China’s expansionist foreign policy has major strategic implications for its immediate neighbors. The first part of this two-part series showed how a brigade-strength deployment in North Doklam by China has considerable firepower.
It has two mechanized regiments and tank transporters, a two-story observation tower, a large number of fighting posts on every hillock, seven new helipads, and more than 100 large troop- and equipment-carrying vehicles, besides road-construction equipment. This is a fair indication of China’s intentions in the disputed area that is at the tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China that witnessed a 73-day military standoff last year.
China initially denied that the People’s Liberation Army had built up its presence at Doklam. But later it announced that it was only exercising its sovereignty, which was legitimate and justified, and hoped other countries (read India) would not comment on China’s construction of infrastructure in its territory.
In an interview to China’s Global Times on January 26, the Indian ambassador to China, Gautam Bambawale, said the Doklam standoff had been “blown out of proportion.” He stressed that it was important not to change the “status quo” at sensitive points along the India-China border, and that the two countries should hold talks to resolve contentious issues, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
But it is the changed situation in Doklam that obviously prompted a recent joint visit by India’s Chief of Army Staff, national security adviser and foreign secretary to Bhutan.
After the standoff, Beijing may have assessed that the Indian reaction to a Chinese buildup was unlikely to be beyond a jostling match. Therefore, the current massive buildup is hardly warranted and indicates China’s future ambitions.
When Liu Jinsong, a senior Chinese diplomat in India, visited Thimphu during the Doklam standoff to meet the Bhutanese leadership, he stressed Bhutan becoming part of China’s ambitious economic plans as well as dropping subtle hints of the consequences of opposing its strategic interests. The buildup was aimed at putting down the Royal Bhutanese Army, confident that India would do nothing beyond talks, just like the situation in Maldives.
Pressure on Bhutan
There is a distinct possibility that China will increase its pressure on the Bhutanese leadership, forcing it to state that it does not want to get tied up in a conflict zone between India and China. This is similar to what the former president of Maldives, Mohammed Nasheed, is now saying. China will continue to pressure Bhutan on establishing diplomatic relations, connecting Doklam with Thimphu by road and rail links, and commencing trade.
China is unlikely to budge from its illegal claims, and likely to undermine any agreement on “not disturbing the status quo while talks are on.” Successive Indian governments have neglected defense, not realizing that diplomacy that is not backed with military muscle means little. The currency of power must be backed by asymmetric and irregular military capabilities, since the economy and bilateral trade are insufficient to establish a sound negotiating position with China.
The border infrastructure in India’s northeast remains pathetic. Projects under way are inadequate, as the recent Chinese intrusion into the Tuting area indicated. This requires holistic review and immediate action by the government of India.
China has 24/7 satellite surveillance along the border. India has nothing of that sort, even though it regularly launches satellites successfully. The Indian Army’s Battlefield Surveillance System is moving at a snail’s pace, while the Battlefield Management System was recently foreclosed for lack of funds, even as the PLA is digitizing its troops at dizzying speeds.
There is a danger of Chinese intrusions in India’s northeast, with Beijing having repeatedly stated that it does not recognize Arunachal Pradesh as a part of part of India. We have a self-inflicted gap, perpetuated by successive Indian governments over the years, with troops sitting scores of kilometers behind the Line of Actual Control.
China is likely to embarrass India while its attention is focused on the general elections in May next year. This could also be used to undermine the growing India-US partnership. The Indian government may attempt to whitewash PLA intrusions, describing them as “transgressions,” but these will likely become permanent this time, the recent disengagement at Tuting notwithstanding. Political compulsions may lure policymakers to maintain there is “no change in the status quo,” with areas inaccessible to the media.
But ground realities can’t be hidden for long, just as in Doklam. The Shyam Saran report (not made public) handed over to then-prime minister Manmohan Singh in 2013 reportedly talked of some 645 square kilometers lost to China incrementally over the years. According to Indian diplomat Phunchok Stobdan, 400 square kilometers has been lost in Ladakh, a region in Jammu and Kashmir state. Yet the defense minister at that time, A K Antony, misled Parliament by stating, “We haven’t lost an inch of territory to China.”
But this time, the danger is much greater, with Chinese President Xi Jinping pulling out all stops to realize illegal claims. In areas where the Indian Army is sitting way behind the lines, perhaps permanent mobilization is the answer, at great discomfort to the army. Merely making brave statements that we have good relations with China and resolution is possible through talks can have catastrophic consequences for India.
This is the final article in a two-part series.