Doklam: Simultaneous Withdrawal of Troops is Still a Possibility
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.
End Result of Doklam
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.)
(Love your mother tongue? This Independence Day, tell The Quint why and how you love your bhasha. You may even win a BOL t-shirt! Sing, write, perform, spew poetry – whatever you like – in your mother tongue. Send us your BOL at email@example.com or WhatsApp it to 9910181818.)