China sees itself as Chung-Kuo – the Middle Kingdom, the centre of the universe and the world’s oldest culture and society. Even when it was at its weakest in the 19th century, it never lost sight of this utopian ideal. To the south of Tibet, across the Himalayas rests another great civilisation – India – whose dormant great power ambitions have been given an impetus by the present government. A ‘clash of civilisations’ was inevitable. At stake is the balance of power in South Asia. This, in my view, is the cause of the renewed friction on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and once again proves the principle that nations, in general, and neighbouring nations, in particular, remain in a state of perpetual competitive conflict primarily to assert political and economic hegemony.
India is the only country in the region that does not accept the political, economic and military hegemony of China. India directly threatens two Chinese vulnerabilities – Tibet and the strategic sea lanes of communications (SLOC) through the Indian Ocean. China perceives India as the principal instigator of the Tibetan struggle for freedom. The Tibetan government in exile functions from Dharamsala and the Dalai Lama remains the driving force for Tibetan dissent. Not only does the rapidly increasing qualitative and quantitative improvement of the Indian Navy threaten the SLOC, India’s opposition to the alternate – ‘one belt one road’ initiative through Pakistan and Myanmar – adds insult to injury. India’s strategic partnership with the USA and its expanding diplomatic/military relationship with Japan, Australia and Vietnam are also perceived as a direct threat.
The Doklam incident, as also other border incidents in the past, has nothing to do with the territorial disputes per se. Nations with credible conventional and nuclear deterrent, cannot be forced to part with territory under their control or forced to allow a tactical vulnerability to be created through a neutral territory, 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.
The Doklam crisis was notable for the neutral venue, extremely belligerent Chinese stand, India’s firm diplomatic and military response, and being anticlimactically defused though not resolved with both sides claiming victory. A host of issues have come to the fore and deserve a detailed analysis.
The Chinese politico military aims
The last two major Chinese intrusions preceding Doklam had taken place in 2013 at Depsang and in 2014 at Chumur. In Sub Sector North, where Depsang is located, India had built two new roads and the Daulet Beg Oldi airfield had been reactivated. This gave India a new launchpad for operations into Aksai Chin, the other being via Kongka La. In Chumur, India had built a road and deployed troops to deny a launch pad to China. Thus, both places had strategic/tactical significance from the military point of view. Both incidents were also linked to the high profile visits of Premier Li Keqiang in 2013 and President Xi Jinping in 2014. One view is that China was conveying a political point to highlight its superiority while simultaneously engaging in diplomacy. The other less accepted view is that it was the rogue People’s Liberation Army (PLA) trying to embarrass the communist hierarchy and led to President Xi to take measures to assert the supremacy of the Communist Party of China.
Apart from the ongoing competitive conflict, the immediate political reasons for Doklam could be India’s and Bhutan’s opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative ( BRI ); the Dalai Lama’s high profile visit to Arunachal Pradesh; driving a wedge in Indo-Bhutan relations to test India’s resolve to defend its ally; forcing Bhutan to trade off the two western areas of dispute ie Doklam and Sinchulumpa-Giu-Darmana, 20 km to the north of Doklam, with the two northern areas of dispute ie Pasamlung and Jakarlung; and to secure the strategic area of Doklam to compromise Indian defences in Sikkim and threaten the Siliguri corridor.
Militarily, the selection of Doklam was double-edged. I had discussed in detail the strategic and tactical military significance of the Chumbi Valley and Doklam in my earlier column. In both these areas, the Indian Army has overwhelming strategic and tactical advantage.
If the Chumbi Valley/Doklam Plateau imposed severe terrain disadvantages on the PLA, then why select this area for precipitating a crisis? The possible explanation is that as per the Chinese assessment since the dispute was between Bhutan and China, India was unlikely to get involved. The Chinese were attempting to exploit the Bhutanese sentiments wherein they had been keen to exchange the western areas of dispute with the northern areas of dispute. However, keeping in view the strategic interests of India, they did not do so. Hence, it was a risk worth taking. China alleges that India was informed about the proposed road building (neither confirmed nor denied by India). Lack of Indian response may have lulled China into complacency.
