Doklam is fast inching towards becoming a major triangular territorial issue between India, Bhutan and China which could precipitate and amplify the larger Sino-Indian divergences in the long-term future.
Commenting on the Doklam issue during an annual press conference last month, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said India “… has repeatedly said this about Doklam and today I want to repeat again, status quo remains on the Doklam face-off site…there has not been any change in the position.”
While on the face of it, the statement appears quite definitive, it would have been advantageous for India to have defined its official and stated version of status quo in explicit terms at this stage and perhaps at every successive stage as well.
The External Affairs Ministry’s repetitive reiteration of ‘no change in status quo at the 2017 military face-off site’ does not appear to be in sync with the current and developing tactical ground reality of Chinese presence in Doklam. By the summer of 2018, China had permanently occupied the North Doklam plateau. In addition, satellite imagery clearly displays that a new alignment road (serving more as a bypass) will now open up South Doklam to Chinese troops. Significantly, the road lies about 4.5 km away from the present Indian military posts.
China’s pitch to build an “iron wall to enhance frontier border defence” is resonating piercingly in the Doklam plateau region. Satellite imagery indicates Chinese control in North Doklam with posts, trenches, armoured vehicles, heavy road-building machinery, and permanent troop deployment. More importantly, more than half a dozen helipads, one full mechanised regiment (with the probability of another) and a tall observation tower have been built by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Construction Corps.
Besides, the Chinese defence ministry says that the Defence Engineering Research Institute under the Academy of Military Science of the PLA has fabricated a new type of fortification and distributed the same to its frontier defence troops. This fortification can be divided into 13 sets in four major categories, namely observation and shooting, command centre, personnel and equipment sheltering, and are composed of electromagnetic shielding systems.
The new fortification units are light, small in size, capable of mobile transportation and flexible construction, rendering them well-suited for remote, high altitude, mountainous areas where they can be assembled or disassembled with pre-fabricated parts multiple times.
The Chinese defence ministry says that with the new fortifications, troops can swiftly build battlefield engineering support structures. Resultantly, a PLA platoon can now effectively build an advance command post for a division or a brigade in a matter of hours using these fabricated fortifications. Not surprisingly, this advancement has effectively boosted the PLA’s engineering support capability in wartime, and frontier management and control ability in peacetime, all along China’s border.
These fervent military developments and build-up by China around Doklam were acknowledged by no less than Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman when she stated in reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha in March 2018 that post disengagement from the face-off in 2017, troops from both sides have redeployed themselves away from their respective positions at the face-off site and, in order to maintain troops during the winter, the PLA has undertaken construction of “some infrastructure, including sentry posts, trenches, and helipads.”
Doklam is not the first instance of China’s attempts at altering the status quo in the context of a territorial issue, and most certainly will not be the last. In April 2012, during its stand-off with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, China displayed aggression by claiming that Chinese vessels were operating in the “traditional fishing grounds of the Chinese” around the islands.
Following a short stand-off, the Philippine frigate sent to patrol the area was withdrawn, leaving Chinese naval law enforcement ships in complete and effective control of what Beijing calls ‘Huang Yan Island’.
In the same vein and oft-repeated and expected pattern — of providing a Chinese name to Doklam — Beijing states, “Donglang always belonged to China and (was) always under China’s effective jurisdiction. There is no dispute in this regard…China is exercising sovereignty in its own territory.”
Deng Xiaoping said in 1988 that even by the middle of the 21st century, China would be a “middle-level power only”. Exactly three decades later, the political and strategic realities and objectives of China are far ahead of what Deng imagined.
And therefore, while offering anymore unilateral diplomatic overtures to a rising, revisionist, expansionist and combative China, India should bear in its strategic mind that Beijing is infamous for asserting dubious claims and thereafter engaging in intimidation and revisionism from a vantage point of military pre-eminence and superiority.
(The writer is Senior Visiting Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs, Tokyo)