Merely making brave statements that we have good relations with China and resolution is possible through talks can have catastrophic consequences for India.
By Prakash Katoch*
The latest news reports state that Indian Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Bipin Rawat, National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary (FS) Vijay Gokhale, with several key army and External Affairs Ministry officials, secretly visited Bhutan two weeks ago to discuss strategic issues, including the situation in the Doklam region.
This joint visit by the COAS, NSA and FS to Bhutan was unprecedented, indicating the seriousness of the issues involved. Rawat had earlier visited Bhutan in April 2017, followed by the foreign secretary at the time, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, in October, while the king of Bhutan visited India in November.
Doklam became a buzzword last year with a 73-day India-China military standoff. China began claiming the Doklam Plateau in the early 1990s, realizing its strategic significance. This was accompanied by claims in other parts of Bhutan that kept inching forward.
China had no ethnic connections in Doklam but the People’s Liberation Army started periodic forays into the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) post in Doklam, telling them to vacate “Chinese territory.” These incidents were mostly ignored by the Bhutanese and Indian media. China then offered a compromise. If Bhutan surrendered the Doklam Plateau to China, it would give up its territorial claims in north-central Bhutan.
The Doklam Plateau is the private property of Bhutan’s royal family. India has had excellent opportunities since the early 1990s to establish an Indo-Bhutanese venture here, or quietly buy this piece of land. This could have been done if the Bhutanese king had been convinced, through bilateral discussions, that this was the best solution to avoid any future confrontation with China.
Diplomacy does not imply ignoring the obvious where national security and other interests are involved. But ironically, none of the governments in India (Congress, Janata Party, BJP) can be credited with credible strategic sense. The Doklam imbroglio is one among many lost opportunities for India.
When the Doklam standoff began on June 16, 2017, China probably did not expect an Indian reaction, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Washington at the time. It was because of corruption allegations – or perhaps the need to find a scapegoat for the Doklam standoff – that General Fang Fenghui, chief of the PLA Joint Staff Department, was fired later.
But the PLA intrusion in Doklam was not a local-level move, as portrayed by China and its state-controlled media. Any trans-border move by China, whether against Bhutan or India, would be monitored by the Communist Party of China and President Xi Jinping.
In fact, General Zhao Zongqi, commander of the Western Theatre Command, had visited India in December 2016 and met with then-COAS General Dalbir Singh Suhag, vice-chief of army staff Lieutenant-General Bipin Rawat, and Lieutenant-General Praveen Bakshi, who was India’s Eastern Army Commander, perhaps to gauge Indian preparations and resolve.
The Doklam standoff ended on August 28 and was celebrated as a “victory” in India. But China was only taking a tactical pause, in all likelihood to prevent the embarrassment of Modi not attending the ninth BRICS Summit being hosted by China in Xiamen from September 3-5.
But even as the standoff continued, Bhutan issued a démarche to China for violating earlier agreements. But China was not sitting quiet either. It kept reiterating that Doklam was Chinese territory, with Luo Zhaohui, China’s ambassador to India, and his deputy Liu Jinsong warning India against any interference.
China is likely to embarrass India while its attention is focused on the general elections in May next year. This could also be used to undermine the growing India-US partnership.
Luo also held meetings with Indian opposition leaders, while Liu dashed by air to Thimphu to meet with the king and the Bhutanese leadership. This was followed by China’s announcement that Bhutan had conceded Doklam. However, this was quickly denied by Bhutan.
Notably, Luo had visited Darjeeling in April 2017 and met with the district magistrate, perhaps to assess the Gorkha agitation and how China could exploit it.
Immediately after the Doklam standoff being called off, satellite images from September 6 revealed that the China had continued to build its presence close to the contested point. PLA units with heavy and lethal equipment were poised for quick escalation, and reports suggested that nearly 3,000 PLA troops had been deployed. Images depict that a headquarters, a logistics unit, air defense artillery and a mechanized unit were present at the site.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs maintained that there was no change from the status quo, but the imagery said otherwise. On December 11, Indian media reported that 1,600-1,800 PLA troops present in the Doklam area had built two helipads, upgraded roads, and established scores of prefabricated huts and shelters.
On January 17 this year, satellite imagery revealed that the PLA was fully in control of north Doklam with a force of about brigade strength, including two mechanized regiments, two regiments’ worth of tank transporters, and more than 100 large troop/equipment-carrying vehicles, among other vehicles and equipment. There was also a concrete two-story-high observation tower less than 10 meters from the most forward trench occupied by the Indian Army during the standoff.
Another set of satellite images on January 15 revealed that China was building roads and posts in the strategic Shaksgam Valley.
