By Malladi Rama Rao*
The face-off between Indian and Chinese troops in Doklam at the tri-junction of India (Sikkim), Bhutan and China has entered the seventh week. And with every passing day, the Chinese stand is becoming curiouser and curiouser.
On the one hand the Chinese media, despite being an extension of the Communist Party and the government, is showing no let-up in its rhetoric, which borders on no more than war mongering. And the Official China has not given up its penchant to needle India’s economic flipside saying that India will take a decade to catch up with the Communist Dragon.
On the other hand Beijing is playing a mind game with claims that India has brought down its troops level to just fifty in the ‘disputed’ area – a report that New Delhi has rejected outright and with contempt.
Despite the border face-off, about which he has not made any public comment, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has conveyed his grief to President Xi at the loss of life and property in the Sichuan earthquake. Observers are quick to point out that Modi was sending a nuanced message- that Delhi prefers diplomacy, not the barrel of a gun that the Chinese may like to prefer.
Nobel laureate Dalai Lama does not see any war clouds on the horizon. He has gone public ruling out a second China- India war. China has no love for him though. Beijing has been firing on all cylinders at him and India since the 81-year-old apostle of peace undertook a nine-day visit to Arunachal Pradesh this April.
The question is why China has made Doklam literally a place of fire and brimstone? There are no ready answers.
Beijing appears to have allowed itself to believe that New Delhi has feet of clay even under a Hindu nationalist leader. It is also possible that the success of sorts that came their way in the South China Sea made the Dragon to dream of a similar pay off in Doklam with some deft arm twisting of the Bhutanese to make them distance from Delhi. Outgoing Pakistani envoy to India, Abdul Basit, negotiated with Thimpu with the Chinese agenda to dump New Delhi. The mission failed to take off to the dismay of Beijing, according to various informed quarters.
The Chinese have been questioning why India has gone to Doklam in the name of Bhutanese. All the legalese that the Chinese have let loose since the standoff started on June 16, 2017 drives home the argument that India has no locus standi in the Doklam dispute.
In the exuberance post-OBOR summit, China has underestimated India- Bhutan ties. Also failed to acknowledge that Bhutan is as important to India as North Korea is to China
Therefore to re-enact the SCS story in the Himalayan snow peaks, the Chinese have adopted a ‘Three Warfares’ strategy – media warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare. Delhi is unruffled though. In fact, it has stuck to its refrain that both sides should resolve the face off through established diplomatic ways.
WHY INDIA CONCERNED
Now, why India is interested in Doklam? Because of its very own security concerns.
Doklam is some 2000 metres away from Mount Gipmochi marking the terminus at the Indian border of what New Delhi regards as a strategic red line: the Jhamperi ridge, the starting point of descent into the foothills of southern Bhutan leading to strategically vital Siliguri Corridor.
Known as Chicken’s neck, the 27 – km wide corridor connects North-east India with the main land; Nepal and Bangladesh are on either side of the corridor with Bhutan on the northern side.
The strategically important Chumbi Valley is only 500 kilometres from Siliguri corridor. Any Chinese dominance of Chumbi Valley will adversely affect the stability in the Siliguri corridor, vital not only for the linkage between Indian mainland and the north-eastern Indian states but also to ensure security for Kolkata and the north Bihar plains.
Already China has plans to extend its Lhasa – Shigatse (small town near the Indian border in Sikkim) line up to Yadong, situated at the mouth of the Chumbi valley. And once this is done, potential threats to the Siliguri corridor from China will increase.
Says strategic expert Dr Ramakrushna Pradhan: “Since India holds Bhutan’s sovereignty as sacred and inviolable, Indian troops on June 18 crossed into the disputed territory between Bhutan and China in an attempt to prevent the illegal construction of a road leading to the longest stand-off between New Delhi and Beijing since 1962”.
The Doklam standoff stems from multiple factors; China’s use of Pakistan as a proxy against India; New Delhi’s boycott of the BRI International Forum Summit; China’s objection to Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh; Beijing’s opposition to New Delhi’s aspirations for full membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG); and Chinese open support to a Pakistan-backed terrorist, Masood Azhar, against the backdrop of UN blacklisting, Dr Pradhan wrote in the highly respected Mainstream magazine on 29 July, adding that the disagreement and distrust between the two giant neighbours is “age-old”.
NOT A MERE SKIRMISH
Put simply, the present border crisis shouldn’t be seen “merely as a border skirmish; rather it is the product of an all-out Chinese strategy to dominate over Asia by creating vassal states” through its policy of ‘Chinese Dream’ and ‘Belt and Road Initiative’.
What next in the Doklam face off? It is difficult to crystal gaze.
According to the Indian Express, the Chinese have pitched around 80 tents for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers at a distance of around one kilometre from Doklam plateau, north of Doka La post. The daily said the number of Chinese troops in the area is estimated to be less than 800, which means that it is not a full PLA infantry battalion. In addition, around 300 PLA soldiers are deployed at the standoff site, facing Indian soldiers who are staying in nearly 30 tents pitched in the area.
The Indian Army has reportedly advanced its Operational Alert to early August for units of 33 Corps looking after Sikkim’s border with China. It is a two-week long annual training that was originally scheduled for some time in September –October. This exercise helps soldier to be familiar with operational duties at heights ranging from 11, 800 feet to 14,700 ft.
(* This commentary first appeared on Asian Tribune, Aug 13, 2017)