Stand-off at Doklam: Symptom of a Larger Malady

For almost one month now, border guards of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been locked in a stand-off with troops of the Indian Army and those from the Royal Bhutan Army at Doklam, a small plateau near the India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction at the southern tip of the Chumbi Valley.

In blatant violation of their agreement that neither side will attempt to alter the status quo while negotiations were being conducted to resolve the boundary dispute, Chinese soldiers were engaged in building a road on the Doklam plateau on the territory that had been under the Bhutanese control for long. On being requested by the G.government of Bhutan, Indian troops intervened on its behalf to stop further construction activity.

The PLA is clearly seeking to gain operational advantage by grabbing a sensitive piece of land that would facilitate the launching of future operations to cut off the narrow Siliguri corridor that links mainland India with Bhutan and India’s seven north-eastern states. The transgression of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Doklam is the longest since the signing of various border management agreements starting with the first one in 1993.

The border management agreements include the Agreement on Maintaining Peace and Tranquillity Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, September 7, 1993; the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, November 29, 1996; the Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question, April 11, 2005; the Protocol on Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in India-China Border Areas, April 11, 2005; and, the Agreement on Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, January 17, 2012.

In order to remove the anomalies and impracticalities of these agreements, India and China signed the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), in October 2013. The BDCA commits the two sides to “periodic meetings” of military and civilian officers and to exchange information – including information about military exercises, aircraft movements, demolition operations and unmarked mines.

It emphasises the avoidance of border patrols “tailing” each other and recommends that the two sides “may consider” establishing a hotline between military headquarters in both countries. Apparently, the PLA opted to ignore all of these provisions and acted in a surreptitious manner.

Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran has written: “China has been resorting increasingly to unilateral actions to alter the status quo… The Chinese side maintains that in the "Convention Between Great Britain and China relating to Sikkim and Tibet", the southern-most point identified as the peak of Gipmochi, is located on the Bhutan frontier but further south.

“On this basis, China has laid a claim to Doklam, but this has been contested by the Bhutanese side… Although both China and India accept the alignment of the Sikkim-Tibet boundary as laid down in the Convention… they have agreed that as far as the tri-junction is concerned, this can only be settled in consultation with Bhutan.

“The current impasse has arisen because the Chinese side… attempting to build a defence class road through the area… This will significantly elevate the potential security threat to the Siliguri corridor which is a vital transport artery for both India and Bhutan. China should have shown greater sensitivity in this matter.”

He then goes on to recommend a way out: “The Chinese side has demanded that the issue should be resolved by India withdrawing its security personnel from the Doklam area. In fact, the issue can be defused by both sides agreeing to restore the status quo and mutually disengaging their forces. This is how earlier such incidents were resolved satisfactorily.” However, Luo Zhaohui, China’s ambassador in Delhi, has categorically ruled out any compromise. China is seeking an “unconditional Indian withdrawal as a precondition for meaningful dialogue.”

Military assertiveness

According to news reports, the stand-off was triggered at least in part to “force an unwilling India to accept its (China’s) Belt and Road Initiative”, and that the intrusion was deliberately publicised by the Chinese when the Indian prime minister was on a visit to the US. While the authenticity of these statements will remain in the realm of speculation, China’s growing military assertiveness and belligerence in the Indo-Pacific region are unmistakable.

Underlying most transgressions and patrol face-offs is the fact that the LAC has not been demarcated. This leads to varying perceptions about where it runs. Major Chinese incursions across the LAC are endemic and tensions continue to persist.

The well-known transgression by the PLA at Depsang near Daulat Beg Oldie in May 2013 could have led to an armed clash if the PLA had not backtracked. When President Xi Jinping was meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the bank of the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad in September 2014, Chinese and Indian troops were lock­ed in a tense stand-off at Chumar in Ladakh.

Former army chief Gen V P Malik wrote last month: “In the coming days, we can expect more of coercive diplomacy and bullying tactics from China. More incidents along the LAC, even border skirmishes, can’t be ruled out. China may also encourage Pakistan to create new diplomatic and secu­rity pressure points over India. India will require greater political ingenuity, determination and more effective military response capability to safeguard its national interests.”

India must hold firm at Doklam, but war, even a short, sharp, border conflict, is not in India’s interest. India’s interests lie in seeking the immediate demarcation of the LAC, followed by the early resolution of the territorial dispute. It is towards these ends that the Government of India must steer the course of future meetings with China’s political and military interlocutors.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)