Taming the Dragon: Part 1

It has been nearly 3 weeks since personnel from People’s Liberation Army of China and the Indian Army have been involved in an eye to eye standoff at the Doklam Plateau in the Sikkim Section of the Indo-China border. This strategic tableland overlooks the Siliguri Corridor, also called the Chicken’s neck for it is the lifeline between mainland India and the remote North East. This is the precise region why India is worried. Doklam for its part is one of the three disputed territories between China and Bhutan, the other two being Jakarlung and Pasarlung in the northern pockets of Bhutan facing China-Occupied-Tibet (CoT). At a time when India had opened its markets to the world undertaking Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization(LPG), Beijing offered to settle the territorial disputes with Thimpu through a so-called ‘Package Deal’.

It offered to give up its claims in the north in return for possession of this vital highland. This move had two underlying rationales: Firstly, it would help China fortify its grip over the narrow Chumbi Valley, the wedge shaped ravine and the southernmost extent of CoT in between Sikkim and the Kingdom of Bhutan. In case of any misadventures along the lines of 1967 and 1986, India can promptly mobilize her forces , both the Army and the Airforce to cutoff the Chinese troops and impose a blockade. Moreover, the 27th and 17th mountain division of the Indian Army is stationed in Kalimpong and Gangtok respectively in Sikkim combined with the Hashimara Air base can effectively create a chock-a-block situation for the PLA Garrison Headquarters in the narrow valley. In addition to this, 90,000 strong Mountain Corps, half of which are stationed in or around the region and specifically raised for advanced-high-altitude mountain warfare. Indian forces have held vantage positions-higher altitude posts; which gives us an upper hand in case of an armed conflict and this has been of particular concern to the Chinese.

Secondly, out-and-out access over the Doklam Plateau would give the PLA unrestricted capability-overreach and would prove detrimental to India’s vital interest, bringing Sikkim and Northern Bengal under long-range Chinese artillery offensive. Not to mention, Beijing has been keen to monitor the movement of trade and goods volume between India and Bhutan and in event of a full scale conflict might contemplate it’s offensive via Bhutan to Indian territory and further west.

This has long been worrying foreign policy hawks in New Delhi, for India has not taken serious cognizance of persistent China nibbling at its own as well as Bhutan’s territory, its strategic neighbour, bit by bit shifting its goalposts under the pretext of unfounded ‘historical claims’. In 1949, when the brutal occupation of Tibet was imminent, Bhutan and India signed the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, under which Indian is under the obligation to defend Bhutan in case of any political or military aggressions. The Treaty which was revised in 2007, holds that the atmosphere of peace between India and Bhutan would be perpetual and India would guide the diplomatic actions and handling of external relations of Bhutan without interfering in its domestic politics or internal affairs. Article 2 of this Friendship Agreement states “In keeping with the abiding ties of close friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and India, the Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Government of the Republic of India shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests.”

It is under this Treaty that India has dispatched her troops to guard the ‘territorial integrity’, the ace-card which is often played by the Chinese but seldom respected with respect to other nations. Bhutan has no official diplomatic relations with China; it communicates its grievances and carries out other diplomatic communiqués through the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi. It issued a demarche to China through this Delhi embassy , making it clear that ‘status quo’ be maintained as was before this incident and unilateral actions should be avoided.

PLA personnel have often jostled with the Royal Bhutanese Army in the Bhutanese posts often staying there for days or months and issuing verbal warnings before returning to their side of the border. However, the tipping point was when the Chinese Army extended their road constructing activities in ‘Donglang’ , the Chinese for Doklam right upto the border. Had it been not for the vigilance and timely intervention by the Indian Army, this could have proved to be disastrous and counterproductive for our assets and would provide the Chinese leverage in case of a conflict with India.

By changing the present state of conditions, China violated the 2012 Treaty signed among the three nations as stated by the Gopal Baglay , the Ministry of External  Affairs(MEA) Spokesperson. The Special Representatives(SR) had a broad understanding that tri-junctions would be finalized in consultation with the third country concerned. But China seems to have little regard for International Law given the fact that it ‘rubbished’ a UN Court Judgment which held that it had no absolute rights over the South China Sea. It even went to the extent of labeling the panel of judges as ‘biased’ and the verdict ‘malicious’ through its state-run newspapers.

These newspapers affiliated to the Communist party have been extremely belligerent and shrill in their stance towards the current conflict with irresponsible statements ranging from ‘ India better learn from historical lessons’ , ‘teaching India a lesson’ to even more acerbic ‘questioning the accession of Sikkim in 1976 and instigating pro-freedom movements’. These astringent remarks, a part of China’s psychological warfare would have generated a strong-worded response from any country but India has refrained from issuing these due to involvement of its closest and trusted ally, Bhutan. In a highly unprecedented public stunt, China uploaded a video in which a junior embassy official having ‘first-hand knowledge’ of the border issues stated that Indian soldiers had transgressed into Chinese territory(sic), ironically on Youtube which is banned in China. The Chinese Embassy in New Delhi went a step ahead to warn its citizens to be especially cautious traveling in India for the next month by issuing a Travel Advisory, despite the fact that Chinese nationals in India face no imminent threat. Compare this with what happened in Pakistan a few months ago, when two Chinese nationals were abducted and murdered, when China simply conveyed its ‘reservations over security of its nationals’.

..contd in part 2( to be Published on Wednesday)

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