“Yatung was a small spread out town… we were received by representatives of the Chinese General in Command at Lhasa, and of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama.” Thus wrote Jawaharlal Nehru to the Chief Ministers of India on October 15, 1958, describing his stay at Yatung for two days in September-October 1958, during his to and fro journey to Bhutan through the heart of the Chumbi Valley. Today it seems like a fairytale, but for 50 years up to 1954, we had an Indian Army Infantry Battalion located at Yatung with a detachment at Gyantse. These were gradually withdrawn after the Panchsheel Agreement was signed on 27 April, 1954. We continued to have our Consul General in Lhasa and Indian Trade Agency trading posts at Yatung, Gyantse and Gartok upto 1962 when they were wound up.
Chumbi Valley has been in the news for a couple of weeks owing to reports about the Chinese intrusion into the Doklam (Donglang according to China) Plateau. There has been some confusion created about the place of intrusion with names like “trijunction”, “Doka La”, “Sikkim Border”, “Donglang”, “Mount Gipmochi (Gyemo Chen)” and “Doklam” used by the angry People’s Republic of China (PRC) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) spokespersons, and our media.
Where is Doklam Plateau?
Doklam Plateau is an 80-89 square km plateau with average altitude of 4,000-4,500 meters, located in Western Bhutan. It is a salient of Bhutanese territory that juts north into the Chumbi Valley with India (Sikkim) to the north-west, west and south-west and Tibet to the north, east and south-east. The trijunction of India, Bhutan and Tibet is on the north-western edge of the Doklam Plateau where the Batang La post of India is located and north-west of which along the crest line are the Indian defences of Sikkim.
What is the military significance of the Chumbi Valley and the Doklam Plateau?
Salients on borders whether towards own or enemy’s territory have military pros and cons. Chumbi Valley is a 100-km dagger-shaped north- south salient that lies between India (Sikkim) to the north-west, west and south-west, and Bhutan to the north-east, east and south. Some 100 km south of the dagger point is Bangladesh and, in between, lie 70 km of rugged mountainous terrain of India/Bhutan and the Siliguri Corridor, which at its narrowest point is only 30-km wide and has a number of rivers running in north-south direction. On the face of it, at the strategic level, it gives the PLA a launch pad to choke India’s vital lines of communications running through the Siliguri Corridor to the North East. But this will require a major offensive by five to six divisions as part of an all-out war, with holding forces to contain the north western, western and eastern flanks. Given the existing road communication, limited deployment space as the Chumbi Valley at Yatung is only 25-30 km wide as the crow flies, vulnerability to air power and Indian counter-offensive from the flanks, this hypothetical threat is a non-starter.
In fact, the Chumbi Valley is more vulnerable to an Indian offensive or counter-offensive from the north-west and west from Sikkim and ‘by your leave’ complementary offensive via Bhutan from the east. Again this can only happen in a major war, the probability of which is very low. Nations armed with nuclear weapons do not generally risk an all-out conventional war, though probability of border skirmishes or a limited war cannot be ruled out.
The Doklam Plateau gives the PLA the advantage of outflanking from the south west, the defences of Sikkim, where we have a major terrain advantage vis the Chumbi Valley. The implications are strategic. We not only lose our major advantage of a strategic offensive / counter offensive from Sikkim but also give the PLA a launch pad for an offensive through the Rangpo River valley towards Kalimpong without violating the neutrality of Bhutan. The probability of war may be low, but the bottom line is that India cannot afford to surrender its strategic advantage and create a vulnerability by allowing the PLA to take possession of the Doklam Plateau. It is pertinent to mention that all the disputed areas that the Chinese claim along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) are related to strategic or tactical advantages in event of a war.
What is the dispute in the Doklam Plateau?
Map released by the Chinese spokesperson*
*Map released by the Chinese spokesperson showing the disputed area as per its perception of the 1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention. The Trijunction is marked at Gyemo Chen (Mount Kipmochi). The dotted line on the map running through Sinche La shows the Indian and Bhutanese perception of the Trijunction and the boundary.
The LAC only defines the approximate border which has emerged out of the frontier regions over the last 100 years. Same is the situation on the Bhutan border. There is no mutually accepted International Boundary. Even in respect of the de facto borders, there is no delineation agreement, which China has signed with India or Bhutan. Ancient feudal and colonial treaties or agreements are cited to press rival claims. There is no de jure sanctity of the border. Empirically, it is the de facto position, which reigns supreme with respect to borders. And the de facto position is signified by physical possession and presence. The problem with the borders with Tibet is that the rival claimants have not physically secured all their claimed areas. Hence, jostling for positions of advantage as part of the continuous competitive conflict is a constant feature which may take place by design or at times by default.
The de facto position is that India holds the posts of Batang La and Doka La to the north-west of Doklam Plateau as part of its defences in Sikkim. India and Bhutan consider that the trijunction is located at Batang La. The Doklam Plateau is in the possession of Bhutan but it secures its possession with only one post at Zompleri, which is occupied only in summers. China claims the entire plateau and as per its version the Trijunction is at Mount Gipmochi (Gyemo Chen) which is 7-8 km to the south-east of the de facto present position. Since the Doklam Plateau is largely not physically held by the Bhutan Army, the PLA has been patrolling this area at will. India also patrols this area with a mutual understanding with the Bhutan Army to safeguard its vulnerable eastern flank. Indian and PLA patrols have confronted each other in this area in the past and matters were resolved by agreeing to disagree to maintain status quo for peace.
