Doklam: Simultaneous Withdrawal of Troops is Still a Possibility

Amidst China’s misinformation campaign, both sides might withdraw troops after backchannel dialogue.

6 min read
Hindi Female

At the Okhla bird sanctuary where I walk every morning, I am routinely asked by fellow walkers about the face-off at Doklam. ‘Are we safe? Do we need to stock up rations? Will there be war?’ My answers are: ‘Yes, no, and no symptoms yet – though India is prepared to defend and deter the PLA’.

A quiet build up is underway on both sides.

As abundant precaution, a general alert has been sounded in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Sukna’s 33 Corps with three Mountains divisions – 17, 27 and 20 – are moving into battle stations earlier than usual by end-August for the annual Op Alert which is normally held in the campaigning season of September and October.

20 Mountain Division will move into Bhutan as 33 Corps wargames different battle scenarios with troops against the Chinese Red Land Forces. Eastern Command at Kolkata will chip in with theatre reserves as required. Op Alert is a full scale exercise with troops for rehearsing units and formations for war which I have conducted a number of times.

Amidst China’s misinformation campaign, both sides might  withdraw troops after backchannel dialogue.

End Result of Doklam

Also read: Army Moves Troops of Sukna-Based 33 Corps to India-China Border

China has put itself in a bind by attaching conditionalities to dialogue to defuse the face-off. By stating in Parliament that simultaneous withdrawal and dialogue, not war, is the way forward, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has left no wriggle room.

China is miffed that its threats, warnings and admonitions have fallen on deaf ears. Beijing does not want local conflict or war, but cannot get out of the hole it has dug for itself without loss of face.

The BRICS summit is due next month in China, followed in October by the 19th People’s Congress. If not resolved by then, Doklam will stand out as failure of Chinese coercive diplomacy and show President Xi Jinping in poor light in sharp contrast to the bold land reclamation and militarisation of South China Sea, brushing aside countries like Philippines and Vietnam.

Amidst China’s misinformation campaign, both sides might  withdraw troops after backchannel dialogue.
Simultaneous withdrawal of troops would be a minor victory for India.
(Photo: Lijumol Joseph/The Quint)
Both sides need a face-saving modus vivendi. One way-out is replacing India troops with Bhutanese soldiers. The second option is being creative about the simultaneity of withdrawal, that includes getting optically right the sequencing of withdrawal by both the armies. Backchannel dialogue could help with the compromise.

Also read: Sukna-Based 33 Corps “Very Close” to India-China Border

It will be utterly unwise to prolong the impasse a la Sumdorong Chu which dragged on for 18 months and took seven years to resolve politically. Doklam was meticulously choreographed to push Bhutan and decouple it from India.

Beijing is attaching highest priority to ensure Indian troops withdraw first. Failing which, PLA may intrude in Ladakh and Uttarakhand to force a withdrawal from Doklam. Beijing badly needs to keep face without a fight before the 19th Party Congress.


China is Challenging the Status Quo

The facts are pretty clear: PLA by attempting construction of a road on disputed (with Bhutan) Doklam in Chumbi valley towards disputed (with both India and Bhutan) tri-junction would unilaterally alter status quo, frozen by agreements between China and Bhutan in 1988 and 1998, and China and India in 2012.

Indian troops called in from nearby Dokla post by Bhutanese soldiers who could not stop PLA were accused of trespassing/invading Chinese territory by selectively citing a convention of 1890, but ignoring a latter 1907 agreement which contradicted the 1890 convention’s location of the tri-junction.

By extending the road to its preferred tri-junction China would secure immense tactical and strategic advantages endangering Indian and Bhutanese security interests.

While China is demanding India withdraw from Doklam first, before dialogue, India wants both sides to withdraw simultaneously. A simultaneous withdrawal would be a minor victory for India.

Also read: Debate I Clouds of War or Just a War of Cloudy Words?

Amidst China’s misinformation campaign, both sides might  withdraw troops after backchannel dialogue.
China’s prime motive at Doklam is to decouple Bhutan from India and dilute their India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty 2007.
(Photo: Rhythum Seth/The Quint)

Both India and China Misread Each Other

Both India and China miscalculated each other’s responses. New Delhi had not visualised the extent of Beijing’s creeping encroachments in the Doklam region.

In 1986, as a senior commander in 33 Corps, I had reported our concerns at China’s nibbling at Bhutanese territory. PLA resorted to salami-slicing when Bhutan in the early 1990s refused to trade Doklam with disputed areas in the north.

That Indian soldiers would confront the PLA on third country soil came as a shock to the PLA. It believed it would brush aside tiny Bhutan and literally bulldoze a path to its perceived tri-junction.

That is why last month, on Chinese state TV, I was accosted by Senior Col Zhou Bo of the Defence Ministry who said, ‘How did you have the courage to intrude into Bhutan across sovereign Chinese territory (183 m was the length of trespass) and jump into a China-Bhutan bilateral matter?’

China’s prime motive at Doklam is to decouple Bhutan from India and dilute their Friendship Treaty of 2007 which envisions neither country allowing use of its territory that would harm security and interests of the other.

Also read: Debate I Doklam Standoff Could End Amicably By October


Three Warfares Unleashed by China

Nearly 60 days on, China has unleashed a daily barrage of three warfares – psychological war, media and legal wars – that is belligerent, inelegant and provocative, coupled with unvarnished warmongering by different organs of state machinery.

In contrast India has been firm, defensive and conciliatory, maintaining strategic restraint and advocating dialogue over China’s threats of conflict and war.

The most bizarre warning was administered by a Chinese academic who said ‘small scale operations will be launched in two weeks (time over) to expel Indian soldiers from Doklam, but China will inform India before the start of operations’.

The solitary voice of sanity and reconciliation has come from the Chinese Consul General in Kolkata who said ‘our shared interests far outweigh our differences’.

The mirage of a thaw appeared during the visit of NSA Ajit Doval to attend a BRICS meeting in Beijing when Chinese media went silent for two days. On the sidelines Doval met his Chinese counterpart Yang Yiechi but talks on Doklam did not take place.


Misinformation Campaign

An Indian media delegation whose planned visit to China was initially cancelled after Doklam was re-invited to savour Beijing’s military might. Chinese media’s misreporting that Indian troops had been scaled down from 400 to 40 along with one bulldozer from the previous two prompted some Indian commentators to misread this as de-escalation.

Blowing hot and cold is typically Chinese style of signalling. Provocative language has made a comeback in the Chinese media with the foreign ministry rejecting India’s suggestion for simultaneous withdrawal.

In fact, the Chinese media is asking what New Delhi would do if PLA entered Kalapani (near trijunction between India, China and Nepal) or Kashmir. In one more tranche of disinformation, Chinese officials revealed that Bhutan had accepted Doklam as Chinese territory which Thimpu has rejected.


(The author has served in 33 Corps and Bhutan. 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.)

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Topics:  Xi Jinping   India-China   Doklam 

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