Doklam went into slumber post the mutual withdrawal by both forces, after a tense 73 days standoff. One adverse incident during the standoff could have snowballed into an embarrassing situation for both nations. There were press reports from the Chinese side threatening India, which it ignored, indicating its maturity. India also rightfully handed over the crises for resolution to the MEA. Hence, throughout the standoff, it was the MEA which conducted press briefings and made the requisite statements, with the army remaining in the background. It was ultimately a diplomatic resolution to a military issue.
Recent reports have indicated increased Chinese presence in North Doklam. A few articles in the press, by those with limited inputs, are also projecting increased Chinese build up and infrastructure development in the region, thus predicting a likely repeat by China. It was also politicized by the Congress, targeting the government, seeking an explanation on the same.
Chinese media propaganda on Doklam is on the rise, which is swallowed by their Indian counterparts, both print and electronic. This leads to the opposition seeking explanations from the army and the government. Such actions benefit the Chinese as it implies increased pressure on the Indian government from within. The truth remains distant.
The army chief had in his pre-army day address very categorically mentioned the facts. China has constructed temporary infrastructure in North Doklam, an area which has always been under their control. The Doklam standoff occurred because they had ventured to South Doklam, which remains disputed between Bhutan and China and commenced road construction. This road could have resulted in them claiming permanency as also altering status quo thus enhancing India’s security concerns.It was with this reason that India ventured into the region.
While they have moved back, the structures including tents, toilets and watch towers remain. Whether China would move back in strength post winters or remove the structures is a wait and watch scenario. The future would now depend on Chinese and Bhutanese talks, when they do commence. India remains deployed in strength on the watershed, holding dominating heights, to monitor the region where the standoff had occurred. It remains prepared to counter any Chinese attempts to change status quo in the region.
India considers Doklam to be a disputed territory between Bhutan and China, while China claims it belongs to them. Any comments on the status of the region from Indian officials, invites a strong response from China, like it occurred post the army chief’s comments. Talks between the two to resolve the issue have made no headway. With India, the dispute is the location of the tri-junction, on which again no progress has been forthcoming.
Presently there is no direct threat from China. However, in the past few years, transgressions from China have been on the rise. There have been standoffs in multiple locations, mostly resolved by military to military contacts and discussions. With increased Chinese aggressiveness on its claim lines, the chief was right when he stated that we need to shift focus from the western to the eastern borders.
Most of the Indian armed forces, eight fighting commands from all the three services, are focussed towards the west with only one each of the three services facing the east. Infrastructure development on the Chinese front was restricted because even the army opined that China could take advantage of the same.
There is a vast difference in perceptions now. Infrastructure is being developed at a rapid pace. Deployment along the watershed remains strong, being strengthened regularly. India is planning to deploy its greater military might, including Rafale aircraft, BrahMos missiles and the yet to be inducted 155mm Guns in the region. A mountain strike corps is under raising. Thus, focus is shifting from the west to the east.
China has been aggressive in its claims with nations, with whom it has had disputes. Its present threats to Taiwan are an indicator that China would pursue all its claim lines. Since the standoff at Doklam resulted in the Chinese backing down, there would be another situation, in the same or different region, compelling India to react, possibly differently and at a time of Chinese choosing. China cannot accept being snubbed by India.
While many have claimed that continuing Chinese presence and build-up in Doklam appears to be an indicator of a repeat Chinese action,it is most unlikely. China would never repeat the same mistake again, knowing how India would react. If Doklam was aimed at changing the status quo of Indo-Bhutanese relationships, then it may attempt something different to achieve the same aim.
Simultaneously, neither would China seek to enlarge the dispute, beyond local levels. There is immense at stake, financially, diplomatically and militarily. If it fails, then its international power would take a beating. Further, China would not gain much in a conventional war, as the Indian armed forces remain fully prepared. It also cannot consider raising the stakes to nuclear levels for local gains. It also cannot consider an all-out offensive as it would involve other nations with whom India has security tie-ups in the region. Local actions by China are aimed at conveying that there are disputes which remain unresolved. With varying perceptions on the actual border, there is unlikely to be any easy solution to the border issue.
In the long term, India needs to be prepared for increased Chinese aggressiveness and deny China even from contemplating increasing the scope of the conflict. The successful trials of the Agni V missile did invite adverse comments from China, as it opens the country to Indian counter nuclear strikes, thus adding a deterrent to any Chinese plans. Deployment of other force multipliers, including BrahMos, would restrict the Chinese to resort to local actions, for which India remains well prepared.
China would continue with its transgressions and local offensive actions, continuously testing Indian military resolve and conveying the disputed nature of the LAC. This should be anticipated, and forces prepared for speedy deployment. Hence developing infrastructure should remain a priority. The deployment of force multipliers should be speeded up to deter China from taking the dispute beyond local levels. The reality as aptly put forward by the army chief, ‘China may be a powerful nation, but we are not weak either’ should be our mantra.
(The author is a retired Major General of the Indian Army )