The Doklam Standoff: Hot And Cold At The Creeping Tri-Junction

My ‘Realpolitik’ column published July 23, 2017 in BloombergQuint.com, at https://www.bloombergquint.com/opinion/2017/07/23/the-doklam-india-china-standoff-hot-and-cold-at-the-creeping-tri-junction

———————

The Doklam plateau is far from being in a touch-trigger situation as many Indian commentaries and the Chinese government’s version of RK Karanjia’s Blitz – Global Times suggest. Nothing is likely to happen other than more ejections of more hot air and gas from the Chinese side. This is so, mainly because China is rattled. The developments around Doka La have got Beijing’s goat, and China finds itself pushed into a corner and facing a dilemma – damned if it acts and double-damned if it doesn’t.

 

Beijing was stunned by the speed and the stealth displayed by the Indian Army’s Bhutan-based infantry brigade in its proactive intervention on Bhutanese territory to prevent the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) construction crews from completing a serviceable track across the Doka La watershed. The Indian brigade is notionally part of the Indian Military Training Team in Bhutan. The school-boyish pushing shoving recorded on mobile cameras had a message for the PLA – the Indian army was ready for a rumble. Then, having belied Chinese expectations, Delhi proceeded to play it very cool – not at all ruffled by the growing crescendo of accusations, threats, and fulminations that had the Chinese Foreign Office in Zhongnanhai sounding verily like the Global Times. Delhi’s low key statements that have sought to keep a lid on the issue, infuriated Beijing even more as it realised that its threats were being ignored.

Delhi’s studious unwillingness to take the Chinese bait even as Beijing rhetorically raised the ante meant that Delhi had forced China into the unenviable position of having to deliver on its threat of initiating war against India or eat crow.

 Union Minister for Home Affairs Rajnath Singh chais an all-party meet on the Doklam standoff between India and China, on July 14, 2017. (Photograph: @HMOIndia/Twitter)
Union Minister for Home Affairs Rajnath Singh chais an all-party meet on the Doklam standoff between India and China, on July 14, 2017. (Photograph: @HMOIndia/Twitter)

 

There are some in the Indian commentariat who, perhaps, unwittingly echo Chinese sentiments about the illegality of the Indian intervention when, actually, international law entirely backs the Indian army’s actions on the Doklam plateau.

Under international law, it was the sovereign right of Bhutan to ask for a friendly India to come to its rescue, protect its territory, against a predatory China.

Bhutan has no formal diplomatic relations with China. Having been a protectorate of British India, Bhutan has, post-1947, permitted Delhi to conduct its foreign relations – something that irks Beijing. China has waged a campaign to get Thimpu to establish an embassy in Beijing and for this purpose has cultivated the Bhutanese elite and intelligentsia in various ways, including irregular financial subventions.

 

The Indian government has been mindful of the Chinese plan and this is among the reasons why Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Thimpu and announced a billion dollar aid package in June 2014, just a couple of weeks after taking office. The trigger for this trip was the Bhutan-China parleys were scheduled a month later for defining the border between the two countries – a forum that had produced little by way of results over the previous 20 years. Nevertheless, Delhi didn’t want any surprises. The Bhutanese government has naturally become adept at playing India off against China to get better consideration from Delhi, and India has never been found wanting in its generosity.

It is Indian-funded hydroelectric projects and a scheme to buy the excess electricity produced at a good rate, that has been responsible for increasing the per capita income of Bhutan to a point where it is the highest of any country in greater southern Asia, including, incidentally, India.

It is an economic development model Delhi has so far failed to sell to a more suspicious Nepal.

 

A section of the Punatsangchhu hydro-electric power project stands under construction in Wangdue, Bhutan, on February 11, 2012. (Photographer: Adeel Halim/Bloomberg)
A section of the Punatsangchhu hydro-electric power project stands under construction in Wangdue, Bhutan, on February 11, 2012. (Photographer: Adeel Halim/Bloomberg)

The absence of agreement on a formally delineated border, however, has not made China any less reluctant to progressively annex piecemeal more strategically-placed Bhutanese territory and attempt to move the tri-junction in the southerly direction by building border roads and presenting a new fait accompli to Thimpu each time. This is how the earlier tri-junction on the Batang La line at Gymochan – consolidated by a motorable border – is now sought to be pushed to the Doklam plateau. Such aggression has been happening in the face of the standstill accords of 1998 and 1999 signed by China and Bhutan. The two sides had agreed that pending a final resolution of the border, neither would disturb the status quo. In the event, when Thimpu complained of the Chinese road building around Doka La this time, the Indian army sprang into action. The rest is recent history.

