The month-long military stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops over the Doklam plateau in Bhutan that began on 16 June continues even as a steady exchange of sharp verbal jibes is growing in intensity and invective.
The word ‘war’ was introduced, albeit cautiously, when the Global Times, a Beijing daily noted in a commentary (3 July) quoting observers that “there could be a chance of war if the recent conflict between China and India is not handled properly.”
Statements from Delhi have been equally firm with Defence Minister Arun Jaitley observing that this is not the India of 1962, a reference to the October 1962 border war when Indian was ‘taught’ a humiliating lesson by Chairman Mao. Beijing’s riposte was even more acerbic, drawing attention to the considerable military power and economic prosperity gap between the two Asian giants that is in China’s favour.
Ties in Cold Storage
After the 1962 border war, the India-China bilateral relationship went into cold storage and was revived in 1988 by then PM Rajiv Gandhi. It merits recall that this rapprochement was preceded by the 1987 military stand-off between Indian and PLA troops in Somdurong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang district.
At the time, the Eastern army commander Lt Gen VN Sharma (who later became the army chief) adopted a very firm stand when Chinese troops ‘transgressed’ into Indian territory and a modus-vivendi was arrived at through politico-diplomatic initiatives.
Two questions arise. Given that the incursion now by Chinese troops has taken place in a third country, Bhutan, why is India so resolute in its support to Thimpu and, secondly, what is the significance of the Doklam plateau to Delhi?
Rising to the Occasion
- As per the treaty signed in 1949 and revised in
2007, it’s Delhi’s obligation to intervene in territorial issues of Bhutan.
- India currently has the tactical edge in Sikkim
along the 3,500-km long Line of Actual Control (LAC).
- India’s shortcoming has been delay in building
infrastructure along the LAC, with road construction beginning only in the late
- Though many projects were sanctioned during the UPA
regime, NDA doesn’t seem to prioritise it.
- Unlike India, the Chinese investment in
infrastructure along the LAC has been far more sustained and vigorous.
Bhutan enjoys the most special relationship with India, and as per a 1949 treaty, it agreed to be “guided by the advice” of the Indian government in its external relations.
Thus, a challenge to Bhutan’s territorial integrity compels Delhi to provide necessary advice and support and this is the posture adopted by the Modi government. It may be averred that India’s credibility as a treaty partner is in focus – in as much as Beijing’s penchant to engage in its policy of creeping territorial assertiveness and then invoking history and opaque legacy to buttress its claims.
Source of Anxiety
The Doklam plateau, while being in Bhutan, is at the tri-junction of India (Sikkim)-China-Bhutan, abutting the dagger-shaped Chumbi valley that has traditionally been deemed to be Chinese territory.
Chinese ingress into the Doklam plateau and further consolidation of infrastructure by way of roads and semi-permanent structures is a source of considerable anxiety for India.
Geography, local terrain and climatic/weather conditions are critical factors in determining military advantage across the 3,500-km-long Line of Actual Control (LAC) and currently, India has the tactical edge in the middle sector that includes Sikkim.
Retaining this is an Indian military imperative and permitting Chinese consolidation in Doklam would blunt this advantage. Furthermore, this initiative by Beijing would bring PLA assets more proximate to the Siliguri corridor south of Bhutan that connects the Indian mainland to the north-east.
Post the 1962 debacle, India has been hesitant about improving its infrastructure along the LAC due to a lack of resources and resolve. A curious formulation was internalised that improving connectivity in the border belt along the Himalayas would confer an advantage to the adversary – in the event a 1962 exigency occurred again.
Consequently, the infrastructure along the LAC remains inadequate – this policy was reviewed, but limited road-construction began only in the late 1990s. However, this remains below the desired median and while many projects were sanctioned during the UPA regime, there is no evidence that this has been prioritised by the current NDA government. Doklam ought to serve as a catalyst for the Modi government, if such were needed.
In contrast to India, the Chinese investment in infrastructure along the LAC over the last three decades has been far more sustained and vigorous. Thus, the composite military power index that China now possesses, including air power and missile capability, is of a higher order than India’s. However, any aggressive move by China would be imprudent given the nature of the bilateral military context along the LAC.
Even as the military stand-off continues, including reports of increased PLA naval activity in the Indian Ocean region, it is expected that Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet on 7 July in Germany at the G20 summit. Hopefully, they will ensure that ‘differences do not become disputes.’ The future of the Asian century and the long-term security of over two billion citizens will be shaped by the sagacity, or lack thereof, of the political apex in both countries.
(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be reached @theUdayB. 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.)