On March 26, 2018, Chinese spokesperson Hua Chunying declared that Doklam belonged to it on the basis of historical conventions and India should have "learnt lessons" from the 2017 stand-off.
The remarks were in response to India's ambassador to China Gautam Bambawale's remarks that were published on March 24, 2018, in Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. The Ambassador blamed China for the stand-off in Doklam, saying it happened because Beijing tried to alter the status quo in the disputed area.
Meanwhile Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on March 05, 2018 stated in Parliament that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had undertaken "construction of some infrastructure, including sentry posts, trenches and helipads" near the face-off site between Indian and Chinese troops at Doklam in the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction. Doklam is in news again!
In June 2017, Indian troops blocked China's attempt to extend the existing motorable road southwards towards the Jampheri Ridge in south Doklam, which led to the 73-day troop face-off before disengagement on August 28.
The Chinese official media, unofficial (if it exists) and social media had then been singularly raucous, belligerent and humiliating and inciting tempers by the war-talk. While India called it “disengagement”, Global Times scathingly referred to it as “removal of trespassing troops”.
Many have opined that the Chinese miscalculated on the force of our response and our commitment and had fervently anticipated that we would blink first. As events progressed, various rationale was cited for disengagement, including internal politics and political events like the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China in September 2017.
Did the Chinese miscalculate and not anticipate our reaction and determination on this front? In all contemplation of India-China border imbroglio, history invariably takes the front seat. In the same area, Doklam, the Indian Army had reacted with similar intensity in 2008, and the faceoff was eventually called off.
In 2013, the encampment by PLA in Depsang plains in Eastern Ladakh, near Daulat Beg Oldie, was dismantled following the strong reaction from India. At Demchok and Chumar in 2014, the robust response by the Army, ensured an amicable uncoupling. There had also been reports of an incident in Kameng in Arunachal Pradesh in 2016.
In 2017, Doklam apart, first Barahoti and then the jostling and stone pelting between Finger Four and Five on the North Bank of Pangong Tso in Eastern Ladakh, on August 15, 2017 took place, visuals of which were on TV channels.
This discounts the routine ones that recur frequently but are called off amicably, or resolved through Border Personnel Meetings. These major events that happened over the last five years resisted negotiation or conciliation for a considerable time – the last at Doklam for 73 days.
Three compelling and significant issues stand out. One, though the civilian-oriented border guards - the People’s Armed Police, were responsible for the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and came under the State Council (or cabinet) through the Ministry of Public Security, a duality of control existed with the apex Central Military Commission (CMC).
Repeated annual incursions in different sectors seemed too well coordinated to be brushed aside as localised misjudgments. The manner of vociferousness post Doklam, intimated an apex level management. Significantly, as a far-reaching change, China has recently brought all border troops, including those guarding its border with India, directly under CMC.
The duplicity, if any, in command and control stands dissolved, for henceforth any intransigence on the LAC would be with the direct influence of the CMC, and may defy early resolution.
Two, all transgressions by the Chinese since 2013, including Doklam 2008 itself, clearly highlighted larger intentions. There is obviously an incremental push forward to challenge the status quo on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a direct semblance of activism, well premeditated and with forethought.
And three, the mechanisms for maintaining peace and tranquillity on the LAC, like the customary banner drill on engagement, that would cease the entanglement, seems to be singularly waning.
The border personnel meetings and meetings of the "Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs” have been unproductive in releasing the tensions on the LAC. Certainly, there is no miscalculation in any and all such events.
Doklam, and those obdurate standoffs previously in Depsang, Chumar and Demchok, have shown the global community a strong Indian response. This could well have turned out be a repeat of the reaction of the Indian Army consequent to road construction in Chepzi-Chumar, wherein larger quantum of force was moved forward.
The Chinese well understand, and would have templated the tough stand of India. The follow-up to Doklam should have been intensely pre-wargamed and appreciated by the PLA. The Indian Armed forces are hardy and rugged enough to sustain themselves even in dire winters. And yet the Chinese went ahead with Doklam!
While India had a principled stand, and stood up in support of Bhutan, the Doklam saga, and the previous similar events have been intensely followed and commented upon in nations in Asia having territorial or maritime disputes with China.
India’s strong response has come in for compliments from many a nation. The message in clarity is that unilateral attempts to alter the status quo in the 21stcentury are not sustainable. The amicable disengagement also highlighted that rationality could be brought in by sustained diplomacy backed by military power.
In aggregate, for China, it could well be the jettisoning of the Deng Xiaoping’s maxim, ‘hide your strength, bide your time’.
China has the requisite strength and more. It portends ominously for the future. India cannot afford to lower its guard and be complacent, as the emerging news from Doklam indicates. Similar caution in other disputed areas also is mandated.
Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) superannuated from the Army in 2017. In his last assignment, he was the Adjutant General of the Indian Army responsible for the Human Resource Management.