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September 23, 2017
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The Doklam Challenge and its Military Implications

By General Deepak Kapoor Published: September 2017
 

New Delhi. Right since 16 June 2017, when the faceoff between Indian and Chinese troops started at Doklam, the media both Chinese and Indian, has had a field day discussing economic, commercial, diplomatic and military implications of the faceoff and the possibility of an all out war between India and China. A mature decision taken by both sides on 28 August 2017 to restore status quo as existing prior to the faceoff has successfully averted a crisis.

However, a detailed analysis of the situation as it evolved over the 72-day period is important from a military perspective, since it provides an insight in to the PLA’s methodology of functioning. The possibility that such a situation may recur given the Chinese new found assertiveness all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is strong, particularly as Beijing is exercising the same mindset against its South China Sea neighbours also.

While the Indian response in this case cannot be taken as a template for how the Indian Army should react in similar situations in the future, certain peculiar aspects of the Doklam standoff need to be noted.

Terrain Configuration

Before proceeding any further, we need to be clear on the terrain configuration in the area and its military implications. The Doklam plateau is the western most part of Bhutan, with India Bhutan boundary immediately to the west of it. To the north lies the Chinese territory of Chumbi Valley while to the south, it is skirted by the Amu river.

Further south of Amu River is the dominant peak of Gye Mochan which overlooks the Siliguri corridor just 30-35 kms away.

The Doklam plateau is one of the areas of territorial dispute between China and Bhutan, an issue which has not been resolved despite a series of meetings between the two over a prolonged period. However, as per a tripartite agreement of 2012 between India, China and Bhutan, it was agreed that the boundary issue will be resolved peacefully and unilateral use of force will not be resorted to, to change the status quo.

India also has the responsibility of protecting the territorial integrity of Bhutan, a small nation strongly aligned to it. This has been enshrined in a treaty between the two.

The Chumbi Valley is dominated by ridgelines to the west and east which are part of India and Bhutan respectively. Any buildup of Chinese troops in the Chumbi Valley for operations towards Doklam would be highly vulnerable to these dominating ridgelines. Thus, militarily the Chinese are at a potential disadvantage in the area and would have suffered heavy casualties in case of a confrontation.

The terrain does not allow overall Chinese military superiority to be exploited successfully in this area.

Chinese Designs

Over the last three decades, China has achieved average annual growth rate of 8-9 percent. In the early phase of its rise in the 1990s, it followed Deng Xiao Ping’s dictum of ‘hiding its capabilities and biding its time’. In the second phase, it professed to be rising peacefully to claim its rightful place in the world order.

However, in the past decade, with growth in its power, it has displayed assertiveness bordering on aggression to justify its claims all over.

The unilateral declaration of Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), promulgation of Nine-Dash line in the South China Sea (SCS) as its claim line, forcible occupation of disputed hitherto unoccupied islands like Scarborough Shoal and their conversion to military bases are indicative of aggressive intent in dealing with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines, Taiwan etc. in the SCS.

Likewise, in East China Sea (ECS), it has laid claim to Senkaku islands which are part of Japan.

Against India too, China is getting more aggressive, with larger number of intrusions having taken place all along the Sino Indian border during the last one year.

The pattern that has emerged is that China uses the sheer weight of its power to achieve what it wants. It legitimizes its claims by taking recourse at times to some vague historical precedent/perspective. Use of Sun Tzu’s maxim of ‘winning wars without firing a bullet’ is being skillfully applied to impose its will on smaller neighbors. This policy of ‘creeping encroachment’ till firmly opposed, has paid rich dividends to China in the past.

In Doklam too, the above strategy was applied. Traditionally, Tibetan graziers have been coming to Doklam plateau for grazing their cattle on its rich vegetation in summers in the past, without prejudice to Bhutanese control over the territory. However, the Chinese made this as the basis of their claim and started construction of a road on the plateau, despite protests by Bhutan.

Indian Response

The Indian Army responded swiftly and moved troops to oppose Chinese road construction resulting in a face to face standoff between the two sides. The Indian troops were constrained to react because of the following reasons:

a. Agreement between India and Bhutan for coming to each other’s aid in case of aggression. India’s credibility as a faithful friend was at stake.
b. Inability of Bhutan to withstand the Chinese juggernaut.
c. Emergence of a serious threat to Siliguri corridor with the prospect of northeast India being cut off.

The unexpected Indian firmness surprised the Chinese. Thereafter followed weeks and weeks of unofficial and official Chinese media blitz to scare the Indians into submission and force them to withdraw from Doklam. Denial of visas for Mansrovar visit, allegations of Indian aggression in Doklam, Chinese preparatory exercises in Tibet for a confrontation, mobilization of international opinion against the Indian stand, attempts at creating a wedge in Indo Bhutan relations followed by threats of war and a repeat of 1962 were hurled at India in a constant barrage. In fact, psychological warfare in all its avatars was tried without restraint.

However, India stood firm on its stand that both sides must restore status quo as existing prior to 16 June 2017 and withdraw troops to bring a peaceful end to the ugly stalemate before resuming a dialogue to resolve the issue. After much procrastination, this was finally agreed to and the two sides disengaged by 28 August 2017.

Future Course of Action

It would be incorrect to feel euphoric over the final outcome of the Doklam episode. From a military perspective, it has to be seen as an instance where the Chinese aggressiveness has been stopped by a firm handling of the situation. As Chinese power grows over time, there is a strong possibility of threat of aggression being repeatedly used to achieve territorial gains by undertaking ‘creeping encroachment’.

While terrain provided a strategic advantage to India in dealing with China and the Indian Army played a stellar role during the evolving Doklam incident, this may not always be the case in other disputed areas.

Therefore, the first requirement for India is to be ready to face similar situations in other areas in the future. A good army also needs wherewithal to defend the nation. Rapid infrastructure development in forward areas coupled with modernization of the forces deployed for the defence of the country are prerequisites for the military to give a good account of itself in such situations in the future.

It needs to be emphasized that one time infusion of funds to meet crisis situations would be a case of too little too late. Regular funding on an ongoing basis is the only solution for a sound defence.

The Chinese only understand the language of firmness. They respect force. A meek response emboldens them to push the adversary further. Our experience of dealing with them on the LAC during the past 50 years confirms this analysis. For the future, we need to keep it in mind while dealing with them.

One noteworthy and major gain has been the tacit recognition by the Chinese that Doklam is a disputed territory and its status cannot be altered unilaterally in the future in the manner.

Even though they have tried to save face by insisting that they can reconsider their decision to withdraw troops anytime in the future, they also understand that India has set a precedent of encountering them which would be followed through in case of a repetition. Thus, a solution to the Doklam issue would be best achieved by holding tripartite talks across the table.

Finally, diplomacy has had a positive and constructive role to play in finding a peaceful resolution. But should it ultimately fail despite best efforts, our ability to encounter aggression by force as a last resort should always stay intact.

This underscores the need to keep our powder dry and be prepared at all times in the future.

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