It is surprising to see the increasingly truculent, even provocative, statements being made by the Zhongnanhai (Foreign Office) in Beijing, with the line obediently parroted by the Chinese ambassador in Delhi, that — and this is the latest — that India should stand down from the stand-off with PLA on the Doklam Plateau, withdraw from the forward position held by the Indian forces, before the Chinese will deign to sit down and talk to the Indian side. In the context, moreover, of the previous statement reminding Delhi not to forget the lessons of the 1962 War, it almost amounts to a challenge.
Meanwhile, the silence from the MOD, MEA and the Indian government, generally, is deafening, with Foreign Secretary K Jaishankar in Jerusalem refusing to say anything about the unfolding events in Bhutan. Is this silence by design or because a fearful government has lost its wits?
General Bipin Rawat visited Sikkim, conferred with the XXXIII Corps senior officers, and especially with the GOCs of the Mountain Divisions on the Chinese forward line in the extended area. One wishes the COAS had said something to the effect that the Indian Army would welcome any opportunity to back defence minister Arun Jaitley’s contention that 1962 was a one-off fiasco. That disaster involved no more than a Division and a half in actual ops and, in hindsight, can be seen as nothing more than a fairly minor affray. Sure, PLA too has improved since then as Beijing reminded India, but the Indian military has enough forces to blunt the PLA group armies aggressing at full tilt. One assumes that, unlike in 1962, the IAF will go into action right off the bat.
But what’s the legal basis for the loud and cantankerous calls by Beijing to India to withdraw? None, whatsoever. The 1895 Anglo-Chinese Treaty that China keeps harping on has long been superseded by the 1998 and 1999 agreements Thimpu signed with Beijing that requires both sides to respect the status quo pending the delineation of the formal border in the underway bilateral negotiations. If India has intervened on Bhutan’s behalf it is because, notwithstanding a similar understanding in another area, the PLA went ahead and constructed a loop road, and presented Thimpu with a fait accompli the Bhutanese could not overturn. This is precisely what the Bhutanese government doesn’t want to see happen again. Reason why the Indian army is on the Doklam high ground — at the express invitation of Bhutan, which is unable to protect its sovereign territory all by itself. Under international law, this is perfectly permissible — a weak country can call on military help and assistance from a friendly strong country to fend of the actions of a proven regional bully, in this case, China.
The problem though is this: China has publicly gone so far out on a limb, loudly threatening India with all kinds of retribution, with edgy statements being daily issued by some Chinese source or the other, that it has now engaged its national ego. Backing down would incur a loss of face, not doing so could lead to a situation spiraling out of Beijing’s control. It will be interesting to see how China resolves this mess they have willfully created for themselves.
At one level, the silence from the Indian quarter serves the purpose of goading China into a shriller stance, which shows up that country’s essential inability to handle a crisis with a modicum of grace. On the other hand, the Indian government’s reserve could be interpreted by Beijing as diffidence that it could decide to exploit by trying to pressure India into doing its bidding. It is this last possibility that’s most troubling because there’s every reason to expect that as a result the Chinese PLA may opt to scale up the school-boy type shoving and pushing on display to some serious military hostilities. And it is hostilities the army better prepare for.
Some say MEA is using these incidents to gauge how its strategic partners, in the main, the US and Japan will react, whether they will show any signs of support. This sort of passive/defeatist thinking of the China Study Circle-influenced Indian government, is what India can do without. Assuming such thinking is actually on, then may be MEA mandarins should be assured in the strongest terms that, as I have maintained over the last 25 years of writing, nobody but nobody — least of all India’s latest “true friend”, Trump, will join India in the possible fracas with PLA, and we will have to do the fighting, heavy or light, by ourselves.
The other reason some have speculated for this show of bellicosity is as a reaction to India’s turning down the OBOR invitation. This is even more nonsensical. How pray would badgering and threatening to beat up on India convince Delhi to toe the Chinese line?
But in the worst case, and the worst case may transpire, and shove comes to stomp, the army will be able to test how well its Mountain troops can pull off the mobile warfare tactics they have been practicing for many years now. The IAF has to get into the game. There was some chatter in China which hinted with a wink and a nudge that the crash of the Indian Su-30 in the border Kameng District of Arunachal on May 23 was due to offensive electronic measures mounted by a forward ground unit. This cannot be discounted because the PLAAF too flies the same plane, and has worked up its ground-based and airborne EW capabilities very well. It may also be no bad thing for the Indian Navy to aggressively tail the 13-odd warships — very, very far from their logistics base — being tracked by the Indian naval surveillance satellite, and make clear what could happen to them in case the PLA starts acting up in the hills. And ships out of Port Blair should begin steaming towards the Malacca Strait, just in case.
One hopes Modi will not back down and equally that he will not prevent the Indian army and IAF from responding in kind and with force should the PLA cross the Rubicon. The only way to react to a bully is to counter-punch him in the face. And India is surely well-placed to do that.