Some analysts have once again suggested that Doklam too was a rogue action by the PLA. To the contrary, the belligerence of the Chinese foreign and defence ministries, and the state-controlled media seems to suggest that the government and the PLA were on the same page. However, the fact that no sooner Xi fired the Chief of Joint Staff Department, General Fang Fenghui, then a deal with India was clinched. This suggested that the top most General was resisting ending the standoff.
It has also been suggested that Doklam was probably a low-end tactical action aimed at strengthening the border infrastructure that got precipitated into a bigger conflagration. I do not buy this argument as had it been so, then the matter would have been settled very early based on border management agreements.
The Doklam incident had all the four ingredients of now time-tested Chinese strategy for competitive conflict and border disputes. Firstly, develop a larger or more permanent physical presence in disputed areas using its military power where necessary. Secondly, resort to coercive diplomacy complete with military threats and actions to persuade the relatively weaker target state to acquiesce and putting the onus on it to risk confrontation. Compel the weaker state to negotiate, using its advantageous position to secure favourable settlement. Thirdly, using legal rhetoric and principles to present its position as legitimate and lawful, thereby staking a claim to a broader legitimising principle in territorial disputes. Fourthly, resort to information warfare through its government organs and to highlight its narrative and issue threats. This is replete with nuances about adversaries underestimating the Chinese resolve to protect its sovereignty just because it has exercised restraint so far.
The Indian politico military aims
Given the experience of embarrassing standoffs over the years, the Indian government came to the conclusion that the Chinese bluff had to be called. At Chumur in 2014, the Indian response was militarily and diplomatically aggressive forcing status quo ante. The government had decided that in future border incidents triggered by China, must be confronted diplomatically and militarily even at the risk of escalation to a possible use of force. This is exactly what India did. India’s credibility as an emerging power was at stake, the world was watching and so were India’s neighbours. India had to stand by its ally, Bhutan, and protect its strategic and tactical interests in Doklam and the Sikkim sector.
This was a critical moment in Sino-Indian relationship. Any sign of weakness would have had serious repercussions for the entire border question. Today, it was Doklam and tomorrow, it would be somewhere else. Acceptance of Chinese position in Doklam would have led 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 had proved this point. India decided to not back down unless it was a mutual withdrawal to restore status quo ante pre-June 2017 and upholding of the 2012 agreement with respect to Trijunction points, and the Sino-Bhutanese agreements of 1988 and 1998, to maintain status quo with respect to border disputes pending a final settlement.
India and Bhutan let China and the world know their legitimate stand based on past agreements. India continuously engaged the Chinese diplomatically. Prime Minister Modi met President Xi met on the sidelines of the Hamburg G20 summit. NSA, Ajit Doval, met his counterpart and President Xi during the preparatory conference for the BRICS summit. Diplomats in Delhi and Beijing were in constant dialogue. Simultaneously, India militarily positioned its forces for a possible confrontation. India maintained a cool and calculating front which was in sharp contrast to the crude and belligerent stance of China. A difference the world noted.
Chinese military strategy
Actual details of military movements and precautions are not in public domain. However, a reasonable assessment can be made based on available information. Despite its belligerent stand, China did not carry out any large-scale mobilisation. There were some indications of an increase in troop strength at Yatung and Phari Dzong in the Chumbi Valley. Military demonstrations by the Rapid Action Forces were carried out in the hinterland.
Did it mean that Chinese military threat was not credible?
In my view given the past experience, China assessed that India was a status quo power and will not initiate any military action beyond what was happening locally in Doklam. Hence, in case its coercive diplomatic and military strategy failed to force a favourable outcome, it did have a Plan B for use of force. The PLA had adopted and adapted to the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) for the last three decades particularly in the field of Cyber Warfare and Precision Guided Munition (PGM) technology. It is now only second to the USA in high-end military technology. There is a marked asymmetry between China and India with respect to these capabilities and overall military capability. This asymmetry is growing at a rapid rate. The Chinese decided not to get involved in “close infantry combat” over unfavourable terrain. It is likely that its strategy was based on technological warfare with overwhelming use of PGMs and Cyber Warfare. It would have restricted its initial offensive to the Indian troops in the Doklam Plateau and the Sikkim Sector but would have been prepared for escalation to other sectors.
