The Telegraph
Wednesday , August 9 , 2017

A long haul in Doklam

Facing up to a massive psychological war unleashed by China,with President Xi Jinping threatening to beat back any invader, India has decided that its army will settle for a long haul at Doklam and not blink anytime soon. The Chinese media, backed by the State, have unleashed a flurry of threats, ranging from a 'repeat of 1962 and worse' to 'India standing no chance in a conflict' and much more. Chinese columnists (fellows at Chinese think tanks) have written opinion pieces in Asian and Western media outlets, justifying the Chinese road construction at Doklam, strongly backing the claims that Doklam (or Donglang) was theirs, and projecting India as an aggressor. One Bhutanese columnist, reportedly close to a Delhi-based Chinese diplomat, has even asked India to leave Thimphu and Beijing alone to sort out their boundary differences and settle the Doklam stand-off, in effect suggesting that India should pull back its troops and not position them to confront China by invoking the 1949 treaty of friendship. Chinese writers have also focussed on the 1890 treaty between Sikkim and Tibet, saying that the boundary in this sector is settled, unlike in the west and the east, meaning Doklam is China's without doubt in spite of Bhutanese claims to the contrary. The Chinese offensive has been coordinated and multi-pronged, straddling diplomatic, military and media spaces, even as Beijing fumed with rage because its troops failed to push ahead with road construction through Doklam.

The Indian response appears muted but firm, effective where it matters - in the military sphere. The burly Indian soldiers managed to push back the Chinese soldiers physically, video-recording the episode meticulously for appropriate reporting upwards and media usage to counter the Chinese bullying. One Sikh havildar, with characteristic Punjabi humour, told this writer - "Sir , this was no war, but a solid kabaddi match." Having got the Chinese to stop the road construction into Bhutanese territory, the Indian troops have maintained utmost restraint with clear orders from the top not to open fire at any cost but also not to back off from Doklam under any circumstances.

Even though the details of the meeting between the national security adviser, Ajit Doval, and his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, are yet to appear in the public domain, it is known from reliable sources that the talks yielded no breakthrough. Yang stuck to the Chinese hardline position that Indian troops must first withdraw to pave the way for a 'meaningful dialogue', while Doval offered a mutual pull-out plan: let China stop the road construction and return to a pre-June 16 status quo and Indian troops will be pulled back simultaneously. Such mutual pull-outs have earlier brought down tensions at Depsang and Chumar in Ladakh in 2013-14, or elsewhere in the Arunachal sector. But this time, the Chinese are in no mood to relent. So this is a new challenge for Delhi. Having confronted the dragon, backing off now will have long-term consequences for India.

The Chinese Communist Party's Congress is due in October and President Xi Jinping, also the chairman of the central military commission, is determined to stifle all opposition to his emergence as the 21st-century Mao Zedong. He needs the support of the powerful military and the security Establishment. So one cannot expect him to scale down and infuse restraint over the Doklam stand-off. Little wonder then that on July 30, he appeared in full military uniform at the Zhurihe training base in the inner Mongolia autonomous region, reminding the People's Liberation Army that it was capable of beating back any invader. A few months ago, Xi had asked the PLA to prepare for 'short regional wars', if one were to escalate from conflicts like in the South China Sea or the disputed Himalayan land border with India. For any close observer of Chinese politics, Xi's courting of the military-security lobby to ward off inner-party challenges - weaker but not absent despite the decimation of the likes of Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang - is unmistakable.

India's refusal to attend the Belt and Road Summit in Beijing in May this year and Bhutan's non-participation in consonance with Indian policy have also hurt Xi's ego because OBOR is his signature initiative. How could India and tiny Bhutan dare to snub the Middle Kingdom at a time when Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe, no friends of China, sent delegations to the summit? A Chinese woman diplomat visited Thimphu soon after, met with Bhutanese ministers, civil society leaders and intellectuals, to lobby for a 'more straight and balanced Bhutanese relationship with her two neighbours'.

The Doklam stand-off is thus not just rooted in the Chinese army seeking to reverse the terrain and tactical advantage enjoyed by the Indians in the Chumbi valley but is also a move by Beijing to draw Bhutan away from India's ambit. After its relative success in Nepal, an emboldened Beijing is clearly trying to torpedo India's special relations with Bhutan to change the balance of power in the Himalayas. As the former Indian foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, rightly said: "China uses templates of the past, as instruments of legitimization, to construct a modern narrative of power. One key element of the narrative is that China's role as Asia's dominant power... restores a position the nation occupied throughout most of history."

India's strategic anxiety over the Chinese moves to consolidate the Yadong zone wedged between Sikkim and Bhutan is linked to the threat it poses to the 'Chicken's Neck' when Darjeeling is in unusual turmoil, a dagger aimed at the tenuous physical link between the Indian mainland and the country's remote Northeast. But the Chinese are also worried over the Narendra Modi administration's moves to reopen the Tibetan question - from the Mcleodganj conclave of Tibetans, Uighurs, Falun Gongs and other anti-Beijing dissidents to the recent unfurling of the Tibetan national flag on the banks of Ladakh's Pangong lake by functionaries of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Any Indian military counter-offensive will doubtlessly play out through the Chumbi valley where India has terrain and tactical advantage.

With so much at stake on both sides, it is unlikely that the Doklam stand-off will be resolved any time soon. The only chance of resolution lies in Doval's mutual pull-out plan, but one cannot see Xi, determined to flex muscles before the October Congress, backing off from a confrontation that might give him domestic mileage against party opponents as well as against other Asian countries. Neither is Modi, keen to win all elections to build the momentum in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, likely to blink because it would carry the risk of appearing weak-kneed in the face of a determined rival.

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