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Resolution of the Doklam stand-off is a case study on how to deal with China

New Delhi played to a plan with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley resisting temptations to verbally counter threatening statements from Beijing

analysis Updated: Sep 01, 2017 13:54 IST
(FILES) A file photo of a Chinese soldier (L) and an Indian soldier placing a barbed wire fence following a meeting of military representatives at the Nathu La border in Sikkim, India. India said on August 28, 2017 that troops were disengaging from a months-long stand-off with the Chinese military on a strategically important area of disputed territory in the Himalayas. (AFP)

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads to Xiamen in South East China for the BRICS summit, he is confident that the resolution of two-month old Doklam stand-off between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Indian Army in Bhutan has gone into annals of military history.

The resolution of the Doklam stand-off has now become a case study on how to deal with China, the rising global power, with the Modi government employing deft, principled diplomacy and steely military resolve to checkmate hardline PLA generals in Beijing.

While New Delhi has no intentions of chest thumping over the successful resolution and has taken Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement on Thursday most positively, the trouble in Doklam and the Sikkim sector started much before the stand-off last week of May.

The Chinese strategy was focused on 89 square kilometres of the Doklam plateau, 42 square kilometres on Sinchulimpa and 138 square kilometres of Gin, Shakhatoe and Dramana pasture lands— all of them disputed with India’s core ally Bhutan. Unilateral accession of territory in the Doklam plateau would allow the Chinese better military penetration of the Siliguri corridor much to India’s chagrin and a change in the status of Sinchulimpa, Gin, Shakhatoe and Dramana would give strategic width to the PLA, sandwiched between Sikkim and Bhutan.

The PLA’s aggressive play in this disputed region led to an unsuccessful border personnel meeting between the local commanders of the two armies early June. This escalated into destruction of two Indian bunkers at Dokha La on June 8 with the stand-off resulting after the PLA moved road construction machines on Doklam plateau on June 16 with the Indian Army moving in support of the Royal Bhutanese Army. The Modi government here displayed resolute decision-making with the then Eastern Army Commander Lt Gen Parveen Bakshi given verbal instructions to take action as deemed fit to control the situation. The fact is that it was fast Indian military decision-making that quietly contributed to the resolution with Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat, General Bakshi and newly- appointed Army commander Lt Gen Abhay Krishna personally monitoring the ground situation in Sikkim under the guidance of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. The Corps Commanders under the Eastern Army Command were briefed in early July to prepare for all eventualities.

Parallel to this, the diplomatic line to Beijing was handled directly by Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar without any help from the Chinese Ambassador to India. With Chinese media going ballistic and their Indian counterparts preparing for war scenarios, the PLA was overtly deployed swiftly in Tibet to stare down the Modi government. The Indian deployment was largely covert — based on the intelligence collected by American P 8I reconnaissance planes and satellites—with enough teeth to handle the worst-case scenario. While the situation was unstable at the border with Bhutan getting caught between two military giants, Doval and Jaishankar kept their lines open with their counterparts with General Rawat leading from the front to counter any further Chinese PLA incursion along the 3,488- kilometre long Line of Actual Control (LAC). During the two-month long stand-off, many a military assessment took a knocking with the Chinese PLA surpassing all expectations in deployment and Indian Army fluidly countering the PLA manoeuvre and in position for the worst.

The Chinese deployment was based on newly-created Warzone Concept under informed conditions with battlefield commanders having access to real-time intelligence and parallel information warfare launched by the state media. The Chinese idea was to stare India down but Modi stared back and successfully. New Delhi played to a plan with Modi and his Defence Minister Arun Jaitley resisting all temptations to verbally counter threatening statements from Beijing and diplomatic underlings. NSA Doval with Foreign Secretary Jaishankar spearheaded the effort from Delhi with both keeping their mobile phones as far away from them as possible for the fear of interception. Both the poker-faced Indian experts keep reiterating to their Chinese counterparts that the Doklam issue should be resolved through talks with third-party Bhutan and that Beijing was wrong in unilaterally altering the status on ground. Although it is still early days to understand the full ramifications of the Doklam stand-off, it has set a template on how mature and resolute powers can stand up to aggressive behaviour of a State, which wants to unilaterally change the status on ground and on high seas.

States like Japan and others in the ASEAN region will draw succour from the Doklam resolution as they have been at the receiving end of China whether it was Senkaku-Diaoyu Island dispute in the East China Sea or the Paracels-Spratley Island dispute in the South China Sea. The immediate fallout of Doklam is going to be grudging respect from South Asian countries towards Indian play and positive delight from the ASEAN leaders — all of whom are the chief guests as the 2018 Republic Day. With the unique exception of Vietnam in 1979, no country has shown the gumption to stand up to the global military aspirations of Beijing. This does not mean that India will show counter aggression on the LAC or employ strong arm tactics. It is in Indian interests like the Chinese to develop bilateral trust as the areas of mutual cooperation outweigh the differences by miles. Given the unsettled border, the Indian and Chinese armies need to exercise regularly so that each understands the ethos of the other with military communications kept constantly open to resolve any dispute. The Modi government is clear that it is all for promoting bilateral interests with China without any territorial concession till the border issue is resolved to the satisfaction of the two competing states. One thing is clear from the Doklam stand-off and the 2016 surgical strikes: PM Modi can play the game of military brinkmanship and win it.

First Published: Sep 01, 2017 13:53 IST