 

India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has calmly explained in Parliament that India will be happy to talk with Beijing, but only after it drops any preconditions and withdraws all its troops to the Batang La line, simultaneous to which, Indian troops would get out of Doka La. Beijing doesn’t have an option other than to agree to this offer. The PLA simply cannot muster the forces necessary to overcome the three Indian army Divisions in the Doka La vicinity in a short, intense, war. Delhi has publicly indicated that its military jump-off threshold would be if elements of the two Tibet-based group armies (each the size of an Indian division) begin crossing any of the 11 bridges over the Tsangpo River that runs parallel to the Line of Actual Control and enters India as the Brahmaputra.

Because the PLA has refrained from this provocation, India has been restrained as well.

But assuming it can mobilise and deploy the forces necessary to take on the Indian Army, the PLA will have to brave a very difficult logistics problem that its units will face.

The PLA has just about another month to start an affray before the weather begins closing in. Beijing apparently doesn’t rate the PLA’s chances highly. Otherwise, it would, by now, have done something instead of just raving and ranting.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, Bhutan, China, China military, civil-military relations, Decision-making, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, Indian democracy, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Politics, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Nepal, society, South Asia, Tibet. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Doklam Standoff: Hot And Cold At The Creeping Tri-Junction

  1. san man says:

    Sir,
    Hopefully the weather will do its part in capping China’s plans for any mischief against us. But how do you rate the force dispositions arrayed against each other? Which other locations might China attempt to make moves against, given their relative disadvantages at Dok la? Given China’s large number of short-range ballistic missiles, what is the potential for these to be used against Indian forces or other strategic targets in India? Furthermore, what is the likelihood of Pakistan also trying to cause trouble on our border with them, in the hopes of double-teaming us?

    • PLA’s not prepared for war in terms of instantly initiating hostilities. Our intel/satellite sensors will pick up any such activity. the Indian army is. China unlikely to use SRBMs or MRBMs in what she considers would be a border skirmish. Not a chance of the Pakistan army getting in on the act.

  2. PD says:

    I am no expert on either the strategy or tactics nor do I have the sources within the Government to make any authoritative comment like Mr Karnad. Assuming however, that all that has been said is true, then I would imagine that the Indian Government would be well advised to improve the logistics along the Chinese and other borders at a somewhat faster rate than presently, assuming once again that capacity exists. If the capacity does not exist, then even more strenuous efforts will have to be made in that direction.
    Recent newspaper reports have made some scathing comments about the quality of the roads and other infrastructure made/maintained by BRO. Having personally travelled across a fair section of the roads made and maintained by BRO as well as roads in snow covered regions in other parts of the world, I agree that the quality of construction and maintenance of the BRO created infrastructure could be substantially improved. But that requires money as well as motivation and enforced discipline. Once again, the latter two are the very attributes that the Indian State has worked very hard to destroy over the years. The State has also starved funds.
    I sincerely hope that the present government does not compromise national security in the spurious debate over guns vs butter.

  3. raja says:

    Resp.Sir,
    Whether Mig35 will enter again?

  4. andy says:

    It’s good to see India standing firm at Doka La and not getting cowed down by the loud and belligerent statements made by the Dragon.This new found display of spine has a certain basis to it,over the last decade, India has strengthened its defences in Arunachal Pradesh by adding two divisions (35,000 – 40,000 troops), and is raising a mountain strike corps (60,000 troops) that can operate in Ladakh, Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh(2 divisions already raised)Besides these, India has moved more than two brigades (7,000 – 10,000 troops) from Kashmir to Ladakh and further strengthened defences there with the induction of T72 tanks and armoured infantry units. The upshot is that India’s military posture has become significantly strong on the 3,500-kilometre Line of Actual Control (LAC.).

