Doka La stand-off – a two and a half front war for India
Laura Brown (CCO)
Chief Commercial Officer
The current tension between India and China started from an incident that took place in the early week of June 2017. According to a news report, a scuffle took place between the Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China soldiers. It is alleged that the PLA had forcibly bulldozed old bunkers on the Indian side, after the Indian Army refused to accede to China’s request to remove them. On June 4, a Chinese road construction unit was stopped by the Indian Army at the Doklam Plateau. Moreover, on June 16 the PLA attempted to construct a road in Doka La area. Although, during these incidents, no shots were fired from either side, it has triggered tension in the Sikkim section of the Indian-Chinese border. It is believed that in response to the stand-off, China stopped Indian pilgrims on their way to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet at Nathu La pass which connects the Indian state of Sikkim with Tibet.
The news report has suggested that on June 16 the PLA attempted to construct a road in Doka La area. The area of a tri-junction where India, Bhutan and Chinaâs borders meet. India refers this tri-junction as Doka La (Dhoka La). Whereas, Doklam (Dokalam) or Donglang is a narrow plateau lying in the tri-junction region of India, Bhutan, and China. It is a disputed territory between Bhutan and China. There are several factors as to why India has dragged itself into a dispute at the tri-junction of India-China-Bhutan that could escalate into a war between India-China and that may force India to fight on two and a half fronts.
Graphic News, (2017), Location of tri-junction, https://www.graphicnews.com/en/pages/35560/INDIA-India-China-Bhutan-dispute
Doklam is situated roughly 15 kilometres southeast of the Nathu La pass that separates India and China and about 30 kilometres southwest of the Dramana Chhu river. Doklam is part of the Chumbi Valley that lies primarily in Tibet. On the western edge of the Doklam plateau is Doka La, a pass at 27.28944Â°N 88.91389Â°E connecting the Indian state of Sikkim with either Tibet in China or linking Sikkim and western Bhutan. Strategically, Doka La tri-junction and Doklam Plateau in the Chumbi Valley are situated just above the Indiaâs Siliguri Corridor, often referred to as the Chickenâs Neck, a narrow land that connects the north-eastern Indian states to the rest of India. It is one of the most vulnerable points for India.
(Click on above image to expand)
India shares 3,488 km long border with China from Jammu and Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh and a 220-km section falls in Sikkim. Sikkim is a north-eastern state of India. It is Indiaâs 22nd state and shares its border with three countries, China in its north and east, Bhutan in its east, Nepal in its west. The Indian state of West Bengal lies to its south. Sikkim is in the proximity of the Siliguri Corridor. The Siliguri Corridor is the outcome of the British decolonisation process which is situated near Bangladesh, former East Pakistan. Doka La is 130 km away from Siliguri Corridor.
The standoff between two armies has taken place at around Doka La tri-junction point where Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan boundaries meet. However, the issue arises from the difference in interpretation of the actual location of tri-junction by China, Bhutan and India. Whilst, Bhutan and India accept the present location as the tri-junction; China does not accept this location as the tri-junction and claims that the border junction is at Gamochen (Gipmochi) some 15km to the south. (further south of Doka La). Therefore, India alleges that China is unilaterally altering the status quo of the region.
Wikipedia, (2017), Map of tri-junction, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doklam#/maplink/0 (Click on above image to expand)
Historically, the Treaty of 1890 between the British and the Chinese royal mission settled the territorial boundaries. However, in the present day, depending upon how each side is interpreting the Treaty of 1890 is shifting the location of the boundary and the point of tri-junction, that is causing a territorial dispute between India-China-Bhutan. The issue also arises as Bhutan is not bounded by the Anglo-Chinese treaty. It is believed that longest segment of the India-China border was settled but the exact location of the tri-junction remained disputed. The Indian side claims that it is near Batang La, and Bhutan equally agrees to that, but China claims that it is located at Mt. Gipmochi, further south. This causes the dispute, on that basis, China alleges that India has trespassed in Chinese territory. Whilst India refuses to accept that its soldiers have trespassed in Chinaâs territory and refuses to back off. However, the main issue is about the Bhutan-China territorial dispute about Dokalm Plateau, where China is preparing to build a defence class road linking up to Doka La.
