India and China pulled their troops back from a 10-week-long standoff on the disputed Himalayan plateau of Doklam today, settling, for now, their longest border spat in three decades a week before their leaders meet.
The tension that prevailed during the three-month long standoff between India and China at Doklam has been diffused by the announcement to dilute military presence at the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction.
While India withdrew all its soldiers to its territory, China drew back most of its military personnel from the area that is claimed by both Beijing and Thimpu, keeping some to continue patrolling operations it has long pursued there
The agreement to de-escalate tensions, called the “Doklam Disengagement Understanding” by the Indian foreign ministry, was struck six days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to fly to Xiamen in eastern China.
The decision to disengage their troops comes ahead of a crucial BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit being hosted by China on September 3-4, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to attend. Modi, at the Brics summit, will also meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, officials from both countries said.
In June this year, China started expanding a road in the territory known as the Dokolam plateau, a tri-junction between India, Bhutan and China bordering Sikkim near the Nathula pass (14400 ft) region. While India calls this 89 sq km pasture land, Dokola, Bhutan refers to it as Dokolam and China as Donglang.
“Bhutan has conveyed to the Chinese side, both on the ground and through the diplomatic channel, that the construction of the road inside Bhutanese territory is a direct violation of the agreements and affects the process of demarcating the boundary between our two countries. Bhutan hopes that the status quo in the Dokolam area will be maintained as before 16 June 2017” stated the release.
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Government of Bhutan release stated: “On 16th June 2017, the Chinese Army started constructing a motorable road from Dokola in the Doklam area towards the Bhutan Army camp at Zompelri.”
India supporting Bhutan’s stand asked China to halt all construction work. Chinese troops instead told India to remove two bunkers that were set up in 2012 at Lalten in the Dokolam region. On June 6 night the Indian bunkers were destroyed by Chinese Bulldozers.
A standoff ensued with troop buildup by both the Peoples’ Liberation Army and Indian Army.
Relations between the two nations, India – China, had dipped to a new low over the standoff at Doklam, with the Chinese side refusing to withdraw. Beijing had accused India of transgressing into its territory and demanded an immediate withdrawal of Indian troops. The Chinese side, especially the state media, since then had been on an offensive, and on occasions issued veiled threats of war.
The ‘security implications’ were serious as Chinese construction activity usually precedes a strong claim on the territory. The Doklam area, which is part of Bhutan, but now claimed by China, will bring the Chinese even closer to the vulnerable ‘chicken neck’ Siliguri corridor that connects West Bengal and the rest of India to the north-eastern parts of the country.
The North East is connected to the mainland by this particularly thin piece of land called the Siliguri corridor. This narrow strip, which slims down to 17 kilometres at its narrowest, is also known by a more appropriate name, Chicken’s Neck’.
The corridor is extremely important for India because it runs its rail and road networks towards the North East through it. This allows it to sustain the armed forces posted in the North East which will form an important piece of the puzzle should a conflict arise between India and China in the region.
If, however, China is able to block off the corridor (and break the Chicken’s Neck, so to speak), this will isolate the North East and will cut off the supplies and reinforcements reaching that area. There is no sea route as the North East is completely land-locked. Limited provisions can reach the region if India uses only aeroplanes.
However the disadvantages for China is, while it is proceeding through a very narrow strip of land as it stretches its military presence towards India, it leaves itself very vulnerable to artillery shelling and air attacks from either Sikkim or Bhutan. Thus if it blocks the Siliguri corridor, India could attack the Chinese troops concentrated in that area and force open the corridor again.
As stated by experts, “On both sides of Yadong and Doklam is India and Bhutan. If Indian aerial and artillery assaults are carried effectively on the Chinese supply lines easily identified in Chumbi valley stretched in a linear North-South direction, it would reduce PLA’s capabilities to fight.”
India had all along maintained that both sides should withdraw simultaneously for any dialogue on the issue and asserted that war was not a solution.
Amidst the standoff, Prime Minister Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hamburg on the sidelines of the G20 summit, while National Security Advisor Ajit Doval held talks with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi in Beijing on the sidelines of a BRICS security meet.
The government on Monday briefed the opposition leaders on the easing of Doklam border stand-off with China with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj speaking to former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and other senior Congress leaders.
But having shown its ugly face so vehemently, China has seared the bilateral relationship. Although Modi assured Xi at the July G-20 gathering at Hamburg that India will contribute positively to the Brics summit, the forum has been conceptually debased already by China’s actions, not only at Dokalam but in other respects too.
Brics members visualise more democratic international governance, multipolarity, diminished western hegemony, with concomitant reform of global, political and financial institutions, rejection of double standards, respect for national sovereignty and international law, greater “South-South” linkages and so on. China’s conduct is increasingly violating this vision.
However, muscle-flexing it may only have been, but there was a psychological dimension to it all that would have tested the resolve of soldiers. India initially posted tall soldiers from the Dogra regiment at Doka La and gradually replaced them with Gorkha jawans are known for their fierce nature to match the Chinese aggression. However, the stress of the staring contest at Doka La necessitated that troops be rotated every week.
The fact that China is ready to face-off with India over border issues on a regular basis is a cause for concern for India. It requires the dedication of constant resources at the border flash points and stops it from concentrating on developing infrastructure which would provide for more long-term security. India needs to arrive at a long-term solution to the China problem so that it can move on to devoting more of its budget and resources to resolving internal issues like education, and law and order.