Doklam faceoff: Motives, stakes and what lies ahead? - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 18 July 2017

Doklam faceoff: Motives, stakes and what lies ahead?

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 19th July 17

What motives underlie the month-long standoff between Indian Army troops and Chinese border guards in the Doklam bowl, on the Sino-Indian border in Sikkim? What is at stake there for India and China? How could this play out, and is there a real threat of war?

The confrontation began in mid-June, when the Chinese entered the Doklam bowl, a picturesque, 89 square kilometre series of meadows near the Nathu La border crossing between Sikkim and Tibet’s Chumbi Valley. Doklam is claimed by both China and Bhutan; while China, India and Bhutan do not agree where their borders meet. The Chinese and Bhutanese armies send occasional patrols to Doklam in summer, while graziers from both sides herd their yaks here – traditional ways of staking claim to Himalayan territory – but the patrols and graziers are only temporary visitors.

Last month, however, Chinese road construction crews, escorted by border guards, disturbed this delicate status quo by attempting to consolidate permanent “facts on the ground”. Barging into Doklam, they began extending a mud-surface road they had partly built more than a decade ago. This rough track would connect Doklam to Highway S-204, a blacktop Chinese road in the Chumbi Valley, theoretically allowing Chinese troops to drive directly from the Tibetan city of Shigatse, through Yadong, across the border into Doklam, and then south to China’s claimed border line at Gyemochen (which the Chinese call Mount Gipmochi). A Chinese road in this disputed territory would add weight to Beijing’s claim over it.

Since India does not claim the Doklam bowl, China’s entry placed the ball squarely in Bhutan’s court. But Thimphu had not objected forcefully when China had encroached into the Doklam bowl in 2003-07, and it was – understandably, given Bhutan’s power differential with China – reluctant to intervene now. Consequently, Indian troops in the vicinity, acting in accordance with New Delhi’s foreign policy coordination treaty with Thimphu, crossed on June 16 into Bhutanese-claimed territory and physically blocked the movement of Chinese border guards. India also positioned two bulldozers in the Doklam bowl to undo any road construction by the Chinese. Since then, several hundred Indian soldiers and as many Chinese border guards (since their army does not guard the border) have come face to face in Doklam in a testy stalemate.

Backing up their soldiers on the ground, foreign ministry spokespersons in Beijing, Thimphu and New Delhi have rationalised their positions. On June 26, Beijing invoked an 1890 agreement between China and Great Britain that specified Mount Gipmochi as the border junction. Three days later, Thimphu cited agreements in 1988 and 1989 not to disturb the status quo. The next day, New Delhi pointed out that Beijing had agreed in 2012 to finalise the border tri-junction consultatively and that “unilaterally determin[ing] tri-junction points is in violation of this understanding.”

Threat to the Siliguri corridor?

Indian commentators have claimed that New Delhi’s unusual resoluteness in this confrontation stems from a threat to the Siliguri corridor – a 23 kilometre-wide funnel of Indian territory that squeezes between Nepal and Bangladesh, giving India access to its seven north-eastern states. Siliguri is just 80 kilometres from the current border. It is argued that allowing China to shift the border to Mount Gipmochi would bring the threat even closer.

In fact, this danger is dramatically overblown. A Chinese advance to Siliguri would require the mobilisation of large numbers of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops from around Lhasa, and Mainland China. Dennis Blasko, a leading expert on the Chinese military, says the PLA’s on-going reorganisation aims to increase the “new-type combat forces”, which are capable of being used anywhere in China or its borders, but there are not enough of these forces in Tibet to break through India’s forward defences in Sikkim. Bringing in sufficient numbers and acclimatising them to Tibet’s high altitudes would take the PLA weeks, losing strategic surprise and allowing India to comfortably reinforce its defences in Sikkim.

If moving appropriate troops into the Chumbi Valley is a logistical challenge, shielding them from Indian artillery, air and ground attacks in that bottleneck would be even more difficult. Thereafter, the PLA would have to break through formidable Indian defences, attacking mainly uphill, and then advance southward to Siliguri across thickly forested hills, harried all the way by numerically superior Indian forces. Such an advance, carried out cross-country, would inevitably leave behind artillery and logistic support, rendering Chinese infantry spearheads sitting ducks for Indian forces. If, miraculously, the Chinese still reach Siliguri, they would be decimated in massed attacks from Indian reserves that could be built up steadily.