    Another factor that probably inhibits Chinese military action at Doka La is the lack of properly aclimatized fighting personnel in sufficient numbers, so any build of forces in Tibet would be slow and tortuous process under the watchful eyes of the Indian military.But as Bharat rightly pointed out the window of opportunity is just about a month or so before inclement weather closes out any such action.Plus the SU30 squadrons based in the north east would also be a huge deterrent,in the event of hostilities breaking out their initial targets would presumably be the 11 bridges across the Tsangpo river to cut the Chinese supply lines thereby rendering the front lines vulnerable.All these factors are what seem to contribute in making India feel sanguine in the current standoff at Doka La.

  5. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    The people all marking their appearances in the picture above are political appointees some with their wards thick with the Americans or the Saudis. Nearly none has any grounding in the general population of India. And yet, the chinese lost to these kind of people. For your records, Mr. Xi, with all due respect, even the general population of India has scored a massive victory against these people. May be you have still something left to learn from India.

    xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

    @BK Re. “Delhi’s low key statements that have sought to keep a lid on the issue, infuriated Beijing even more as it realised that its threats were being ignored.”

    While I loved this part of the whole episode. I hope you have not forgotten that with the first opportunity the Chinese got to threaten India in a substantive manner, they threatened to walk into Pakistan as guest soldiers. The infrastructure for that is already in place. The threat was off course in addition to the threat of a border war. But who are they kidding, the Himalayan heights are all in our side of the border. Roading-up tibet was the easy part but controlling the Himalayas is not something that the Chinese can muster the courage or resources to do. Don’t forget in 1962 they had to give up the areas these unforgiving heights. Chinese have infrastructure to carry out a shallow border war too but despite that they thought that sending in ‘advisors’ into Pakistan is an option they should be looking into.

    And now do you agree that China is not as big a threat on the China border as it can be in the Paki plains. China has earlier supplied for free, half the air force of Pakistan in a war which saw us, losing our PM in a third country. Sorry sir, but the Indian Army strike formations in the plains are needed. No doubt the mountain strike corps are also needed but these are in addition to what we have in the plains and not at the cost of those. And follows, without saying, that more resources can only be found if the imports are capped or at least rationalized.

    • I get the point. But, realistically, do you believe PLA can sustain a plan for armoured ingress in strength down the Karakoram Highway and on to the Punjab plains? That’d be total war kind of scenario.

      • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

        I get your point too. 1965 was the point the US and Chinese tried to ‘advise’ and ‘equip’ Pakis and both saw that their advise was not worth much.

        After that point US has tried to breach India through the so called soft power. Chinese have no soft power in India. India was never enslaved to a chinese speaking elite.

        That leaves only China, needing some other method to influence Indian requirements. While I also don’t see the Chinese walking into a war with India. But the chinese too have long memories. They will try something or the other. The CPEC is the next stage of evolution of the Karokoram highway, that much is clear. May be the Chinese are working towards a future where the Pakis can die for them fighting India, just as the Americans see us Indians as the cannon fodder against the Chinese. The continuing Great Game. And CPEC is dual use infrastructure.

        But no, I don’t see a great big war with China. I just want to guard against the possibilities given that on Pakistani landscape both the Americans and Chinese have influence.

  6. R says:

    Thank you Sir for such illuminating and educative posts on defense. In all sincerity and with respect a question: per your analysis and also of other experts, it does appear that India’s steely cold resolve seems to have worked with China as GT indulges in sabre rattling every other day — however, curious to know that when we clearly seem to have come out of it without bending over backwards to China, why is the NSA traveling to the middle kingdom? Is it just some kind of signalling for the rest of the world or deep down inside something else is going on, which has not yet captured anyone’s imagination?

    Regards.

    • The NSA level talks were scheduled before the Dok La confrontation got underway a month back. but is a good time for the two sides to peacefully resolve the issue if they can. But as I said in a skype interview to BloombergQuint news just now, Doval should let the Chinese bring up the issue as the aggrieved party. India has no problem with the status quo, we merely want a return to it which means the PLA, construction crews and all, returning to the Batang La line as Sushma Swaraj indicated in Parliament.