India and Bhutan negotiated a Friendship Treaty in 2007 that commits both countries to coordinate issues relating to their national interests. Bhutan is a small Himalayan Kingdom. Bhutan does not have an official diplomatic relationship with China which is historically tense due to the territorial dispute of boundaries it shares with China, but it has close military and economic ties with India. Therefore, when Chinese troops and their engineering equipment entered the Doklam Plateau for road building, the Royal Bhutanese Army called in the Indian Army for assistance to push them back. It is believed that Thimphu requested assistant from New Delhi to resist the Chinese advance on road building in Doklam plateau leading towards Doka La tri-junction. This has escalated the current impasse, it is believed that the Chinese side has gone one step further in attempting to build, what India believes to be a defence class road through the region. This significantly elevates the potential threat to the Siliguri corridor, which is a vital link not just for India but Bhutan as well. It appears that as China is not showing respect to Indiaâs sensitivity to road building in the disputed region, the standoff will continue.
Similarly, in 2011 China felt uncomfortable regarding Indiaâs presence near the sensitive area of the South China Sea. That led to Chinaâs protest about Indiaâs Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) exploration around the Paracel Islands, claimed by Vietnam; but disputed by China within the South China Sea. The exploration was part of an agreement for cooperation for oil and gas between ONGC and PetroVietnam.
However, there are other contributory factors to the continuation of the standoff. China asserts that the China-Bhutan boundary issue is between China and Bhutan. India as a third party has no right to interfere or impede in the issue or to make territorial claims on the behalf of Bhutan. India argues that, under the 2012 understanding between Indian and China on the border issue, changing the status quo of tri-junctions requires the consent of Bhutan. This argument may strengthen Indiaâs stand as reportedly Bhutan has raised a diplomatic protest with China through New Delhi. However, China does not take note of Indiaâs argument; but instead China reminds India that, the Treaty of 1890 between Britain and China overrules Indiaâs argument and further contested that in a special representatives meeting held in 2006 between India-China, both sides had agreed to align the boundary in the Sikkim sector under the Treaty of 1890. These counter-claims suggest that depending upon how each side is interpreting these accords, each side believes that they have valid reasons to stand their ground and are not prepared to shift their armies an inch. However, this also led the three sides to believe that the opposite side has crossed into their territory. In 1987 there was a similar stand-off between in India and China in Arunachal Pradesh but it was bilateral and believed to have lasted a year. However, in the current stand-off India has intervened on behalf of Bhutan.
The Siliguri Corridor is Indiaâs strategic corridor that links all of the north-eastern states to the rest of India. However, it is vulnerable due to its location. The Siliguri Corridor is located just beneath Chumbi Valley and Doklam Plateau and between Sikkim and Bhutan lies the Chumbi Valley. The north-eastern states of India can be completely isolated by blocking access to this sensitive but vital corridor. Indiaâs concern from a security perspective is that China is allegedly building a defence class road in Chumbi Valley which is believed to be stretching up to Doka La and can reduce the PLA distance to less than 80 miles. In the event of conflict it would allow China to cut-off the north-eastern region of India quickly, which has a population of 50 million people. Moreover, all major rail and road transportation accessing the north-eastern states use this corridor, making it a strategic and sensitive area due to its location between three countries. This corridor is patrolled by multiple Indian security agencies, the Indian Army, the Assam Rifles, the Border Security Forces and the West Bengal Police. It is apparent that India will see Chinaâs road construction, which is believed to be upgraded to a defence grade road from a mud road as a potential threat. India also observes China as unilaterally altering the status quo of the plateau to build a road in the Chumbi Valley for its own strategic advantage by bullying Bhutan, a move that India will not likely tolerate.