“Sikkim is where India attacks China, not the other way around”, say typically blunt planners in New Delhi. Lieutenant General SL Narasimhan (Retired), who has commanded a brigade and a division in Sikkim and now serves on India’s National Security Advisory Board has written that concerns about Siliguri are overblown.

The Bhutan factor

With Siliguri not a major concern, New Delhi’s purposefulness at Doklam stems, more likely, from the belief that Beijing is testing India’s commitment to Bhutan. China has always been galled by this close relationship, which has withstood sustained Chinese pressure to divide it. At Doklam, military pressure and Beijing’s unprecedented rhetoric have been reinforced by diatribes from Chinese and China-friendly media, alleging India’s colonial exploitation of Bhutan.

Neville Maxwell, as always in lockstep with Chinese propaganda, writes in the South China Morning Post: “The Indian attempt to depict this confrontation as tripartite should be disregarded. Bhutan is not an independent actor [but] rather an Indian glove-puppet.”

Maxwell makes the outrageous assertion that New Delhi keeps Thimphu in line by permanently stationing an army brigade group (3,500-5,000 troops) in Bhutan. Numerous Indian and international commentators too have incorrectly cited similar numbers. In fact, India’s military presence in Bhutan is restricted to 800 trainers for the Royal Bhutan Army, and about 100 soldiers with the Border Roads Organisation, which builds and maintains several Bhutanese roads, using civilian hired labour.

New Delhi understands that backing off would amount to throwing Bhutan under the Chinese bus, allowing Beijing to dictate a border settlement with Thimphu. On the other hand, Beijing understands that allowing India to intervene militarily on behalf of Bhutan would send an undesirable message to other regional states that China seeks to keep divided and mindful of its status as the next global superpower.

New Delhi remains firm about its support to Bhutan. Says former national security advisor, Shivshankar Menon, in a media interview: “[W]e have a certain relationship and certain obligations to Bhutan. In this case, China’s actions have disturbed the status quo, and that needs to be addressed.”

How much of a flashpoint?

The Doklam confrontation does not yet appear a flashpoint that could trigger open hostilities. No shots have been exchanged, in contrast to the 1967 gun battles at Nathu La and Cho La, just kilometres from Doklam, in which 88 Indian soldiers were killed and 163 wounded; and an estimated 340 Chinese soldiers died and 450 were wounded. Nor is this the longest or most tense face-off ever. That dubious distinction goes to the 1986-87 crisis on the Sumdorong Chu (rivulet) near Tawang, after China occupied the disputed Wangdung grazing ground and the Indian Army responded with a months-long build-up of tens of thousands of troops along the McMahon Line. Beijing quickly understood that New Delhi had abandoned its post-1962 defensive mind set and the crisis was resolved, leading on to the Peace and Tranquillity Agreement of 1993 and the Confidence Building Measures of 1996 that have kept the peace on the border ever since.

But this equilibrium has now been disturbed, and both sides have played roles in it. American sinologist, John Garver, writing in the South China Morning Post, says a rising and assertive China, looking to be the paramount power in Asia, wants to serve up a public lesson to India – which it sees as the weakest link in a chain of states, including the US, Japan and Australia, that are trying to contain China. Supporting this rationale for Beijing’s shrill aggression over Doklam, other commentators have pointed to China’s opposition to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, its blocking of a UN resolution to declare Pakistan-based Azhar Masood a global terrorist, New Delhi’s unapologetic backing of the Dalai Lama, including a government sponsored visit to Tawang, and the Indian government’s forthright rejection of China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative. In the Indian Ocean too New Delhi is lining up more visibly against China, with its navy cooperating and training regularly with the American and Japanese navies in exercises like the recently concluded “Exercise Malabar”.

While deteriorating Sino-Indian relations are a reality, there is insufficient recognition of the fact that border incidents are increasingly triggered by India’s increasing military strength and an increasingly assertive posture on the border. Over the last decade, India has strengthened its defences in Arunachal Pradesh by adding two divisions (35,000 – 40,000 troops), and is raising a mountain strike corps (60,000 troops) that can operate in Ladakh, Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh. Besides these, India has moved more than two brigades (7,000 – 10,000 troops) from Kashmir to Ladakh and strengthened defences further with the induction of tank and armoured infantry units. The little-known upshot is that India’s military posture has become significantly stronger than China’s on the 3,500-kilometre Line of Actual Control (LAC).