  7. Raja says:

    Resp.Sir,
    Whether china is really expansionist? If so why the world powers are’nt uniting against it in the modern world ? or otherwise? as no country will discount such an emerging threat to their sovereignty.
    SCS, artificial islands, revisionism indicate trends of expansionism.True.

    Our earlier neglect in some important areas whether made us supersensitive to the actions of others and made us to see everything through the ultra large magnifying glasses? (if we look at a nation level not at an individual level) Also the same whether encouraged others to take the initiative against us? or whether they are normal?

    No international voice openly supports us or condemns them for their actions in other parts of the world.

    If muscle & money power is the order of the day (as seen in our everyday life!) then why we are living in an illusion of calling ourselves soft power! so as to mask our inability?

  8. Apna says:

    India is like a weakling small boy who recently discovered a big bully in the school yard and to enchant that bully , that small boy has started feeding the bully a grand lunch every day .
    It is now association with that bully which makes Indians feel strong under shadow of big bully.
    So Delusional Indians think that they are strong.
    India has bad relationship with al.ost all her neighbours for decades.
    ===

  9. Apna says:

    IN the whole decade of 80s when usa was using China against russia it was usa and her stooge inside India who were forcing Indian govt. to be very friendly to China and be distant to Russia; So much so that they forced rajiv Gandhi to accept Tibet as part of China in autumn 1988
    ******
    ——-*********************(((

    —–***,*************************

    By Ignoring Pakistan-US relation in terms of Afghanistan and India , you are ignoring the root cause of Terrorism in Afghanistan exist today and for past 15 years , India and Russia cannot ignore that fact and NATO/US still has their physical presense in AF-PAK region and US still bankrolls Pakistan in guise of it supporting US troops in Afghanistan.

    ———&*******************0

    Russia’s first major export to India was the MiG-21 Mach 2 fighter that changed the balance of air power in the subcontinent’s sky. Since India couldn’t afford to buy the jet, Moscow offered liberal finance that could repaid over several decades. The MiG-21 was also the first weapon offered for
    license production to a developing country.

    Since then Russia has offered India paradigm shifting weapons such as nuclear powered submarines, cryogenic engines, warships and supersonic missiles for licence production and in-country development.

    ——*****************—–”’–‘-”

    there are about 3 mill indians in US? that looks big, but actually really small compared to total population of India. In UK there are less than 3/ 4th of a million Hindus . Rest are avoed anti indian khalistani sikhs or pakis.
    Still these constituencies are overrepresntated in pushing India for being doormat to the west.

    ____*****************************

    It is Indian elites who are responsible for distance between russia and India.
    For last several years is seen that just before the Indian Pm goes to states in his annual pilgrimage he awards billion dollar contract for American junk.
    In fact many Indians are openly pumping for old rusty f16 .And they have temerity to make fun of mug 35 or su35 and t50 which all were offered to India.
    Indians elites are dogs barking for American interests.
    Thing was it was in Indian interest that Russia China and India trip fight against Anglo American bullying.
    Opposite has hsppend with India.
    American boot licking elites of India were induced by English language media to do lies and propaganda against China.
    And they expe t China to support Indian in resolution ? .
    Instead of blaming Pakistan do Indians think that they have guts to blame Americans for still giving 900 million arms aid just now? 
    By what right India thinks she has right To ask russia not to laid on with Pakistan when Indians have shamelessly opted for all pacts with us at adropof head without much discussion ? 
    Russia must not give s400 and t50 to such treacherous country as my India

    ___________________

    About trumps plan to tighten misuse of H-1B visa.

    India is shamelessly forging relationships with Russia’s arch enemy the United States; by allowing the U.S. to use Indian bases and now India is buying billions of more weapons from the United States than Russia; but here you are ignorantly talking about ‘interests of India’. India has used Russia more than Russia has ever needed anything from India — from using Russia for the U.N. veto power to purchasing weapons. Russia has now realized how selfish India is!

    Narendra modi now gives bribes to usa in form of immediate decisipn to buy spy infested american junk weaponary costing billions of dollars all within 2 years without any tender.

