The India-China standoff at the Northern tri-junction in Doklam (Donglang) area bordering Bhutan has brought divisions of the armies of the two countries face to face in one of the world’s highest-altitude theatres.
The standoff began when the Chinese started construction of a road up to Yadong town in the Chumbi Valley. The narrow stretch of land touches India and Bhutan where China has a very small strip of land in what is actually Tibet, not enough to build even a footpath. The Chinese attempt seems to be to take the entire land between India and Bhutan and become an entity in the border. The lower portion of the Chumbi Valley points south towards India touching the Chicken Neck, highly sensitive to India and Bhutan. Considering the narrow approach road, China has been claiming 269 sq kms in the border as belonging to them.
In 1996, China offered to swap this area with Bhutan for 495 sq kms of land in the Pasamlung and Jakarlung Valleys in the north-central area of Bumthang during one of the many border talks between Beijing and Thimpu. Bhutan refused to fall for the deal as the land in question was also legitimately claimed by Bhutan as their own land, forcibly taken over by China when they occupied Tibet.
In fact there is a history to the area and China’s desperation in getting a foothold in Doklam.
The frequent references to the infamous 1962 war by both sides and in the social media will serve very little purpose unless the strategic planners in New Delhi absorb the enormity of the situation, and also its relevance today. The 1962 war was thrust upon India as part of a larger Chinese strategy. China had started moving into the Aksai Chin area before 1961. There was still a large area which was unoccupied and Indian posts were sparsely present. According to reports prepared after the 1962 debacle, the Indian army reclaimed a big chunk of territory. Subsequently, the Chinese army’s withdrawal was a strategic move and soon, the retaliation took place that turned into a major conflict.
China has travelled a long way in history since 1962. Both India and China made serious efforts to mend fences and re-establish diplomatic and economic ties. Years later, by 1980, the two countries came much closer diplomatically and by 2008, China had become India’s largest trading partner.
Yet, trade, commerce and industry notwithstanding, Beijing is not just a political establishment. This is the first time since the reign of Chairman Mao that the political boss of China has assumed two more important posts. The present President Xi Jinping is also the chief of army and secretary general of the party, the highest in power, position, decision-making processes and execution.
Another important factor in China’s internal governance process and matters of external affairs is the close proximity of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to the day-to-day running of the country, which was earlier the exclusive prerogative of the Chinese Communist Party. This brings into focus the thinking, writings and also the relationship between the secretary general of the party and the PLA.
The PLA since 2008 has been seriously engaged in working out policy parameters for Beijing especially in areas of flashpoints, conflict and crisis management and non-conventional warfare such as cyber and physiological warfare. Interestingly, according to the PLA, strategic and political objectives must always be prioritized over military objectives in planning, executing and controlling conflicts.
Unlike accidental or inadvertent conflicts, China strongly believes in deliberate escalation where certain measures initiated by the state or non-state actors are intended to cause a geo-political and advantageous change through a crisis or conflict. This includes escalatory measures that political decision-makers believes are certain to reach the intended result, such as the occupation of Tibet, or the social and demographic change in Xinjiang where the Islamic separatists are waging a freedom struggle to free China-occupied Uyghuristan (now renamed as Xinjiang).
Strangely, the political establishment in Beijing appears to be endorsing the PLA’s view that in a conflict, it is necessary to seize the initiative, but it is also critical to preserve strategic and political stability and operational flexibility, in order to respond to an adversary’s actions without unnecessarily escalating the conflict.
Going by the huge volumes of strategic thinking with the secret confines of Beijing, it is important for New Delhi to study the present border standoff in detail. China is eager to settle the border dispute with Bhutan and also probably with other countries except India. India’s commitment to protect the security and strategic interests of Bhutan and centuries-old Buddhist connections are certainly major irritants for Beijing.
It will be in the best interest of India if New Delhi adopts a policy of wait-and-watch rather than enter into a jingoistic diatribe thereby aiding the “conflict escalation theory” of the PLA, which, according to China watchers, is itching for a showdown with the political establishment to retain its supremacy in the decision-making process. Needless to say, New Delhi should do everything in its command to strengthen the army at the border and be prepared to thwart attempts by Chinese army to usurp territory or create strategic disadvantage to India and Bhutan.
Bhutan cannot be allowed to become another Tibet.
This article was first published on NDTV.