This is enhancing confrontation between the two sides. For decades, India maintained an insignificant military presence in Daulet Beg Oldi, in Ladakh, ceding the run of the place to China. But, when India’s thickening troop presence blocked Chinese patrols into the area, a prolonged confrontation ensued in 2013. One general involved in that standoff says: “The Chinese demanded to know why we were blocking them now, when they had been patrolling that area for years.”

A similar confrontation took place in Chumar, in Ladakh, in 2014. Now, in Doklam, Chinese anger stems from being blocked in 2017, after facing no resistance between 2003-2007, when they tested the waters by building the existing track. Furthermore, a more active media in both countries is bringing confrontations to public attention, forcing both governments into harder-line stances and depicting as surrender the give-and-take that must necessarily accompany the resolution of each incident.


  1. Objective write up.

  2. India must assert and demonstrate to China & rest of the world,that no more push overs are possible.its here to ensure it's territorial integrity.itd no more a weak state.this stand will also send strong signals to internal disturbance creators/ externally aided gps.this is the time to neutralise the hurriats,launch merciless offensive actions against the militants in JK,NE and look for systematic Destruction of the Red brigade in the heartland.No backing off from here.

  3. Thank you for this much informative article! I fail to see why TV media is not giving such information.

  4. Hans live 1500 miles away from LOC. Indians live along the LOC.Who has a greater stake & bigger locus standii. Hans or the Indians? Han is actuated by middle kingdom syndrome, India is actuated by preservation or oblivion syndrome. Ajay Shukla overlooked it.

  5. I dont see how India by increasing its military presence on the order is guilty of aggravating Indo-China hostility ("border incidents are increasingly triggered by India’s increasing military strength and an increasingly assertive posture"). If Indian forces patrolled or crossed over into Chinese territory or built roads there or nearby one could say that. Do you want India to continue to maintain "an insignificant military presence" and be surprised or caught napping by China? A fair analysis does not mean one should blame both parties even when only one is to blame mostly.

    1. Couldn't agree more with your observation. The author is parroting the defensive line followed by India thus far allowing chinese to grow in strength.

  6. The author seems to project a meek posture would have avoided this conflict. I disagree, the assertive posture need to continue and that alone brings respect.

    1. Chinese demonstrate and respect strength nothing else will do

  7. Dear Ajaishukla

    so the situation as it stands and as I understand

    --Dokhlam where Indian troops are is not Indian territory but controlled by Chinese
    --Bhutan has disputed the Chinese claim to this land ...but lot of countries dispute the borders...and a dispute is not a right
    --Ind has no right nor claim on that piece of land yet Ind crossed the LAC for two given reasons

    1) India's own perception of risk to herself because of Chinese constructions
    2) Possible call from Bhutan to enter into Chinese side of LAC because Bhutan disputes it.

    Now if this logic is extended....

    China can enter anytime into Indian territory anywhere along its 3500km border, on it's own perception of risk and stop Indian activities if any on Indian side of LAC

    China can enter India territory at any point on call of Pak claiming to have border dispute with India.

    and now we can see ...India has entered into a potentially self defeating & dangerous argument.

    India does understand this.....but the situation is stuck like a frog in snake's throat

    if India walks away now.....China will ensure to announce this as a defeat
    and opposition in India will pain this as a debacle second to only 1962 defeat. China also senses Modi turning everything into a prestige issue and is not letting any quite wriggle-room to India.

    If India stays on.....the argument for staying on is self-defeating and dangerous as explained above.

    1. By your logic Indias mountain strike corp can also enter Tibet if called upon by the Dalai Lama

    2. India has a teaty with Bhutan to protect Bhutan. So India is doing the right thing it is China who is not maintaing the status quo. Why does China want to build a road in a disputed territory.
      And when you are saying China can enter in Kashmir from Pakistan side than you should know it has already done that through CPEC. So by your own logic leave aside India in Bhutan why China came up with CPEC at ten first instance.
      So please act what you preach

  8. Chinese should know that this is India of 2017.They should also know that they were given a bloody nose by Vietnam in 1979.After 1962,PLA hasn't won any war. India has won three.

