Millennium Post

China's doklam transgression endangers 50 years of bullet-less border management

Since five years after the 1962 Sino-Indian war – following PLA upping the ante with not only small arms but artillery also and a fierce retaliation by Indian Army in Sikkim in 1967 – the 4057kms long complex and perception-based Line of Actual Control (LAC), has been managed by both armies without pulling the trigger for the fiftieth year now, writes Col Anil Bhat, VSM (Retd).

If the current Sino-India stand-off gets resolved – we can only hope it will – then come this October (2017), the two nations will have created a record of completing 50 years of bullet-less management of the long Line of Actual Control (LAC). But for a country which wants to trade tremendously with India, this decades long management to maintain peace and tranquillity has been punctuated frequently, continuously, by transgressions on some pretext or the other, by China's Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). While PLA air force has been complementing many of the land transgressions, PLA navy has stepped up its presence with proximity in the Indian Ocean Region. The latest is PLA's bluster: "Moving a mountain easier than shaking PLA."

The titles of some essays by this writer over the past decade at least will give a fair idea of the nature of the Sino-Indian relationship and characteristics of the Chinese government and the PLA in its conduct. These are: China punctuates dialogue with aggressive cross-border action, India's Eastern Neighbour Fuels Insurgencies/ China Supports (India's) North East Terrorist Groups, China's Dra'goon' Diplomacy, India-China Relations - No Bullets On Borders Since 1967 And Trade With Tensions, Sino-Indian Relations Sourer Than Sweet, Chinese Checkers Redux, Chinese 'Fingering' in Sikkim. Chinese 'Dadagiri', Management of Sino-Indian Ties on Table and Terrain, Be Water-Wise With China and so on.
Since five years after the 1962 Sino-Indian war, following PLA upping the ante with not only small arms but artillery also and a fierce retaliation by Indian Army in Sikkim in 1967, the 4057kms long complex and perception-based Line of Control (LAC), has been managed by both armies without pulling the trigger for the fiftieth year now. And that is despite very frequent incursions/ transgressions mainly/ much more by China's Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), many of which resulted in unarmed grappling by troops of both armies, but always ended with negotiations by field commanders and/or diplomatic dialogue.
However, PLA's transgression beginning on June 8, 2017 into Bhutan's Doklam plateau (also known as Doka La by India and claimed as Donglun by China), at the tri-junction of India's Sikkim, Bhutan and China-held Tibet, actually amounts to aggression and has resulted in a dangerous stand-off, continuing for over a month.
On the very next day, on June 9, when our Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping met for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation's summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, it was reported: "There was an understanding that where we have differences, it is important that differences should not become disputes." But PLA's actions on the ground belie such a spirit. First, it demolished two bunkers and then began constructing a road towards Doka La. The Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) tried to intervene but were pushed back. RBA then sought the assistance of the Indian troops, who moved down the ridge and obstructed the construction work, leading to the standoff. Visuals on TV news networks of Indian soldiers relentlessly grappling with their PLA counterparts leave no doubt about their determination and great restraint.
Bhutan's ambassador to India Vestop Namgyel is reported to have stated in media that Bhutan issued a demarche to China over the construction of a road towards its Army camp in Zomplri area of Doklam and asked China to restore status quo by stopping the construction work. The standoff has also led to diplomatic heat between India and China, as both sides have reinforced their positions. China has accused India of wrongfully interfering in China-Bhutan boundary talks and said that the "ball is in India's court" to end the standoff. Indian Army has deployed 3,500 additional "non-combative" troops in a show of strength near the tri-junction.
India expediting the building of hollow block bunkers along the LAC, India's refusal to take part in the One Belt, One Road summit organised by China and PM Modi's visits to the US and Israel, have all peeved China. Since then, Beijing has issued a warning over India's strategic infrastructure development along/near the LAC, especially in the north-east region. China opposed the infrastructure development issue several times. It is certainly not happy about India raising a mountain corps with two divisions already and the construction of bunkers particularly, has been a flashpoint in Sino-India ties.
Former foreign secretary and former Indian ambassador to China, Nirupama Rao is reported to have stated the last few months have exposed the fragilities and strains in the India-China relationship. The equilibrium is already pitched at a low level. There has been no visible attempt to defuse tensions as the temperature has risen steadily. India has some genuine grievances which China has shown little understanding of. The Chinese handling of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor issue is one example. The dispute in the Doklam area is known, it is not a new phenomenon.
But China's road construction is a deliberate move to trigger a response from Bhutan and from India. Through its actions, China seeks to impose its own definition of the tri-junction point of the boundary between Bhutan, China and India (Sikkim). The move has serious security ramifications for both Bhutan and India's defence interests... Bhutan and India enjoy the closest relationship of mutual trust, confidence and enduring friendship. There is absolutely no controversy about military-to-military cooperation and understanding between our two countries. India holds Bhutanese sovereignty as sacred and inviolable.
According to Claude Arpi, India-based French expert on India, China, and Tibet, China has tried to push the envelope by starting to build a road on a territory which is disputed, thinking that India would not defend Bhutan, which was a wrong judgment by Beijing.
A brief look at some events during the past fifty bullet-less years is relevant:
