A month into the Doklam standoff, India is still refraining from calling it a “war-like situation” or even a “conflict”. This, despite reports of China conveying to foreign diplomats in Beijing that troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been waiting patiently but may not wait indefinitely.
With Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj warning that India could face a security challenge if China unilaterally changes the status quo in Doklam, we asked three experts just how seriously should we consider China’s rhetoric.
By adopting a threatening tone, is China trying to posture or is India being complacent in thinking that China will not follow up its threat with military action?
Ajai Shukla: India’s reactions cannot be predicated on whether it thinks China is bluffing or serious. India’s reactions have to be guided by a clear understanding of what its national interests are, and whether it is worth risking a confrontation with China over the Doklam plateau – a 89 sq km territory.
It goes without saying that China will need to measure its reactions in light of the same calculations. I find it hard to believe that China will attack India or risk a war with India over an issue which is essentially a small border problem. Both sides have resolved border problems like these in the past, and there is no reason why they will not do so in the future. But if India believes its interests are such that it does not warrant a withdrawal from the Doklam plateau at this point in time, it must be prepared to go to war with China, if China initiates war.
Bharat Karnad: This is major Chinese bluff and bluster. If the Chinese are letting off some gun powder in an exercise in hinterland Tibet, Indian troop concentrations are not lazing around either. In the Dokla region, Indian forces hold the high ground and any adventure by PLA will prove very dear for China. In that extended region there are in excess of three Indian army Divisions, not something the PLA will be able to tangle with, let alone overcome.
Phunchok Stobdan: We’ve been dealing with China in an ad hoc manner since 1959. Perhaps this is because we do not understand China like we understand Pakistan or the Western world.
Moreover, India has ambiguously pursued a firm Tibet policy rather than a China policy. This became the root of misunderstanding and strategic mistrust has only grown since. In fact, nobody has even thought of questioning our China policy. China, on the other hand, has followed a dual policy of engagement and containment with India.
Therefore, direct face-offs have been avoided or have been resolved using diplomatic means or via BPM-level meetings.
The Chinese stance now is that the current standoff is unique because it is along the internationally defined boundary. One cannot therefore predict whether or not rhetoric will be followed by action.
After Nepal and Myanmar, is China now drawing politically closer to Bhutan? There are indications that except for the King and to some extent the current Prime Minister, a large swathe of mainstream Bhutanese political opinion could be swaying towards China. If that change is indeed occurring, what should India do?
Ajai Shukla: Bhutan, like every small state that is in the vicinity of two conflicted larger states, is playing the game with both India and China.
If they wish to go down that route, there is nothing India can do about it. But it suffices to say that there are other countries that have gone through that route – Sri Lanka and Myanmar for example. All of them have realised that playing footsie with the dragon is not without cost. So if Bhutan wishes to go down that road, that is a part of the political development of that country.
Bharat Karnad: It is true Beijing is cultivating the Bhutanese elite. But Dokla plateau is Bhutanese territory that the Indian military is trying to protect against forcible Chinese occupation. This is well appreciated by everyone in Thimpu.
Phunchok Stobdan: It is hard to access the mainstream perception of Bhutan about its ties with India – owing to the lack of proper information from Bhutan and the government’s tight control over its media.
However, social media and personal blogs have helped bring the thoughts of important Bhutanese commentators into the public eye. I would say we misunderstood their silence and took their traditional adherence towards India for granted. My understanding of the Bhutanese mind is that they are extremely sophisticated and subtle in their thinking. I would say that an ordinary Bhutanese person still respects and loves India – owing to their spiritual affinity with the land of Buddha and Padmasambava. In a critical situation, they would prefer to defend the land of the Buddha over the land of Mao. But is Buddhism taken into consideration when India examines its ties with Bhutan?
The diplomats posted in Bhutan rarely have any political, strategic and spiritual nuances. It is about fixing the relationship, not building it. We don’t have diplomats in the country to deal with a country like Bhutan, which is far more challenging and difficult than dealing with Pakistan or Nepal. Of course, there are a number of ways to restore respect for India among the Bhutanese. But I don’t think our government is thinking that way because we’re dealing with Bhutan in a tactical and operational way.
Recently, Chinese state media asserted that J&K (Ladakh) is not an India-Pakistan bilateral dispute but a trilateral dispute between India, Pakistan and China. I think we lack proper understanding on the trans-Himalayan Indo-Tibetan borderland. Often our ignorance, or lack of understanding on China, is conveniently interpreted as a threat from China. This is a flawed mindset. Many more complications are going to unfold in the coming years and these will have adverse implications on Indian security. The current Indian policy suits Chinese interests. Clearly, we need to rethink our China policy. The more we ignore it, the more mistakes we will commit.
Has Bhutan done enough in this standoff to “be seen with India”, or is it playing a “tactically silent” role as a signal of its growing closeness to China? Is this the reason that China has upped the rhetoric so much in this instance, since it may be a bit more confident about its growing proximity to Bhutan?