  9. The fact is that China kept testing us over the years and those tests are not the benchmark contrary to what the chinese have set for India. India has changed and in the last few years more change has come which the chinese fail to factor in. It's good for us. We should start more agressive builtup of infra and weapons. more importantly our intelligence network needs to grow wings in the east. We should assign 5% gdp to defence and cut down on wasteful aids that drive people away from work anyhow. the world knows how china is greedy for land grabs. we should also boost our blue waters and take the stress to south china sea. time to come out of the shell, bigger things are at stake as India grows.

  10. Pls have a look at this article...

  11. China will not attack in this area but an area where we are weak

  12. Gp Capt Hari Nair (Ret'd)19 July 2017 at 06:59

    I am surprised that you consider Chinese military presence on Doka-La - Gymochen posing only a negligible threat to the Chicken's neck portion. That especially considering your background.!!

    Your depiction of the threat as far away from the Chicken's Neck is incorrect - Also, in your earlier blog you stated "In fact, advancing to the Siliguri corridor would require Chinese troops to break through strong Indian defences in Sikkim and advance southwards more than a hundred kilometres through difficult jungle terrain – a tough military task."

    You seem to have got the distances wrong!! Aerial distance to the Indian plains is less than 40 km from the claimed high ground. Also, there already are tracks from the high grounds to the plains that could be expanded - definitely not "a hundred kilometres through difficult jungle terrain – a tough military task".

    The entire stretch of the narrow Indian land corridor south of Bhutan eastwards up to Alipurduar is vulnerable given the single axis of communication - the solitary railway line and highway.

    Give away the high ground at Doka La - Gymochen to China and that will become their new datum for further 'cartographic creep-aggression' and their further push southwards. You know that as well I do and yet you chose to ignore this seminal point. Also, the plains of Bengal will come within their long-range artillery from the high grounds.

    All that argument about exploiting Chinese vulnerabilities due to the narrow corridor of the Chumbi valley, etc is a reactive option, in the event of hostilities, definitely not an excuse to sit passively navel-gazing as they build their Class 5 road beyond Doka La. Given their known record in the South China Sea and elsewhere, it is a certain fact that the Chinese will continue their push outwards unless given firm resistance. So why give them a free run to Doka La and the high ground of advantage in the first place?

  13. China has a habit of playing with facts on grounds and the slowly inch by inch occupy land or sea.
    It is good to see an assertive government .
    Time we put in mechanisms to ensure our market is not automatically accessible.

  14. Thanks for your valuable messages cool sab

  15. Are you planning to write a blog on how over the years China has built road and rail infrastructure lock-in-step with it's territorial and economic aspiration? How India's infrastructure is advantage/disadvantage to quick and easy movement of troops and artillery to Himalayan border?
    Also, in regards to Siliguri corridor, isn't air power a factor?

    Looking fwd to learn more through your blogs.

  16. A balanced write up. China can not risk a loss of face in any confrontation which can put to rest its global aspiration. Bullies usually only push the timid around.

  17. China too have fire power. Your writting about PLA can suffer huge loss if enter Siliguri is grossly misplaced.

  18. Well traversed.

    What this article fails to dwell on are the macro developments. The growing aversion to Chinese hegemony and India's own confidence that has been bolstered by the cheering it is receiving to hold China off. It also does not dwell on China's own vulnerability arising from such public opinion in the light of its Economic-Infrastructure (OBOR-CPEC etc) ambitions and India's suspicions arising from China's military conquest of Tibet and occupation of large parts of India such as, for example, Gilgit-Baltistan.

  19. So what do you have to say about:

    # Border dispute near Lipuleakh at India- china - Nepal border which has been lefy undemarcated.
    # Dispute near karakoram which forced Indians to occupy Siachin as one of the resons.
    # Unknown India -POK - China trijuction due to China usurping Indian territory.
    # Border disput on Estern side of India - Bhutan -China boder near Dhola.
    # Undemarcated and disputed India - Myanmar - China trijuction.

    China entered into agreement with their border with Myanmar and Nepal but not with Bhutan despite it being an independent country.Border with Sikkim was but a historical baggage and even there china tried to finger India. A country which actively fought wars for its allies - Korea, Vietnam and Camodia and interfered in the internal and exteranal affairs of all the countries in South and Southeast Asia has problems with India standing for Bhutan ? and some psuedo analysts like you put that as unreasonable Indian action !!