Hegemony is the other reason for India to be so defensive at Doka La. There is a noticeable increase of Chinese hegemony in the South Asian region, a concern India has had for some time. Analysing Indiaâs immediate neighbours in South Asia highlights that China has made inroads fully encircling India; from Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar to Sri Lanka. However, Bhutan is the last standing country in Indiaâs backyard where Chinese influence has failed to penetrate. China has made inroads in Pakistan through the Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and by developing the Gwadar port. However, it is believed that the Gwadar port which was developed using Chinese assistance and at a cost of more than $240 million is a commercial failure and was leased out to the state run Chinese firm for 40 years. The Hambantota port project in Sri Lanka has 80% Chinese shareholding and report suggest that China is demanding more than 80% share in Kyaukpyu project in Myanmar (Burma). All these strategically located Chinese projects are around India and eventually will likely become Chinaâs strategic assets in Indiaâs west, south and east. Chinaâs presence will not only pose a risk to India but also will help to increase Chinaâs hegemony further and beyond and up to the South China Sea. Whilst, it can be said that Indiaâs mishandling of bilateral relations with Nepal has given China the opportunity to meddle in the political affairs of Nepal and it is believed that it has helped Chinese investments to overtake Indiaâs contribution in the nation. Beijing is also trying to get a strong foothold in the Indian Ocean region, as a result the Maldives is believed to be increasingly strengthening its relationship with Beijing.
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In this context when Chinaâs hegemony is rising and spreading in South Asia, Bhutan sees India as its guardian as both countries have a close and a special relationship. In the absence of diplomatic ties with China, Bhutan seeks Indiaâs help and is dependent upon them. In this situation, India has a twofold advantage for standing up to China. First, with Indiaâs backup China is less likely to bully Bhutan to make it subservient. Secondly, by contesting with China for Bhutan, India is challenging the influence of China in neighbouring countries, showing its military compatibility and strengthening its image as an emerging power that will allow India to raise itself in South Asia when China and India both are establishing their regional supremacy.
On the other hand, the timing of the incident has significance. This is not the first-time a stand-off between India and China has broken-out, and neither is it a coincidence it coincides with Indiaâs Prime Minister Modi visiting with US President Trump. The way in which state controlled Chinese media disseminated disproportionate coverage of the incident suggests that it may have not been at all coincidental, but timed to send a message to both Washington and New Delhi – that Beijing stands firm on its ground even if it leads toward conflict. China may have used this propaganda tactic to kill two birds with one stone. It seems to be a perfect opportunity for Beijing to address both of its critics, India and the USA. First, to Washington that China will not tolerate Washingtonâs interference in the South China Sea, and second, for New Delhi not to interfere in a third country territorial dispute with Bhutan. This theory may appear to be an exaggeration but it is possible to imagine Chinaâs Communist Party drawing such a political strategy to keep both the US and India at a bay, to protect its interests in the South China Sea and in the Doklam Plateau. Further, this theory is based on President Trump repeatedly criticising Beijing for militarising the South China Sea in South East Asia, which is disputed by Vietnam, Philippines and other ASEAN member states as having overlapping claims. President Trump is also very vocal about Chinaâs unwillingness to restrain North Korea. Besides the Doklam dispute, India has raised an objection to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) part of OBOR being developed by China in Pakistan – the corridor that will pass through Indiaâs disputed territory of Gilgit and Baltistan as China is likely to violate the sovereignty of India. Hence, despite Chinaâs invitation, India is unwilling to take part in Chinaâs ambitious OBOR project that will connect Europe, Africa and Asia with mainland China and has stayed away until China stops meddling in its bilateral issues. It also suggests that there is a deep mistrust between India and China.
Coincidentally when Chinese state media was making angry rhetoric against India, propaganda from a section of the Pakistani media organization came into action, perhaps in collaboration with China or to add fuel to the fire. A Lahore based Duniya News stating itself to be one of the most credible news channels of Pakistan carried out a sensational television news report on July 17, 2017 that 158 Indian soldiers have been killed in a Chinese cross border rocket attack. Duniya News was not alone, Karachi based Dawn Newspaper reported similar alleged fake propaganda. In a swift response to the action of the Pakistani media organisation, Indiaâs Ministry of External Affairs termed the reporting as utterly baseless, malicious, and mischievous. However, the purpose of such alleged fake propaganda actions during prevailing tension, suggests that it was to trigger an accidental escalation between India and China.
