Sikkim standoff: Doka La incursions betray Chinese intentions of getting behind Indian, Bhutanese defences

New Delhi: 'Chinese efforts to push a road-building party near the China-India-Bhutan trijunction is an attempt to get in behind Indian and Bhutanese defences'. This is one of the assessments guiding New Delhi's approach to the heightened Chinese rhetoric since the armies of China, on the one hand, and Bhutan and India, on the other, began a stand-off that is now nearly 20-days old.

"The map shows what the Chinese are attempting to do. It is not only about the Siliguri Corridor (that connects India's North East to the rest of the country). They are trying to get behind us in a sensitive zone," Lt General Subrata Saha, who retired as the Deputy Chief of Army Staff (DCOAS) earlier this year told Firstpost.

"Every year in this season (when it is relatively drier and the snows in the higher reaches have melted), they come, not just here but to other places also. We stop them. They are almost set piece manoeuvres and then they return and we return. But this time, Bhutan has taken a good stand. They (Bhutanese forces) are refusing to go back from land that they believe is theirs and they have been informing us (India) and we are cooperating with them," says Saha.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

While the rhetoric from the Chinese defence and foreign affairs ministries in Beijing and from its ambassador in New Delhi has raised the idea of possible "military action", Saha says that the Chinese moves are of a pattern recognisable in history.

"They have a history of pressurising peripheral states. It is a sort of assertion. But this time, we have taken a more rigid stand. And they realise that they are at a disadvantage. Relenting is not an option," says Saha.

The heightened rhetoric from the Chinese side has not taken the Indian establishment by surprise, though it is pitched several notches higher than the stand-offs in Ladakh in 2013 and 2014. India and China have studiously abided by a series of confidence-building measures despite their border disputes.

For instance, Indian and Chinese patrols have not fired at each other in 40 years. The measures advise soldiers to avoid eyeball-to-eyeball contact. The soldiers in patrolling parties are trained to lock arms and turn their backs to approaching Chinese patrols and form a "human wall."

But the evidence of such measures holding true this time is being tested.

"The first priority is that the Indian troops unconditionally pull back to the Indian side of the boundary. That is a pre-condition for any meaningful dialogue between India and China," China's Ambassador Luo Zhaohui told PTI in an interview on Tuesday. Asked if Beijing was seriously talking about a military conflict, Luo waffled but said "there has been talk about this option, that option. It is your government policy".

The current stand-off began around 16 June when a Chinese road building party entered Doka La. They were first spotted by the Royal Bhutan Army. Subsequently, the government of Bhutan briefed New Delhi on the development. Both India and China sent in reinforcements. Reports emerging from the area so far indicate to minor scuffles but no major flare-ups in violence have been seen.

China claims its boundary around the Chumbi Valley, a sliver of Tibetan plateau between India and Bhutan – that is often described as a 'dagger' aimed at the Siliguri Corridor – that extends south of Doka La, around a ridgeline called Gyemo Chen that is defined by Mount Gipmochi. Doka La is a pastureland in the western extremities of Bhutan that China claims as its own. India believes that the Chumbi Valley ends at the Batang La, north of Doka La.

In the year 2006, too, there was a stand-off between Chinese and Indian troops in East Sikkim facing Doka La. Through 2006 and 2007, the Indian Army relocated its 27 Mountain Division to the region from Jammu. The division was originally in the region but had been deployed to Jammu during Operation Parakram in 2001 and 2002 – the full-scale mobilisation of forces following the attack on the Indian Parliament on 13 December, 2001.

Elements of the division were used to beef up the 164 Mountain Brigade headquartered in Kalimpong, in the Darjeeling hills of North Bengal under the 33 corps. The 33 corps, that reports to the Eastern Army Command in Fort William, Calcutta, is headquartered in Sukma, North Bengal. It is responsible for the front with China in Sikkim and Bhutan.

Besides, India shares a unique relationship with Bhutan. An Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) is more or less permanently stationed in the Kingdom. An Indian Brigade too has a presence in Bhutan, including in some of the border areas that are disputed by China.

This gives India a tactical advantage in terms of military operations despite the threat of the Chumbi 'dagger' pointed at the Chicken Neck that is the Siliguri Corridor.Theoretically, Indian troops can counter any aggressive military movement by Chinese forces through the Chumbi Valley by seeking to cut off their supply lines in attacks that may run from Sikkim, to the east of the Chumbi Valley, and from Bhutan, to the west of the Valley.

Despite the revival of memories of the 1962 war during which the Chinese overran Indian forces, there have been instances of strong Indian fightbacks. At Nathu La in Sikkim in 1967, for instance, and at the Sumdorong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh in 1987 when the then army chief had surprised the Chinese by airlifting an entire brigade of troops to the region.

Ultimately, the talk of a bloody war petered down to a "loudspeaker war" with each side rigging loudspeakers and broadcasting messages that the other backs off. Indians made their announcements in Chinese and the Chinese did theirs in Hindi.

But this year, with New Delhi declining to participate in the One Belt One Road (OBOR) summit in China and India protesting against the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), tensions have risen. Add to the mix Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit last month to meet with United States president Donald Trump and the upcoming trilateral naval exercises (Malabar) between India, the United States and Japan next week.

"I think we are some distance away from seeing the face-off at Doka La fading, especially with the Bhutanese also taking a tough stand. And we cannot say that it will be the last face-off of this year with China," said one officer in the defence establishment.

But, the new elements that Doka La has added to the war of words in 2017 have certainly enriched the vocabulary of India-China relations.

Updated Date: Jul 05, 2017 17:51 PM

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