    And you are trying all your best to justfy Chinese actions. That is the worth of your so called wise military analysis.If Indian border takes 1000 years to be settled so be it as that is better than surrendering our nationhood - Hindu Nationalism as Chinese are calling it now along with commies, congies, mamta and jehadies of all shades.

  20. Very good article but some of the facts are selective. India resisting Chinese encroachment in Ladakh in 2013 and the Chinese demanding why "they did not do so earlier" only shows the general comparative strength of along MOST of the border. However, there are other larger issues as to "Why Now" in terms of the Chinese provocation: 1. As the author pointed out, walking away from Bhutan would essentially cede influence over the entire country to China. This was a mistake made with Tibet that India should not repeat. 2. More importantly, Modi is a largely stable leader in India while Xi Jinping is in the last six months of his first term. The Chinese National Congress is barely four months away, in November 2017. At the Congress, Xi can either be hailed as a national hero if he wins or be pushed out if he loses. The stakes are far higher than a brushfire war: the very long-term viability of China and India's status throughout Asia and the world are at stake. No other major countries will intervene at this time. It is all up to the two antagonists to determine if they choose fight, flight or some common ground which is looking harder and harder to find at this time.

  21. About time the Chinese learnt the facts of life. They cannot push India around any more. The Doklam incident is a litmus test of whether India can stand up to its commitments to allies and friends!

  22. If this war turns hot, India will wish they had sought alliance with America now, while they can get it.

  23. Interesting commentary. Point taken that the incursions of the Chinese, whether it's here or in the South/East China seas is being met with more and more fierce resistance each time.

    Just today the US has apparently signaled that there will be frequent and ongoing patrols within the 12 mile limit of China's claimed features in the SCS.

    I think here too, India acting decisively is what will stop China.

  24. The Doklam standoff, is yet another example of tactics of, first creating a dispute based on falsification of facts, and then ensuring that it remains a complicated issue to be raked as and when it feels opportune to leverage these in tandem with its military, economic and diplomatic might. The issue may be kept in limbo, to be brought into limelight in a very well-orchestrated mix of – sudden incursion of its troops (while maintaining that the same is in retaliation to opposing party’s actions/claims), shrill propaganda (depicting itself as the victim) bordering on unveiled threats and then engaging in a vicious blame game. All this may carry on till the immediate objectives (which may be either or combination of political and economic reasons or just to maintain its hegemonic threat intact). In the present case, the aims, obviously seem to be two-fold, one, inch closer in designs @ Bhutan, and two, to occupy area of strategic importance in a future conflict @ India. Having played out acts one and two of the script (i.e incursion of its troops in the territory of a Sovereign Independent Nation and claiming it to be its territory) they have embarked on a high-pitched rhetoric in conjunction with sabre rattling and bullying.
    These tactics have been employed elsewhere (in border conflicts with its neighbors at various points of time of its choosing to in pursuance of objectives and interests obtaining at that point of time) by the Chinese albeit with mixed outcomes. India’s resolve to counter Chinese hegemony by boycotting Chinese initiative a la OBOR and various other actions as brought out by Ajai Shukla, do have a very direct bearing on the current faceoff at Doklam. It is very clear that an issue which had been kept under the carpet, has suddenly been deliberately pulled out of the proverbial hat.
    As far as the threat to Siliguri Corridor is concerned, it is undeniable fact that Chinese presence at Doklam will certainly give the Chinese a psychological edge if not an out and out strategic one. It will also undermine India’s equation in India, Bhutan,China Triology.
    To brush off India’s genuine concerns and making light off a looming threat to sovereignty of its aly Bhutan (albeit over a period of time in event by event destruction of status quo) would be naïve.

  25. Hello,
    I salute my indian army. Only because of them I can sleep without any tension, my parents live happily. But what we do for them, nothing. I have ignored and stop buying chinese product, because it will increase business performance and then they fund our money to terrorist in pakistan. Indirectly we are giving money to terrorist to kill ous. So i beg you all to stop buying chinese product.

  26. Your thoughts on 'vulnerability' of Siliguri corridor identical with mine. Baffled media doesn't see this.

  27. China on Friday defended Pakistan's counter-terrorism efforts, following President Donald Trump's accusation that Islamabad harbours militants attacking US and Afghan troops.


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