The Doklam plateau is an area of vulnerability for China and India. The Chinese action is the usual creeping barrage of aggression and presenting faits accomplis.
India has had a long history of standoffs with China, given their
long and unsettled border. On one occasion it has led to war, on others,
skirmishes and artillery duels. But in the past 40 years, the
confrontations have been carefully choreographed through a series of
Confidence Building Measures to ensure that the two countries do not end
up shooting at each other.
What makes the current clash in Doklam plateau serious is its
location, and the fact that it is entangled with the issues of a third
country, Bhutan. The location is near the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow
neck of land, just about 25 km at places, bound by Nepal and Bangladesh
and proximate to Bhutan and China.
As distances go, Siliguri, the principal rail, air and road hub that
connects Northeast India to the rest of India, is just 8 km from
Bangladesh, 40 km from Nepal, 60 km from Bhutan and 150 km from China.
With China seeking to expand control over the Doklam plateau, it
shortens the distance by 20 kms or so.
Chinese proximity comes through the Chumbi Valley, a sliver of land
between Bhutan and India (Sikkim)—the main route of ingress and egress
from Tibet to India. What the present face-off is all about is the
Chinese effort to add an area of some 40 sq kms or so to the south of
the existing trijunction, which India and Bhutan place near Batang La.
From the point of view of treaty, the Chinese have a point.
Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 explicitly lays down the start point
of the border, and the trijunction, at a place called Mount Gipmochi.
But, while India has to accept this as part of the agreement that
defines the Sikkim-Tibet border, the Bhutanese don’t, as they were not
party to it. So, they have been contesting this and have extended their
claim, belatedly though, to the Doklam plateau, a rough area between
Gipmochi, a place called Gyemochen which is south of Doka La, and
northwards on the ridge to Doka La itself and Batang La.
The issue emerged when the Royal Bhutan Army spotted the Chinese
building a road towards their post in the Doklam area. They probably
approached the Indians for help and the Indian Army moved across the
border at Doka La to block the construction. According to an MEA
statement, India and Bhutan had been in close contact on the issue, and
in coordination with the Bhutanese, “Indian personnel who were present
at the general area Doklam approached the Chinese construction party and
urged them to desist from changing the status quo.”
Bhutan has been taking up the issue for years and had been reminding
China of the 1998 agreement not to alter the status quo of the
China-Bhutan boundary, pending its final resolution. But as is their
wont, the Chinese are relentless and follow the tactic which they
practice elsewhere—of creating facts on the ground and leaving you with a
The Chinese are hopping mad, because they say that India has violated
an accepted border, which is true. But the Indians have done so to
prevent the Chinese from bullying the Bhutanese, who lack the capacity
to deal with the Chinese. But the Indians have also done it because a
deepening of the Chumbi Valley can aid in undermining their otherwise
strong defences in Sikkim and the Siliguri corridor.
International treaties are pieces of paper whose value is only set if
both the parties have an interest in upholding them. The Chinese have
not hesitated to blatantly violate the UN Convention on the Law of the
Seas in reclaiming and fortifying rocks and reefs in the South China
Sea. So if India perceives that its security is being dangerously
undermined, it will act, treaty or no treaty. Even so, New Delhi needs
to carefully think if it wants to question the 1890 treaty and reopen
the Sikkim-Tibet boundary for negotiation. Beyond that, it must remain
prepared to confront the always active PLA.
Given its location, the Siliguri Corridor has long been the focus of
military planners and arm-chair strategists. When Bangladesh was East
Pakistan, there were concerns about possible consequences of Sino-Pak
collusion. To pressure India to ease off on Pakistan in the 1965 war,
China built up its forces in the Chumbi Valley and tried to coerce
Indian troops deployed on the Sikkim border. In 1967, there were more
serious clashes at Nathu La and Cho La, both in Sikkim. With the
creation of Bangladesh, the worries have lessened, but not entirely
The job of military men is to construct scenarios and plan to deal
with them. Many alternatives can be constructed for military operations
in the region. Writing in 2013, Lt Gen (retd) Prakash Katoch said that
the Doklam plateau, if occupied by the Chinese, will turn the flanks of
Indian defences in Sikkim and endanger the Siliguri corridor. The late
Capt. Bharat Verma hypothesised a Chinese special forces attack to
seize the Corridor. John Garver cites Indian planners worrying about
the Siliguri Corridor being the ‘anvil’ for a PLA hammer coming once
again through Bomdi La in Arunachal Pradesh. There are concerns, too,
that in the event of hostilities, Chinese forces may just bypass Indian
defences overlooking the Chumbi Valley and come through Bhutan.
But Indian vulnerability is much larger. The Siliguri Corridor does
not have to worry about just the putative Chinese attack. It is in
itself a cauldron of tension, with agitating Gorkhas, Kamtapuri and Bodo
separatists, smugglers and transiting militants using it.
For their part, the PLA, too, must be looking at alternate
scenarios, especially after their experience with Gen Sundarji and
Operation Falcon/Chequerboard. India can use its flanking positions in
Sikkim to “pinch out” the Chumbi Valley and emerge astride a Chinese
highway going to Lhasa. The Chinese know the Chumbi Valley was the route
that Sir Francis Younghusband took in his expedition to Tibet. This
attack could well come from northern Sikkim, which is a relatively flat
plateau, where Sundarji had once emplaced tanks and Infantry Combat
Vehicles in the 1986-87 stand-off with China.
The Chinese worry about the history of the region too. Kalimpong and
the erstwhile East Pakistan are where the CIA and Tibetan exiles once
planned operations against their forces in Tibet.
Indian and Chinese perceptions of vulnerability are common—the
Chinese worry about the Chumbi Valley and Indians are concerned about
the Siliguri Corridor. But both have larger calculations and concerns.
The Chinese are neurotic about Tibetan separatism and see India as the
principal villain, so they adopt a forward policy wherever they can to
keep us off balance on this issue.
The Northeast is, of course, intrinsically important to us. But it also
has a practical and important military role beyond just the defence of
the area. It is where we locate our strategic deterrent viz. long-range
nuclear armed missiles, which otherwise lack the range as of now to hit
principal Chinese cities.
This is one area with dense military deployments on both sides, the
only part of the 4,000 km Sino-Indian border where the armies are close
to each other—some 40-50 ft apart in Nathu La and Cho La. In the past
decade, India has steadily enhanced its defence capabilities in the
East, raising new formations, acquiring heavy-lift helicopters, mountain
artillery, as well as forward basing fighter jets. With a new Mountain
Strike Corps, headquartered in North Bengal, India has also enhanced the
ability of its Army to intervene along the border. But in many ways, it
has been playing catch up with the Chinese.
We need to enter a caveat about the chances of all-out war. Of
course, it benefits none. The nuclear factor is not something you can
ignore. So, the likelihood is that the Chinese will continue their
strategy of hybrid warfare, using “Tibetan grazers” to encroach on
territory, or building roads without a by-your-leave, creating facts on
the ground that become difficult to question. Moreover, Bhutan is
vulnerable, because it lacks the ability to challenge the PLA. The main
lesson of the present confrontation is the need for a new strategy of
dealing with the challenge.
Outlook July 17, 2017