It was the most improbable of meetings, considering I had been praying for months that I meet someone from Doklam who will talk about the ground reality, especially after senior officers dealing with it at New Delhi would say: “I know too much to open my mouth.”
He is a young officer serving in Sikkim. “There are Jats, Dogras and most recently, soldiers from 4/8 Gorkha Rifles, many units are there, but approximately one platoon (35 men) is deployed at any one time at the 13,000 feet high Doklam. Soldiers are changing frequently,” he confides. “I think the Bhutanese might have been complicit, even done a joint reconnaissance, but I could be wrong.”
Measures Taken To Stop PLA at Doklam
Bhutanese soldiers are very scared of the PLA but are deployed on the post at Jampheri Ridge. The Chinese have built several machine gun nests on the heights overlooking Doklam. They have also built six to seven helipads in the sector. Sometimes, even the PLA looks scared.
This is what the young officer told me,
Initially the Chinese PLA came and destroyed Indian bunkers at Doklam. They informed us on the hotline they would be doing so. We did not resist. Then they began constructing the road, creeping forward till we got orders to form a human chain to stop the construction.
Yadong is a township and a mini cantonment in Chumbi valley upto where the blacktop road has reached and is 20 km from Nathula Pass.
‘The Chinese Will Not Attack in Doklam’
This officer’s unit was deployed in North Sikkim and the unit has identified five infiltration routes that the PLA might use.
PLA border guards are deployed in bunkers opposite north Sikkim with roads on their side ending as close as 50 metres short of the border.
An Armoured Regiment is deployed up there and now additional artillery and air defence guns have been moved up. “The Chinese will not attack in Doklam,” he said.
You didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to say that. The Doklam face-off fatigue has prompted sundry Indian and Chinese military experts to conclude that the PLA will shift the points of pressure from the tactically disadvantaged ground they are on to one where the power asymmetry is strategically exploitable and they can widen the spread of the conflict rather than confine it to a local skirmish.
Diplomacy or Threats? Shallow Tactics by China
On the other hand, some Indian experts have convinced themselves that when push comes to shove, the PLA will ram down through the disputed trijunction to the vulnerable Chicken’s Neck about 100 km to the south in the Siliguri corridor.
This would be akin to the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ (charge of British light cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854, in the Crimean War) at high altitude. One military thinker has rightly compared this quixotic adventure to Pakistan and PLA troops linking up in Ladakh over the Siachen Glacier. Neither option is likely to play out as China wants to win the battle without fighting it.
The elementary fact is that the Chinese are focussed on a single issue: Intimidation, coercion, repeated threats, warnings and an imminent deadline for Indian soldiers to withdraw ‘first’ before diplomacy can come into play.
The Doklam standoff has to be resolved at Doklam because that is where the world’s eyes are transfixed. It is a strategic confrontation, China being challenged by India for the first time on third country soil.
China’s Ulterior Motives
For a moment, forget the contesting facts in the battle of narratives – the Chinese story, the Indian version and the Bhutanese account.
Clearly China’s objectives are three-fold:
- First, to build a road to their preferred tri-junction;
- Second, to de-couple Bhutan from India, ignoring the defence and security treaty arrangements of 2007.
- Third, to demonstrate its psychological and power ascendency.
China has been checkmated on all three counts. Still, for Beijing the bottom line is Indian troop withdrawal from territory which does not belong to it and where they arrived after illegal trespass across settled border into ground that belongs to Bhutan. This dispute cannot be settled in Ladakh or Barahoti. Linking intrusions elsewhere across LoC with Doklam will be unwise.
With China taking the mind-war to new heights with video wars accusing India of committing 7 sins and outrightly rejecting Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s premature remarks that Doklam will be settled soon (like his comment that the Kashmir problem will be solved soon).
Backchannel diplomacy could crank in, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have to make the first move on the sidelines of BRICS to be held in China next week. At present, President Putin appears to be the best dealmaker.
His challenge is to find a face-saver on both sides, optically sequencing mutual withdrawal against India pulling out first. The longer this face-off continues, the murkier the narrative will get and the distrust will plummet to irredeemable depths.
All the years of toil and diplomacy working out border CBMs will go to nought and we could end up with two hot borders – the catastrophic two-front scenario.
(Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta is a founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, the forerunner of the current Integrated Defence Staff. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)