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.
Used for years to the Indian government’s and Army’s passive-defensive approach to border management – that allowed Beijing to realise a creeping tri-junction involving India, Bhutan, and China – the sight of Indian troops suddenly turning up, intent on stopping the PLA troops in their assigned task, followed up by a firming up of a strong Indian military presence in the extended area behind the site of confrontation, threw all Chinese calculations out of gear. The brief of the commander of the Xigatze military sub-region under the Chengdu combat zone has always been to gradually and inconspicuously push the tri-junction toward the Siliguri corridor. India did nothing when China built roads, in effect, annexing Batang La in 2003 where the original tri-junction was located. It is India’s fairly determined reaction to foil any attempt at further moving this tri-junction to Doka La that has precipitated the present crisis. But PLA had every reason to expect it will meet no resistance.
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.
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.
Bharat Karnad is Professor for National Security Studies, Centre for Policy Research, and author most recently of ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’, and blogs at bharatkarnad.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Bloomberg Quint or its editorial team.