Such an attack would have been carried out in winter when conventional ground operations get severely restricted. However, the PLA probably carried out minimal mobilisation to cater for the unlikely tactical offensive by India in the winter. A large scale PGM attack would have been launched on our troops at Doklam and Doka La using cruise missiles and artillery after pulling out its own troops to safety. Simultaneously, a massive cyber attack would also have been launched to neutralise our command and control systems and our fire power means. The strike would have been declaratory with the limited aim of evicting us from Doklam. Depending upon our strategic and operational response, the PLA would have escalated with similar attacks on more defensive positions in Sikkim and other sectors. Given its rapid mobilisation capabilities due to excellent infrastructure, it would have catered for a possible Indian counter offensive next summer.
Indian Military Strategy
How did India respond? Noting that the PLA had not mobilised, it is likely that India correctly assessed its intentions. A high technology attack as given above is defeated by hardened defences, deception, dispersion, kinetic /electronic shield, similar counter-strikes and, above all, by preempting the enemy with an offensive.
While I am not privy to the actual military plans, it is my assessment that despite the limitations of the prevailing asymmetry, we adopted an operational strategy encompassing all or most of these aspects. The armed forces were mobilised under the deception cover of annual “operation alert” and offensive formations were postured to pre-emptively threaten Sinche La (the PLA entry point into the Doklam Plateau) at the tactical level and threaten Yatung and Phari Dzong in the Chumbi Valley from the west and the east at the strategic level. A similar operational strategy was put in place for Ladakh to preemptively threaten to seize the Kailash Range and areas across the Pangong Tso. At the lower level since our formations were deployed, the plan was simple – all along the front capture the next ridge line! The IAF and the IN were on high alert and prepared for a limited war. Our conventional cruise missiles and other strategic assets were moved to battle locations. At the strategic level, diplomatically and militarily India acted like a mature emerging power and did a classic Sun Tzu, who said, that the acme of skill is to win without fighting!
Has the crisis been resolved?
The standoff came to an anticlimactic end on August 28. Diplomacy prevailed. Prime Minister Modi met President Xi after the BRICS summit. Both agreed to put Doklam behind and move forward.
Ambiguity remains with respect to the actual agreement reached between India and China with respect to Doklam. The statements emanating from Delhi and Beijing are shrouded in diplomatic language allowing both sides to claim victory. Indian statements focused on “simultaneous disengagement”. The Chinese spoke of Indian troops “withdrawing first” and their troops having made “adjustments”. The Chinese emphasised they would continue to “maintain their sovereignty” over the area and in doing so carry out necessary military activities.
My take is that the crisis has been defused but not resolved. The troops of both sides have disengaged from eyeball contact and moved back some distance but still remain in the area. Situation still remains tense. Indian formations are still deployed for “operational alert”. In case, the situation precipitates in any manner both sides can still exercise the options given by me.
Two points must be made. Firstly, the PLA is unlikely to resume road construction. This was the reason for India’s intervention. Secondly, since complete withdrawal has not taken place, the PLA may resort to a permanent presence in the area. The onset of winter will settle the issue. If the PLA does not create permanent infrastructure and withdraws its troops, then status quo ante pre-June 16 would be restored. If it does not, then Doklam will remain an area for future confrontations.
China may or may not have lost face, but India has gained in international stature. Doklam will be the new normal in LAC intrusions/confrontations. The border management and demarcation talks will be more meaningful and may lead to LAC demarcation.
I hope India seizes the Doklam opportunity to initiate comprehensive reforms with respect to national security, armed forces and border infrastructure to bridge the rapidly increasing asymmetry in military capability.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @rwac48.