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Doklam redux: Winter is coming

As winter begins to settle on the Doklam plateau, India's leadership must hunker down and begin planning in earnest for the long game in South Asia

Rohan Mukherjee 

Sikkim standoff
A signboard seen from the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: Reuters

Soon after the perceived resolution of the two-month-long standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in along the China-border, fresh reports suggesting Chinese activity in the plateau have emerged. Does this mean a possibility of renewed tensions between India and China? Is another military standoff coming? Rohan Mukherjee analyses
Fresh reports have emerged of Chinese activity on the plateau, the site of a longstanding Sino-Bhutanese territorial dispute and recent military standoff between India and China. Guarded by a few hundred soldiers, workers are allegedly busy widening an existing tract of the road Beijing had built in the region in the early 2000s, the attempted lengthening of which led Indian troops to intercede in Bhutan’s name earlier this year. 

The resulting 73-day standoff ended on August 28 with an agreement to “expeditiously disengage” from the exact location of the standoff without publicly specifying the extent of withdrawal for either party. Unsurprisingly, both sides withdrew only a few hundred metres. Given the location of the standoff, this meant that Indian troops vacated the plateau while Chinese troops remained. India’s official statement of October 6 that there have been no new developments “at the face-off site and its vicinity” since the disengagement is therefore technically accurate since it avoids mentioning the rest of the 89 sq km plateau.
The timing, if not the nature, of this limited achievement was due in part to the ninth annual BRICS summit scheduled for September 4 in Xiamen, China. Having invested a great deal in trying to build global and regional leadership, Beijing could ill afford the potential absence of a vital member of the grouping, that too after New Delhi’s boycott of the vaunted Belt and Road Forum in May this year. Less important are the optics of another major imminent political event in China: the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party. Although one view holds that President Xi Jinping sought to avoid escalation at Doklam at a time of internal power transition, it is more likely, as former Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon has argued, that an ongoing standoff in the Himalayas would play at best a minor role in the internal politics of China’s ruling party. In fact, India’s measured stance and public statements on the crisis were designed precisely to avoid escalation. Beijing could have kept the pot simmering without letting it boil over.

Ironically, that is exactly where we are today. Beijing stated at the time of disengagement that it would “continue fulfilling its sovereign rights to safeguard territorial sovereignty in compliance with the stipulations of the border-related historical treaty.” This reference to the 1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention makes it clear that China’s self-perceived claim to this piece of territory remains unchanged. The chief of the Indian Air Force very recently divulged that, more than a month after the disengagement, Chinese forces remain deployed in the Chumbi Valley to the north of the Doklam plateau. The official line from Beijing is that its troops will “continue with their patrols and stationing in the [Doklam] area,” which they have been doing in small numbers since at least 2005. If anything, China scholar Taylor Fravel argues that the recent episode with India is likely to increase Beijing’s military commitment to the area.

The ground reality since the official disengagement has undermined the unbridled triumphalism of some Indian analysts and raised the larger question of whether the issue was at all resolved by the many rounds of strenuous diplomacy that all three countries allegedly undertook during the standoff. Narrowly construed, the answer is yes. The immediate and concrete problem of two nuclear-armed great powers facing off at 14,000 feet was solved. The new equilibrium, however, is structurally unstable. Not only is Beijing likely to continue maintaining its presence in a region that it considers outside New Delhi’s jurisdiction, there is also the 3,488km de facto boundary in disputed areas along the Sino-Indian border—the Line of Actual Control (LAC)—along which to probe Indian resolve and capabilities. 

Most importantly, the crisis remains fundamentally unresolved in terms of the larger strategic changes and challenges facing India with regard to China. One set of challenges is tactical. Put simply, how much relative power can China bring to bear at the border with India? Three considerations are important here. First, as security expert Iskander Rehman has demonstrated, China enjoys certain natural advantages along the LAC due to climate and terrain—the higher elevation of the Tibetan plateau makes Chinese positions more defensible and Chinese soldiers better prepared for high-altitude combat. 

Second, although India enjoys local military superiority in many areas of the LAC, such as the Sikkim sector, China has rapidly developed infrastructure on its side to enable large numbers of troops to amass relatively quickly in the event of a conflict. The PLA’s Western Theatre Command (formed in February 2016) stations two motorized infantry brigades at Nyingchi and one brigade each of mechanized infantry, artillery, and air defence at Lhasa—both locations close to Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. The estimated completion of the proposed high-speed rail line between Chengdu and Lhasa in 2030 will dramatically reduce the transport time for the PLA’s 77th Group Army—anywhere in the range of 45,000 to 60,000 personnel—to the LAC. 

Finally, at the institutional level, China has undertaken major reforms in order to make its military more efficient, more responsive to the ruling party, and better able to operate jointly across the three services. President Xi is centralizing political control of the military under the Central Military Commission (CMC), which is now divided into more departments than before, thus both distributing power below the president and creating nimbler and more specialized bureaucratic units. Vitally, unlike other provincial military commands, which now report directly to a department of the CMC tasked with defence mobilization, the Tibet and Xinjiang military commands report directly to the central army headquarters. 

All these factors taken together indicate that China is steadily increasing its material and institutional military capabilities and the LAC is high on its list of strategic priorities.

Another set of factors pertains to the politics of Sino-Indian competition in The episode was a stark demonstration to smaller countries in the region of the dangers of potentially getting caught in the crossfire of two major regional powers. To the extent that China’s actions in sought to loosen the political bonds between India and its neighbours, the outcome was to Beijing’s advantage. To appreciate this fact, one needs only to consider reactions in Nepal, where many elites blamed the standoff on India’s high-handed neighbourhood policies. For its part, Bhutan’s leadership might begin contemplating the territorial “package deal” Beijing has offered since the 1990s, whereby China would give up its claims to other disputed sectors along the Sino-Bhutanese border in exchange for the plateau and the start of trade relations with

The military, organisational, and political path for India is clear. New Delhi must continue developing its border infrastructure, reforming its defence sector, and pursuing more adroit neighbourhood As winter begins to settle on the plateau, India’s leadership must hunker down and begin planning in earnest for the long game in
Rohan Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

First Published: Wed, October 11 2017. 10:26 IST