China bases its claims on the Anglo-Chinese Convention 1890 as per which the Sikkim-Tibet border was agreed upon. Ironically, Sikkim and Bhutan were neither invited to nor are signatories to the convention. This convention did not prevent China from starting confrontation at Nathu La in 1967. Moreover, China’s approach to various colonial treaties/conventions has been selective on one pretext or the other. China has officially acknowledged the various areas of dispute including the Doklam Plateau with Bhutan and 24 rounds of negotiations have been held. It has formally been agreed to by China and India, in 2012, that the Trijunction points between India, China and third countries will be finalised in consultation with the concerned countries. In 1988 and 1998, China and Bhutan have also formally agreed to maintain status quo with respect to the disputed areas pending final settlement. Notwithstanding the patrolling by both sides, this status quo has not been disturbed until June 2017.
Bhutan, being a small nation, has a special relationship with India based on formal treaties renewed over the 100 years. As per the 2007 treaty, India and Bhutan have agreed to cooperate with each other on issues relating to their “national interests” and not allow the use of their territory for activities harmful to national security and interest of the other. Shorn of diplomatic ambiguity, it implies that Bhutan will be guided by India with respect to its foreign and defence policy. De facto, India is responsible for the defence of Bhutan, but except for the Indian Military Training Team no Indian troops are permanently stationed in Bhutan. However, troops of both countries do carry out joint training on as required basis. On the borders, there is intimate cooperation between the Royal Bhutan Army and the Indian Army particularly in disputed areas like the Doklam Plateau. Bhutan, being a small country, was keen to settle the disputes on its western boundaries in favour of China in exchange of a favourable settlement for two northern areas of dispute. However, keeping in view India’s sensitivities it refrained from doing so particularly with respect to the two disputed areas of Doklam Plateau and Sinchulumpa-Giu-Darmana south and east respectively of the Chumbi Valley.
The present standoff
On June 16, China began construction of a road from Sinche La towards the Bhutan Army post of Zompleri. Indian troops from Doka La confronted the PLA troops in conjunction with the troops of the Bhutan Army. No fire arms were used, but, human chains were formed by both sides and “jostling” (pushing and shoving) which has become a common feature in such confrontations have continued on and of since then. Both sides seem to have reinforced the present positions with additional troops and the standoff continues.
While such ‘standoffs’ have taken place for prolonged periods in the Depsang Plains in 2013 and Chumar in 2014, the emphasis still was on diplomacy and having made the ‘political statement’, the PLA reverted to status quo. However, this time the official statements and Chinese media have been unusually belligerent giving short shrift to diplomatic niceties. Words and phrases like “do not forget 1962”, “PLA will teach India a lesson”, “no talks until Indian troops withdraw”, “option of war is open” and “either Indian troops return to their territory with dignity or will be kicked out of the area by the PLA”, have been freely used. India and Bhutan in typical diplomatic language have urged China to maintain status quo ante pre June 2017 and respect the interim agreements with respect to Trijunction points reached with India in 2012 and the 1988, and 1998 agreements with Bhutan to maintain the status quo pending final settlement.
What are the reasons for this unusually belligerent stance of the Chinese? Are we heading towards border skirmishes or even a more serious confrontation?
The Doklam incident as also other border incidents in the past have nothing to do with the territorial disputes per se. Nations with credible conventional and nuclear deterrent, do not part with territory under their control whatever be the nature of the dispute. China is well aware of this, but selectively starts such confrontations to make ‘political statements’ and keep India on the edge. Such incidents always take place to coincide with major diplomatic events or as a response to perceived Indian actions that are contrary to Chinese world or regional view.
India is the only country in the region that has not accepted Chinese political hegemony. China views India as a competitor that challenges its preeminent position. Indo-USA strategic cooperation is seen as a threat. India is seen as the principal instigator of the Tibetan struggle for freedom. The presence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile at Dharamsala only reinforces the Chinese belief. The recent visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang annoyed the Chinese no end. India, along with Bhutan, is the only country that has not become part of the much-touted One Belt, One Road. Prime Minister Modi was scheduled to meet President Donald Trump in the third week of June.
China decided to embarrass India in the Doklam area by trying to alter the status quo. It aimed at driving a wedge between India and Bhutan and thus chose to show its presence in Bhutanese territory, to which India also is very sensitive. China’s strategy is to make India lose face by forcing it to withdraw and thus wean Bhutan to its own sphere of influence. Anything short of mutual withdrawal will leave China in de facto control of the Doklam Plateau outflanking and compromising the Indian defences in Sikkim.
What should be the Indian strategy?
This is a critical moment in Sino-Indian relationship. Any sign of weakness will have repercussions on the entire boundary question. Today, it is Doklam and tomorrow, it will be somewhere else. Acceptance of Chinese position in Doklam will lead to unacceptable ‘loss of face’ domestically and internationally.
China understands only one language and that is the language of strength. Our own experience of the 1967 confrontation in Sikkim and the Sumdrong Chu incident in 1986-87 proves this point. India must not back down unless it is mutual withdrawal to restore status quo ante pre-June 2017 and respect for past interim agreements to maintain status quo with respect to Trijunction points. In Doklam, we are in a position of advantage and from Batang La can cut off the PLA intrusion at Sinche La. We can build up much faster than China for any serious military confrontation. Depending upon the situation, if need be, we must mobilise to call China’s bluff and be prepared for border skirmishes or even a limited war. The tenor of the Chinese statements and our measured and nuanced response itself reflects that we have the psychological advantage.
There is no gain in saying that we must engage with China to settle the matter diplomatically and a direct military confrontation is the last resort. This is a defining moment, as giving in to Chinese bullying at this juncture will have serious repercussions for our rightful place in the comity of nations and our status as an emerging power.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @rwac48.