India-China Standoff – deliberate Chinese move

July 7, 2017
By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army


On June 20, Bhutan served a demarche to China against the Chinese arbitrary action of constructing a road the Doklam Plateau, which is property of the King of Bhutan. The demarche, a formal statement, was served through the Chinese embassy in Delhi on June 20 since Bhutan and China do not have diplomatic relations. Major General Vetsop Namgyel, Ambassador of Bhutan to India, told the media, "The PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) started motorable road construction in the Doklam area towards Bhutanese Army camp at Zomphlri. We are in boundary resolution talks with China and have written agreements that pending final boundary settlement, peace and tranquility be maintained along the boundary and both sides refrain from unilaterally altering the status on ground. Bhutan has conveyed to China that road construction is not keeping with the agreements between two countries.

We have asked China to stop road constructions and refrain from changing the status quo. Doklam area is near the tri-junction is part of the boundary talks between Bhutan and China." This belied China's claim the by stopping PLA troops from the blatant construction, Indian troops were violating sovereignty – of Bhutan? For past several years, PLA troops have forcibly intruded into the post of the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) in Doklam region, staying put for an hour or so, and telling RBA troops to vacate the plateau, claiming it as Chinese territory. The mere fact that a big country like China is indulging in such antics against a peaceful country like Bhutan that gives prominence to the happiness index of its citizens, shows to what extent China can stoop to illegally occupy territory, slicing it off salami-style, as she has been doing with India. China timed this deliberate road construction activity to the Doklam Plateau with Prime Minister Modi's visit to the US knowing full well that Indian troops will be forced to react, giving excuse to China to snub India by closing the pilgrimage route to Kailash-Mansarovar via Nathu La. Earlier, India pilgrims were not permitted to Kailash-Mansrovar at Nathu La with China lying that the route beyond was disrupted by landslide, whereas, the Sichuan landslide occurred much later on June 25-26.

The route via Nathu La for the Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrimage through China Occupied Tibet (CoT) was agreed to by Chinese President Xi Jinping during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China in 2014, with a formal agreement between the two countries signed on 18 September 2014. Chin's act of stopping the pilgrims at Nathu La amounts to breach of agreement, even sacrilege, not much different from Pakistani terrorists attempting to block the Amarnath Yatra. China wants to capture the Doklam Plateau because it overlooks Chinese Posts in Chumbi Valley of China Occupied Tibet (CoT).

But for India, the strategic importance of Doklam Plateau lies in the fact that this high ground not only overlooks the sensitive Siliguri Corridor, its occupation by China will turn the flanks of India defences in Sikkim, making them vulnerable. China is a geopolitical bully that annexed 38,000 kms of Aksai Chin just to give depth to its Western Highway, but wants India not to react to this blatant Chinese move to build a road to the Doklam Plateau that outflanks Indian defences in Sikkim. The unarmed reaction by Indian troops in pushing the PLA soldiers back was witnessed by the whole world. When Indian troops strongly objected to the move, PLA soldiers destroyed two Indian bunkers in retaliation near the Lalten post and then arbitrarily announced closure of the pilgrimage route to Kailash-Mansarovar via Nathu La.

India has already told China that India has military agreement with Bhutan and that altering status quo is not acceptable to India. To China's sly reference to 1962, Defence Minister Arun Jaitley has bluntly reminded China that today is not 1962. China is mad that India has refused to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which possibly was taken as granted by the Communist Party of China. Without India joining, the economic viability of the CPEC is under cloud. But then China went ahead with its CPEC project completely bypassing strategic, security and territorial sensitivities of India, especially when CPEC is running through PoK, which is Indian Territory. The Indo-US relationship also apparently scares China. The state-owned Chinese media now says that India "needs to be taught the rules". Well, the PLA had to abandon their posts at for three days during the Nathu La incident of 1967. China under Deng Xiaoping invaded Vietnam in 1979 "to teach Vietnam a lesson" but instead learnt a lesson themselves. Xi Jinping was then Secretary in the Chinese Ministry of Defence under Deng Xiaoping. Again during the 1986 Sumdorong Chu incident, Deng Xiaoping threatened to "teach India a lesson" but eventually had to retreat. All that India needs to do is remain resolute. As far as China's threat that India "needs to be taught the rules", there sure is scope. India cannot stop Chinese goods coming into India, but the Indian public certainly has the choice to shun Chinese products. The $60 billion bilateral trade imbalance in favour of China must be eliminated. Bully or rogue, China must understand she can't keep clapping with one hand.