It is believed that the India-China sustained stand-off may have a hidden agenda for China. As China, does not recognise Shimla Accord signed between Tibet and India. China disputes and claims part of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Besides, India is wary of Chinaâs claim on Aksai Chin, a region that lies at the junction of India, China and Pakistan. Aksai Chin is in the Ladakh sector as per India and part of its land was annexed by Pakistan and then illegally handed over to China in 1963. Although, Chinese media has reported that if India can interfere in Bhutan then China can enter in the Kashmir. However, whether it is the official Chinese government view or not, it is unclear; but if that happens then it can make the Kashmir issue a multifaceted one and even more complex if China were to enter into the Kashmir via Aksai Chin. This could open a second front for India to manage. Moreover, Chinaâs refusal to recognise the McMohan Line can allow the former to press India at the Sino-Indian boundary over the dispute of Arunachal Pradesh territory. This can open up fronts with China at multiple locations and begin the two-and-a-half front war for India. This stand-off could be a perfect opportunity for China to confront and press India hard, and to use stand-off as leverage to possibly warn India that if India continues to interfere in the Bhutan territorial dispute then China can also interfere in Kashmir to restrain India.
Despite angry rhetoric from the Chinese state media and equivalent claims in the Indian media, it is unlikely that China will start a war with India and vice versa. Both sides understand that at this stage a war will slow down their economies, when China is reviving its ancient Silk Road into a 21st-century Maritime Silk Road. President Xi Jinping will not risk delaying the OBOR â the project of the century, estimated at $5 trillion, by declaring war with India. At the same time, India is still an emerging economy with an average growth rate of approximately 7% over the last two decades, but which has slowed in the beginning of 2017. A war would plunge the economy further down and seriously risk its potential to become the world’s 3rd-largest economy in the future. However, in June, the Chief of Army Staff General said that the Indian Army is prepared for a two-and-a-half front war referring to simultaneously taking on China, Pakistan and internal security. Whilst, Chinaâs state run media quoted that Beijing will use a military option to end the standoff. Further, it is reported that around 300-350 soldiers from both sides face each other in Dokalm at 10,000 feet. The Chinese side is backed by 1,500 PLA soldiers whilst the Indian side is backed by three Brigades deployed in the eastern and north-eastern region of India. A further three Divisions are kept on a high state of operational readiness in the region. Though China has a better road access link to the region for quicker deployment of its troops gives China upper hand over India. Although, both sides are showcasing that they are in a state of operational readiness but it is believed that it is to deter each other. However, the possibility of accidental escalation can trigger a chain reaction of events that cannot be completely ruled out. However, it is believed that there is mechanism at tri-junction to stop accidental escalation between India and China; but that has not stopped the stand-off in the first place.
It can be predicated that, as both sides understand that war is not a solution to the problem and may not resolve the issue, hence it gives the optimism that diplomatic engagement is likely to become an option instead of war in the case of India and China. However, political distrust and stubbornness could hinder this process. There is a possibility that Bhutan may step in and replace Indian soldiers with its own soldiers that can ease the tension between India and China and that will allow both sides to agree for a withdrawal of their soldiers simultaneously and both sides can save face. In conclusion, if Beijing has thought that its growing economic, political and military power has given enough clout to force India and Bhutan to its own favour in territorial dispute then clearly it has not worked. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley believes that the India of 2017 is very different to what it was in 1962. However, Beijing may have used or will use the Doklam stand-off as an arm twisting tactic against India to force unwilling India to join OBOR or to gain leverage on other dormant territorial disputes with India. However, China has not done itself any favours in convincing India by blocking Indiaâs proposal at the United Nation for the third time to list Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammed chief and suspected mastermind of Pathankot terror attack Masood Azhar as a designated terrorist on August 3, 2017. This will likely to strain any future diplomatic talks on Doka La stand-off.
 News18 (2017), Time line, http://www.news18.com/news/india/india-china-border-standoff-how-it-unfolded-1453883.html
 Graphic News, (2017), Location of tri-junction, https://www.graphicnews.com/en/pages/35560/INDIA-India-China-Bhutan-dispute
 Wikipedia, (2017), Doklam
 ToI, (2017), India- China border, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/indian-bunker-in-sikkim-removed-by-china-sources/articleshow/59354787.cms
 Dunya News (2017), China rocket attack kills 158 Indian soldiers, http://dunyanews.tv/en/World/397393-China-targets-Indian-installations-killing-158-sol
 Zee News (2017), Beijing use military way, http://zeenews.india.com/india/dokalam-stand-off-atmosphere-not-right-for-xi-modi-meet-in-hamburg-says-china-2021675.html
 ToI, (2017), China blocks Indiaâs request at the UN, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/china-again-blocks-move-to-name-masood-azhar-a-global-terrorist-at-un/articleshow/59893062.cms