    “”””””http://zeenews.india.com/india/pm-narendra-modi-clears-rs-17000-crore-air-defence-missile-deal-with-israel_1980214.html

    “”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””” cc
    Great that India is forced to wean from this immigration and Hi-B ( sounds aids virus) visa tests.What are the Indian engineers doing except in I T ? India needs defence engineers which she can not get because Indian education system produces people who can work only as collie for foreigners.
    Total of 100 billion revenue out of 1300 billion GDP is not something for which India sacrifices her respect talent and yes independent foreign policy.Have you ever wondered that India got close to USA in last twenty years exactly at the time when America got the reputation of a rogue bully and frankly a terrorist state.India calling such state as dear freind speaks volume how low India can go to peruse a few dollars which usa prints out from thin air.

    ______””’-”-”’–“””””””””””””””:”””””””

    Good for India who will be forced to chAnge from rose tinted glass of globalisation and liberalisation which itself is out of fashion in The west but worshipped now God in india by traitor elites.
    Besides Indian education system and economic model is now based on producing skilled cookie to work for white men abroad rather than work for India in india.
    That will not be realistic model and India will be forced to cater to her Indian needs.
    We need many engineers in defence railways infrastructure and aerospace.
    Not as it clerks though.

    “””””””””””””””””””””””-“-“”-“‘”” xxxxxxxxxx

    India is shamelessly forging relationships with Russia’s arch enemy the United States; by allowing the U.S. to use Indian bases and now India is buying billions of more weapons from the United States than Russia; but here you are ignorantly talking about ‘interests of India’. India has used Russia more than Russia has ever needed anything from India — from using Russia for the U.N. veto power to purchasing weapons. Russia has now realized how selfish India is!

    “”””””

    “”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””” cc
    Great that India is forced to wean from this immigration and Hi-B ( sounds aids virus) visa tests.What are the Indian engineers doing except in I T ? India needs defence engineers which she can not get because Indian education system produces people who can work only as collie for foreigners.
    Total of 100 billion revenue out of 1300 billion GDP is not something for which India sacrifices her respect talent and yes independent foreign policy.Have you ever wondered that India got close to USA in last twenty years exactly at the time when America got the reputation of a rogue bully and frankly a terrorist state.India calling such state as dear freind speaks volume how low India can go to peruse a few dollars which usa prints out of thin air BTW.
    —–‘——-”””-”””””””””””’
    First attempt of ISRO’s with Cryogenic engine for GSLV were unsuccessful in April 2001. After that, ISRO had tested 8 flights with Cryogenic engine; out of which 5 flew with Russian engine. The first successful test-flight using the indigenous engine happened in January 2014

    ____________________

  10. raja says:

    Resp.Sir,
    when our indigenous aero engine will be ready?
    Any country really sympathetic towards us? and why?
    Iran-pakistan relations? and its future?
    joining with the chinese and bringing pakistan down? possible?
    About the advanced Hawk and its role as a ground attack aircraft
    War equipment should be capable of being produced rapidly and at low cost – Any change has happened in this concept globally?
    If everything is fair in war, i.e., for the people then why chinese should be criticised for copying the su30? (whose development we financed!)
    Why we did’nt copy the AK variants? when Roos was in liberal terms with India?
    Is Nepal still leaning towards India or gone out of fold towards them?
    Possibility of Pakistan becoming the N-king of the middle east? and subsequent proliferation in the middle east? Why the clash between the sects in the middle east? Why they can’t resolve the differences?
    Possibility of China arming the Insurgents in India like pakistan?
    How to eradicate Systemic corruption in India?
    Why we build aircraft carriers instead of small to medium power packed vessels?
    Whether we have produced any dunking sonar equipment?(DRDO)
    Parents sacrifice for the schoolgoing boys -is it correct in your view?
    Why we didn’t go to Germany for the subs?
    Difference in corruption between china and India?
    Why we are not assertive? Always the chinese start building the road. No one instance of India trying to build road in the disputed territory? why?
    Can we follow the china model in arms production?

  11. Col Y P SINGH says:

    A good article giving full details

  12. Sukhvir says:

    Romel Sir ,a good article, it clears misconceptions some people could have had

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