Ajai Shukla: Bhutan will always play a tactical role because every country acts in its national interest. But when Indian troops crossed into Bhutanese territory – to confront Chinese road-building parties and troops in the Doklam plateau in territory that Bhutan claims – Bhutan was very quick to issue a statement. Bhutan said China was in violation of the 1988 and 1998 agreements between the two countries that provided sufficient political cover for India to justify its entry into that area. I think Bhutan has done what it needed to do to support India.
Bharat Karnad: Thimpu’s silence should not be mistaken as some ruse suggestive of sub-surface collusion and so on.
Phunchok Stobdan: We do not seem to know anything about what transpired between Bhutan and China between 2008 and 2013. I am sure they reached an understanding on the boundary issue. China views the absence of clear statements from India as a sign of India losing confidence with Bhutan.
How do you explain China pulling “Kashmir” into the narrative, something it has not been that keen on doing in the past?
Ajai Shukla: China is playing a game of brinkmanship here. It is going further on several counts than it has ever before and there are probably good reasons why the decision makers in Beijing have decided to do so. India is in a confrontation with China over Kashmir from the statement that it issued while deciding not to go for the Belt and Road initiative in Beijing and that is how it’s going to go in the future.
Bharat Karnad: For whatever reason that China has raised the Kashmir issue, the Indian government should seize upon it as an opportunity to make it clear to Beijing –assuming Delhi is able to muster the guts and the gumption – that if China does not support the “one India” concept and it shouldn’t expect India agreeing to “one China” either.
Phunchok Stobdan: Of course, we have been ignoring or avoiding the China factor in our Kashmir discourse and treating it only as an Indo-Pak problem. But in our rhetoric, we’ve been claiming that China has occupied 39,000 sq km territory of Aksai Chin in Ladakh and 5,000 sq km Skysgam Valley of Jammu and Kashmir.
Second, the India-China border dispute in the Western Sector is a contest for J&K land in eastern Ladakh. Third, a new twist has come from Beijing after India allowed the Dalai Lama’s representative to hoist a Tibetan national flag on the bank of Pangong Ladakh in J&K. We should understand that the Chinese claims on Indian Territory –whether in Tawang or Ladakh – are based on the history of the fifth Dalai Lama.
Tibetans have been historically claiming Ladakh since the 1680s and have launched several military attacks on the Kingdom of Ladakh. In fact, the Dalai Lama, through his Mongol troop’s contingent, snatched more than half of Indian land stretching up to Kailash and Taklakot near the India-Nepal-China tri-junction. But for the military support offered by Aurangzeb in 1683, all of Ladakh would have been part of Tibet – and thereby China today. By implication, the PLA troops would have been along the Kangra Valley in Himachal Pradesh.
Similarly, the Sona area of Tawang region (Monyul) was snatched by fifth Dalai Lama after establishing a Dzong (fortress) in Tawang. From Tawang to Ladakh, the key Indian monasteries are now controlled by Tibetan Lamas. This makes it easy for China to assert its claim on Indian territories in the Himalayan belt. Clearly, the Chinese have been successful in creating strategic depth for themselves at India’s expense. It is a classic Chinese game of converting challenges into opportunities.
Clearly, India will flounder strategically in the long term. It is only a matter of time before our flawed policy complicates the entire Himalayan theatre.
India says it is defending the chicken’s neck region that connects the north-east. Is there any other strategic reasoning behind India’s decision not to back down?
Ajai Shukla: I do not buy this argument that India is defending the chicken’s neck region. The chicken’s neck region is not under threat from the Doklam plateau. Chinese forces would have to first overcome Indian forces in that region and then advance through very difficult terrain for 100 km, outpace their guns, their logistic support and be exposed to Indian counter-attacks all along the advance to the Siliguri corridor region. This is not a possibility that any reasonable tactical assessment would support.
In a sense, demonstrating that it would support any treaties that it enters into with regional countries.
Bharat Karnad: From Doklam, PLA weapons would have line-of-sight targeting capability to disrupt traffic through the strategic Siliguri Corridor (or chicken’s neck) – whence its military value to India and Delhi’s determination to prevent the plateau’s occupation by the Chinese.
Would India’s decision to not back down constitute a miscalculation in the future?
Ajai Shukla: Whether it constitutes a miscalculation will be determined by the outcome of this crisis. However, successive governments have already miscalculated in allowing an unacceptable shortfall in India’s defence preparedness – and successive governments have created that capability gap in the military. There will be deficiencies that will become apparent if push comes to shove at the border and this government and the preceding one are fully responsible for that.
Bharat Karnad: No. It’d be a huge mistake if India permitted China leeway on Doklam.
In the event of an escalation in the region, can India take on China? What does India stand to lose or gain?
Ajai Shukla: Both countries, India and China, stand to lose a great deal if it comes to war. I don’t believe that any action on the border – on the lines of a Chinese attack – would be a walkover for China like it was in 1962.
It would be a far, far tougher battle for China. Despite the equipment shortfalls I mentioned earlier, I think Indian forces are in a much better position to take on the Chinese military. The outcome will be along the lines of a stalemate rather than a clear victory for either side.
Bharat Karnad: Yes. But ask what China stands to lose – $60.1B (in 2016-17) of export trade with India for starters.