These indicate that China has not given up on Doklam and will continue to push forward its expansionist strategy.
China’s expansionist foreign policy has major strategic implications for its immediate neighbors. The first part of this two-part series showed how a brigade-strength deployment in North Doklam by China has considerable firepower.
It has two mechanized regiments and tank transporters, a two-story observation tower, a large number of fighting posts on every hillock, seven new helipads, and more than 100 large troop- and equipment-carrying vehicles, besides road-construction equipment. This is a fair indication of China’s intentions in the disputed area that is at the tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China that witnessed a 73-day military standoff last year.
China initially denied that the People’s Liberation Army had built up its presence at Doklam. But later it announced that it was only exercising its sovereignty, which was legitimate and justified, and hoped other countries (read India) would not comment on China’s construction of infrastructure in its territory.
In an interview to China’s Global Times on January 26, the Indian ambassador to China, Gautam Bambawale, said the Doklam standoff had been “blown out of proportion.” He stressed that it was important not to change the “status quo” at sensitive points along the India-China border, and that the two countries should hold talks to resolve contentious issues, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
But it is the changed situation in Doklam that obviously prompted a recent joint visit by India’s Chief of Army Staff, national security adviser and foreign secretary to Bhutan.
After the standoff, Beijing may have assessed that the Indian reaction to a Chinese buildup was unlikely to be beyond a jostling match. Therefore, the current massive buildup is hardly warranted and indicates China’s future ambitions.
When Liu Jinsong, a senior Chinese diplomat in India, visited Thimphu during the Doklam standoff to meet the Bhutanese leadership, he stressed Bhutan becoming part of China’s ambitious economic plans as well as dropping subtle hints of the consequences of opposing its strategic interests. The buildup was aimed at putting down the Royal Bhutanese Army, confident that India would do nothing beyond talks, just like the situation in Maldives.
Pressure on Bhutan
There is a distinct possibility that China will increase its pressure on the Bhutanese leadership, forcing it to state that it does not want to get tied up in a conflict zone between India and China. This is similar to what the former president of Maldives, Mohammed Nasheed, is now saying. China will continue to pressure Bhutan on establishing diplomatic relations, connecting Doklam with Thimphu by road and rail links, and commencing trade.
China is unlikely to budge from its illegal claims, and likely to undermine any agreement on “not disturbing the status quo while talks are on.” Successive Indian governments have neglected defense, not realizing that diplomacy that is not backed with military muscle means little. The currency of power must be backed by asymmetric and irregular military capabilities, since the economy and bilateral trade are insufficient to establish a sound negotiating position with China.
The border infrastructure in India’s northeast remains pathetic. Projects under way are inadequate, as the recent Chinese intrusion into the Tuting area indicated. This requires holistic review and immediate action by the government of India.
China has 24/7 satellite surveillance along the border. India has nothing of that sort, even though it regularly launches satellites successfully. The Indian Army’s Battlefield Surveillance System is moving at a snail’s pace, while the Battlefield Management System was recently foreclosed for lack of funds, even as the PLA is digitizing its troops at dizzying speeds.
There is a danger of Chinese intrusions in India’s northeast, with Beijing having repeatedly stated that it does not recognize Arunachal Pradesh as a part of India. We have a self-inflicted gap, perpetuated by successive Indian governments over the years, with troops sitting scores of kilometers behind the Line of Actual Control.
China is likely to embarrass India while its attention is focused on the general elections in May next year. This could also be used to undermine the growing India-US partnership. The Indian government may attempt to whitewash PLA intrusions, describing them as “transgressions,” but these will likely become permanent this time, the recent disengagement at Tuting notwithstanding. Political compulsions may lure policymakers to maintain there is “no change in the status quo,” with areas inaccessible to the media.
But ground realities can’t be hidden for long, just as in Doklam. The Shyam Saran report (not made public) handed over to then-prime minister Manmohan Singh in 2013 reportedly talked of some 645 square kilometers lost to China incrementally over the years. According to Indian diplomat Phunchok Stobdan, 400 square kilometers has been lost in Ladakh, a region in Jammu and Kashmir state. Yet the defense minister at that time, A K Antony, misled Parliament by stating, “We haven’t lost an inch of territory to China.”
But this time, the danger is much greater, with Chinese President Xi Jinping pulling out all stops to realize illegal claims. In areas where the Indian Army is sitting way behind the lines, perhaps permanent mobilization is the answer, at great discomfort to the army. Merely making brave statements that we have good relations with China and resolution is possible through talks can have catastrophic consequences for India.
*The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army’s Special Forces.