own vital interests in the Chumbi Valley and of its commanding position in Bhutan, which might otherwise have ceded the Doklam plateau to China in a territorial swap many years ago. The India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, though revised in 2007 and 2014 to give Thimpu more autonomy, still notes that the two countries “shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests”. In this sense, Bhutan is a special case.
China is carrying out a psychological warfare on India by carrying out a few military exercises in Tibet across the Doklam plateau area and Arunachal Pradesh to prove its supremacy China’s military on 17 July said it has conducted live-fire exercises in the remote mountainous Tibet region to test its strike capability on plateaus, amid the standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in the Doklam area in the Sikkim sector.
There is a reasonable chance that this standoff will end within weeks, with China quietly halting road construction and Indian troops returning westward to their posts. The risk of escalation appears low.
But the wider context is one of relentlessly hardening attitudes, on both sides. Beijing is aggrieved by the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang in April, India’s aggressive repudiation of the Belt and Road Initiative in May, and India’s forward-leaning posture in the South China Sea — the latter underscored by Vietnam’s two-year extension of a 2006 oil concession to ONGC Videsh recently. India’s complaints are too numerous and familiar to
elaborate, but they span international institutions (membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group), terrorism (Masood Azhar), sovereignty (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and, in a more inchoate way, questions of the basic security order in Asia.
India has become bold with the nod of its foreign policy by other democratic nations. This is evident in last month’s U.S.-India joint statement, where China was not mentioned but all pervasive in areas from North Korea, to trade, to freedom of navigation. It is on display in the Bay of Bengal, where one of the largest-ever iterations of the Malabar exercise series got underway with aircraft carriers/helicopter/submarines carrier from India, the U.S., and Japan. It is also reported the government is conducting a national security review of Chinese investment in South Asia. Perhaps, in the coming weeks, the new mountain Corps will suddenly find that the purse
strings have become looser too. The government has already given wide financial powers to Vice Chief of the Army Staff for the immediate purchase of urgent arms, ammunition and defence equipment.
Maybe 20 years down the line, once we develop our border infrastructure at par with the Chinese in terms of roads, airports, and railways, we can be more welcoming of better connectivity and be relaxed about the dispute.
The situation in the subcontinent is equally complex. On the one hand, Pakistan’s unabated proxy conflict in Kashmir, an escalation with China will truly bring the two-front situation back into play after decades. On the other hand, the rest of the neighbourhood would prefer a stable India-China equation. Each of India’s neighbours has adopted a dual track foreign policy where special or friendly ties with India are supplemented by geo-economic linkages with China.
It should be clear that both countries have much to lose in an armed clash and a new Cold War in the region. Hopefully, the virtues of restraint would be obvious to both Delhi and Beijing.
The Centre’s briefing to the Opposition on the ongoing standoff with China on the Doklam plateau was long overdue. The Defence, Home and External Affairs Ministers and senior officials, including the National Security Adviser and Foreign Secretary, spent two evenings explaining the ground position and the strategy ahead to Opposition leaders representing the political spectrum and different States. This is a clear signal of the gravity with which the government views the situation at Doklam, and the bipartisan iteration of the national interest that New Delhi would like to underline at a time of heightened rhetoric from the Chinese foreign office and media. The message the government sent, beyond the facts of how the stand-off began, was threefold: that Indian troops now sit across from Chinese troops for a second month at a part of the tri-junction claimed by Bhutan; that India is upholding its commitment to Bhutan with its military presence there; and finally, that it is pursuing all diplomatic options in order to resolve differences with China on the dispute.
In inviting television panellists and foreign policy analysts to a separate briefing on Doklam recently, the External Affairs Ministry also indicated a desire to control the narrative emanating from India, by restraining easily excitable commentators and TV anchors from wrapping themselves in the flag and advocating aggressive military postures.
India-China Skirmishes in the past
There were repeated skirmishes on the India-China border ever since the 1962 war.
September 1967: Chinese troops fired at Indian posts close to Nathu La and the Indian Army retaliated with full force. Both sides suffered casualties with China significantly higher resulting in ceasefire.
June 1986: The Indian Army launched exercise ”Chequerboard” after China amassed thousands of troops in the Thandrong pasture on the banks of the Sumdorong Chu River. The situation was diffused diplomatically by August 1987.
November 2008: Chinese troops destroyed makeshift Indian Army bunkers at Doka La near the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction.
April 2013: Chinese troops intruded into Daulat Beg Oldi in Eastern Ladakh and set up camps in the Depsang Valley.
August 2014: Chinese troops entered 25 to 30 km into the Indian Territory in Burtse area in Ladakh and pitched their tents and the standoff continued for three weeks. September 2014: About 1,000 troops intruded 3 km inside Chumar in Eastern Ladakh. The incident lasted for a week and coincided with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India. March 2016: A platoon of Chinese soldiers came about 5.5 km inside the Indian Territory near Pangong Tso Lake in Eastern Ladakh. Incident resolved within hours. June 2017: In the first week of June 2017, China had bulldozed an old bunker of the Indian army at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan in Sikkim. Stalemate is going on.