In 1967, when PLA upped the ante at Nathu La, Sikkim, by mortar and artillery bombardment and direct fire, killing some Indian Army officers and soldiers, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi overturned the 1962 humiliation by sanctioning use of artillery requested for by the then Brigade Commander, Brig MMS Bakshi, MVC, resulting in about 400 PLA troops being killed, a convoy of vehicles being destroyed and many bunkers being levelled. The message that 1962 cannot be repeated went to the Chinese very effectively. However, incursions by the Chinese continued in some form or the other, but significantly, they have all been bullet-less for fifty years since that skirmish, so far.
1986-87: China upped the ante again with a massive build-up in the Sumdorong Chu region, north of Tawang. Then Indian Army Chief Gen Krishnaswamy Sundarji responded by launching Operation Falcon. The crisis was resolved without any exchange of fire.
1994: Gen Bipin Joshi became the first Indian Army Chief to be invited by China since 1962. While the Chinese broke protocol in welcoming him, transgressions continued.
1999: During the Kargil conflict, the Pangong Tso area became a great flash point when China constructed a 5 km long track right up to the lake's southern bank. Both sides now carry out routine patrols on the track and mark their presence, but avoid physical contact. Yet Chinese patrolling speedboats often swirl aggressively around Indian boats.
January 31, 2000: The Chinese People's Liberation Army built a permanent road network and set up bunkers 5 km on the Indian side of the LAC in Ladakh's Aksai Chin area.
April 1, 2000: India and China commemorate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Mukut Mithi accused China of violating the LAC and crossing into Indian territory. Mithi said Chinese-built mule tracks had been discovered by Indian Army soldiers near the Kayela Pass in the state's Dibang Valley district, bordering Tibet. "They come in the guise of hunters, cross the LAC and at times even claim that parts of Arunachal belong to them," he had said.
June 23, 2003: When Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made a landmark visit to China, a Chinese patrol transgressed 16 km inside India and intimidate an Indian detachment.
July 6, 2006: China and India re-open Nathu La Pass, Sikkim, which was closed since the 1962 Sino-Indian war. In November 2006, the Chinese Ambassador to India publicly declared that Arunachal Pradesh was Chinese territory. In December, PLA conducted joint military war games with Pak army in West of J&K, codenamed "Friendship 2006", to mark the 55th anniversary of Sino-Pakistan diplomatic relations, based on India being viewed as a common enemy. Subsequently, the Chinese build-up began in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, which now amounts to an army division.
May 25, 2007: China denied a visa to Arunachal Pradesh chief minister, arguing that since the state is, in fact, a part of China he would not require a visa to visit his own country. The then BJP MP Kiren Rijiju made a startling claim that China had moved 20 kilometres into the Indian territory, amounting to 9000 square km since quite some time and claimed that Ministry of External Affairs had admitted to the Chinese occupation of Arunachal Pradesh. 140 incursions reportedly occurred in 2007.
Soon after former Defence Minister AK Antony's late 2007 visit to Arunachal Pradesh, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised a substantial long-overdue infrastructural development package to the State. Major mobilisation and relocation of Border Roads Organisation's (BRO) resources became the spark-off point for the Chinese to focus their attention on Eastern Ladakh, the J&K part of the LAC, by launching a series of multi-mode and multi-dimensional incursions involving camping, painting CHINA in Mandarin on rock faces, filching fuel and what not.
In this "increasingly assertive'' behaviour by China, transgressions on the Pangong Tso (tso means lake), by Chinese troops on foot/ motorised boat patrols have become a continuous routine.
2008-09: There were major Chinese incursions in the general area of the barren land at Chumar, East of the picturesque Morari Tso, Zulung La and the 22, 420 feet high Mount Gya.
August 27, 2010: India cancelled defence exchanges with China after Beijing refused a visa to Lt Gen BS Jaswal, heading Northern Command because he "controlled" the disputed area of J&K. India subsequently refused to allow two Chinese defence officials to visit New Delhi. November 2010: China started the practice of issuing stapled visas to people from Jammu and Kashmir.
April 2013: A platoon-plus Chinese detachment made a most unusual kind of intrusion 19 km across the LAC into Indian territory at Chumar, in Ladakh's Daulat Beg Oldi sector/Depsang Valley, camped there in tents with Molosser dogs for three weeks and departed after much diplomatic dialogue.
On June 17 another detachment of Chinese troops came on horseback, demolished/damaged some bunkers, cut some wires of cameras installed at the border post and took away some other visual equipment, broken remains of which were reportedly returned later. Chumar, located 300 km from Leh, has always been an area of discomfort for the Chinese troops as this is the only area along the LAC, which they do not have easy/close access to. On July 12, Chinese troops transgressed in area Burtse, about 30 km from the LAC.
September 2014: When Xi visited India, PM Modi, broke protocol and received him in Ahmedabad. China promised $20 billion worth of investments in India over five years. Even as the two leaders sat on a swing at the banks of the Sabarmati river, the PLA had already violated the LAC at Ladakh-Chumar and Demchok. When confronted by Modi over these intrusions, Xi is reported to have assured him of having his troops to withdrawn ending the border standoff, after he returned.
While China has been petty enough to disallow Indian pilgrims to visit Kailash Mansarovar, Indian government and Army are tight-lipped but deliberating at the highest levels and this time they have not yet blinked. War is certainly not a favourable option for either country. But God forbid, if push comes to shove, the Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat has already stated that Indian Army is prepared for a two and a half fronts war. PLA should remember 1967.
(The author, an independent strategic analyst, is Editor, WordSword Features)

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