Now that 73-day long standoff between the troops of India and China at the Doklam trijunction (India, China and Bhutan) has come to an end, a dispassionate analysis of the episode is worth-attempting. In the considered view of this author, the episode reflected a remarkable similarity with the patterns in the intrusions by China into the 4057- km- long Line of Actual Control, witnessed since the Sino-Indian War over the unsettled border in 1962.
These patterns have been the changes in the status quo by the Chinese troops; resolute reactions by the Indian troops; the psychological warfare by the Chinese establishment (media, officials and the political leaderships) against India (reminding us of the 1962 debacle, China’s vast power and India’s poverty and powerlessness); and the ultimate disengagement of the troops of the two countries, leading to the restoration of the status quo. In each of these episodes, India has learnt valuable lessons and undertaken appropriate remedial measures.
The first major standoff between India and China was in 1967 Sikkim’s Nathu La region that led to four days of bloody clashes between the soldiers of the two countries. It began on September 11, after months of accusations from both sides about incursions and territorial intrusions. The language used by China then was terribly dismissive of India and of Indian power. It called Indian leaders “reactionaries”, who, in turn, were “component part of the worldwide anti-Chinese chorus currently struck up by US imperialism and Soviet Revisionism in league with the reactionaries of various countries”.
However, the Indian Army did a remarkable job. It lost 70 soldiers, but ensured the number of the Chinese casualties going above 400. A second round of clashes erupted at nearby Cho La on October 1, 1967; but Indian troops stood their ground and forced the Chinese soldiers to withdraw. And it so happens that since then the border in the Sikkim sector has remained free of skirmishes. It may also be noted here that then Sikkim was a protectorate of India, not exactly a constituent unit. Sikkim joined the Indian union as a state eight years later, in 1975.
The next major incident of escalation of tensions was the Somdurong Chu incident in 1986-87 in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Here, the Chinese Army had intruded in the Thandrong pasture on the banks of the Somdurong Chu (river) under the Zimithang circle of Tawang district. India asked China to withdraw from the area. But the Chinese did not listen; they reinforced their presence and decided to stay throughout the winter. The Indian Army then decided to retaliate. It air lifted a Brigade from 5 Mountain Division to Zimithang and occupied the ridges dominating the Somdurong Chu.
The then living Chinese patriarch, Deng Xiaoping , was now furious and threatened to “teach India a lesson”, a message conveyed through the visiting US Secretary of Defence, Caspar Weinberger during a stopover at New Delhi from Beijing. Simultaneously, China moved 20,000 troops of the 53 Group Army and 13 Group Army along with guns and helicopters. . On its part, India moved up to three divisions of its Army into the positions around Wangdung(Somdurong), maintaining them by air. In addition, it mobilised ten more divisions to the Eastern sector with almost 50,000 troops in Arunachal Pradesh alone with substantial assets from the Indian Air Force. Simultaneously, the Indian Army conducted a massive air- land exercise called ‘Chequerboard ‘ which commenced in October, 1986 and continued till March 1987. This was in conjunction with another major military exercise called ‘Brasstacks’ on the western borders. These exercises demonstrated the will and capability of the Indian armed forces to fight a war on both fronts.
However, throughout all this, India kept the diplomatic channels open with China so as to diffuse the situation. In May 1987 the then external affairs minister N.D Tiwari visited China reaffirming the desire of the Indian government to continue border talks and lower tensions. Finally, in August 1987, the field commanders of both the countries met on the ground and agreed to pull back. Subsequently, China extended an invitation to the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to visit China in 1988, which proved to be a historic occasion.
In other words, the Chinese realised that their efforts to change the status quo would be futile in the presence of a determined, well prepared and well-equipped Indian Army. In fact, this incident led to the Indian government focussing now on infrastructure development, logistic management, redeployment of additional resources and construction of airfields and advanced landing grounds in the North East. And what was most important, Arunachal Pradesh, hitherto known as North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), was granted a full-fledged statehood and rechristened (its present name).
In 2013, the Chinese intruded at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) in the Western Sector. Indian forces responded by quickly establishing their own encampment 300 metres away. Now hard negotiations started between the two countries, during which the Chinese tried to put further pressures by reinforcing their troops by trucks and helicopters. India was not impressed. After three weeks, the dispute was resolved (5th May), with both sides withdrawing to restore the status quo.
This pattern was also repeated next year (2014) when the Chinese came to Chumar of the same sector, that too at a time when the Chinese President Xi Jinping was visiting India. They retreated, but not before Prime Minister Narendra Modi becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to raise the issue of border intrusion in a joint press-meet with a Chinese head of the state, something the Chinese diplomats were rarely accustomed to. Modi did not only break the diplomatic protocol, he also deviated from the established Sino-Indian diplomatic tradition that the border dispute would not be allowed to stall the progress on other bilateral fronts. Modi gave enough hints that any further delay in resolving the boundary issue would affect the overall relations.
It is against this background; the latest Doklam incident may be seen. The problem here began when China disrupted the status quo in a disputed territory with Bhutan by constructing a road. To say that it was a novel development on the part of India to send its troops to a territory not belonging to it to stop the Chinese constructions does not hold much water. As pointed out, India intervened in Nathu La when Sikkim was not exactly a part of India’s territory. That time it was a protectorate of India.
Similarly, we intervened in Doklam as we have special relations with Bhutan (a former Indian protectorate too) as per Article 2 of the 2007 agreement with the Himalayan country. Bhutan which has territorial claims on this area and the territory’s status has to be determined through peaceful boundary negotiations between China and Bhutan – that have been on since 1984 (as of now, there have been 24 rounds of China-Bhutan border negotiations, the last one being held in Beijing in August 2016).
In fact, in 1959, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had declared in the Indian Parliament that any aggression against Bhutan would be seen as aggression against India. Besides, this time, India’s principled position was that the Chinese must withdraw their troops (along with the Indian troops) to observe the status quo in the area as mentioned in the bilateral discussion between India and China in 2012 and between China and Bhutan 1988 and 1998. In 1998, Bhutan and China had signed a peace agreement promising to ‘maintain peace and tranquillity on the Bhutan-China Border Areas’. China violated this ‘peace agreement’ by trying to construct roads in Doklam, an action that also had grave security implications for Siliguri corridor – the chicken neck which connects India to North East India and Nepal to Bhutan.
Be that as it may, the Doklam-episode proved once again that China cannot bully India. If the issue was resolved, it was through diplomatic channels and the agreement to restore the status quo. The Chinese have pulled back and dropped the idea of constructing roads in the disputed land. The whole adventure of China proved futile, thanks to the resoluteness shown by the Indian troops and the firmness of the Indian political leadership without being provoked by the Chinese propaganda-warfare. In fact, this time China further erred, and this is an irony, in the sense that India has emerged stronger geopolitically from the episode. Countries such as the United States, Japan, Australia, Vietnam and Singapore came closer to India over this latest instance of the Chinese revisionism on territorial issues. Conversely, it is China which has lost its image internationally.
By Prakash Nanda