The Doklam standoff was a watershed moment in the history of Sino–Indian border tension, just like the Sumdorong Chu escalation by Gen K Sundarji in 1987. Last year, India’s abrupt disruption of Chinese road construction (extension) in Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau and rapid movement of reinforcements into the Jhampheri ridge, left the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stunned. This was followed by a build-up of two infantry brigades on the Western shoulders of the area, despite shrill threats from Chinese State media and defence spokesmen. On the Indian side, quiet, but firm diplomacy complimented by a unified parliament and social media, strengthened the Army’s hand further and bolstered Bhutan’s resolve. The bilateral disengagement in September 2017, was celebrated not just in India, but also by nations affected by Chinese revanchism in the South China Sea. Yet, a year later, the euphoria over the resolute stand taken by India over Doklam seems to have evaporated, giving way to vacillating steps and statements thereby creating an air of confusion with respect to our policy approach towards China.
The Chinese buildup and Indian ‘strategic restraint’
Recently, US Congresswoman Ann Wagner, stirred up a hornet’s nest during a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee for Asia and the Pacific, when She claimed that, ‘China has quietly resumed its activities in the Doklam area and neither Bhutan nor India have sought to dissuade it’. Responding to Wagner’s statement, Alice G Wells, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, said, ‘I would assess that India is vigorously defending its northern borders and this (the situation at the northern borders) is a subject of concern to India‘. Although Congresswoman Wager said nothing substantial to support her claim, satellite images doing the rounds in the media (as reported by The Hindu & Print), show that the build up of Chinese troops and advanced assets behind Doklam has only increased despite a rather harsh winter in 2017-18. In fact, the entire route from Yadong in the Chumbi Valley to Doklam has seen hectic activity and creation of command posts and bunkers, besides other tunneling activity. Further Chinese movement up to Gamochen/Gipmochi will be a decided threat to the 20-25 km narrow Siliguri corridor in the opinion of this writer.
Analysis of satellite imagery from two PLA Air force (PLAAF) airbases in the Tibetan Autonomous Region near Doklam shows a significant presence of fighter aircraft, a notable increase in helicopter deployments compared to 2016, as well as the positioning of KJ-500 airborne early warning and command aircraft, components of the HQ-9 long-range surface-to-air missile system and even Soar Dragon UAVs, the last being at Shigatse. Chinese media has also reported the successful up-gradation in PLAAF capability to take off and fly from airfields on the Tibetan plateau. The Chinese have actually made a number of major airfield upgrades at Shigatse itself, and a new runway was opened there in mid-December 2017. Furthermore, reports of Chinese winter maneuvers clearly reveal that the untested PLA Ground Force (PLAGF) is being toughened to withstand alpine (and even arctic) combat conditions. Chinese military augmentation has been synergized with hard nosed diplomacy and financial largesse to India’s neighbours, creating significant pro-Beijing political fronts in Nepal and Bhutan. The quiet visit by the Chinese Vice foreign minister to Bhutan in end-July was a disturbing indicator of waning Indian influence in that country.
Meanwhile, ceasefire violations by Pakistan along the Line of Control continue apace and an opportunity to project Indian power has been missed in the Maldives. Earlier this year, the ‘Remembering March 17, 1959: From Home to Exile’ event to commemorate the day the 14th Dalai Lama went into exile from his home in Tibet was shifted from Delhi to Dharamshala, probably as a confidence building measure to Beijing. More dangerously, confident assertions of being able to hold our own in a ‘two-front war’, have dissolved into talks of peace negotiations and alarming rifts between the Armed Services, the Ministry of Defence and the Finance Ministry over the future of defence-related spending. This includes the shelving of all new raisings for a China-specific Mountain Strike Corps. After the euphoria of the surgical strikes and resoluteness in Doklam, it is somewhat shocking to hear a Parliamentary Committee being told that defence readiness isn’t on a sound footing. We need to get our act together before its too late. If the capacity for indigenous defence production is not increased now, then India will forever be dependent on foreign imports. All the pillars of our great democracy must swiftly start working in harmony to achieve conventional strategic deterrence through indigenous capability.
China moves to rebuild its international image
On the other hand, fresh from the Doklam insult, which was undeniably a loss of face for China’s ‘Great Power’ image, Beijing has embarked on a sustained campaign to quietly harness all instruments of National power to re-assert its global power image through the use of economic leverage as is evident from developments in Nepal, Sri Lanka and the current Maldivian purge. The Belt and Road initiative (BRI) his also clearly focused on Pakistan, with the latter’s hybrid warfare activities continuing to keep Indian forces engaged in western Jammu & Kashmir.
Serving as the backdrop for these strategic moves is the effective ‘anointment’ of Xi Jinping, by the 19th National Plenary Congress (Oct 2017) as ‘President for life’ by removing the earlier ‘two term limit’ for PRC Presidents. The 19th Congress has conferred enormous powers on a Chinese President (i.e Xi Jinping), whose claim to authority depends to a significant extent on continually raising China’s international profile. Thus there is no point in denying that China’s alignment with Pakistan and deepening relations with other South Asian countries represents a grave threat to India’s traditional geopolitical approach. Notwithstanding the ‘Informal talks’ in Wuhan, it is an open secret that China ensures India remains bogged down in dealing with its own immediate neighbors, leaving little strategic appetite for the latter to ‘Act East’.
To counter China’s not so opaque policy of containment, India must get its act together on the military front, as that is what prevents the Chinese from upping the ante when their economic diplomacy runs into problems in Asia. Towards this, the Mountain Strike Corps, even if seen as a drain on economic resources, is a vital ‘threat in being’ and must be fully raised. Bhutan also needs to resoluteness from New Delhi, if India has to ensure that no disputed land in the vicinity of Doklam, that can threaten the Siliguri Corridor, is traded away to China in a negotiated settlement.
Colonel Ashish Khanna (Retd) is a decorated veteran of the Indian Army having served in the Special Forces during the course of his career.
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