China’s Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) have been accused of trying to build a C40 road through Bhutan’s Doklam plateau near the tri-junction with Bhutan and Tibet. Sketchy media reports spoke of ‘jostling’ but no firing and of the PLA soldiers ‘destroying’ two bunkers ‘before they were stopped. Though the incursion was in early June, the media reports just quoted ‘sources’ (not specifying if they were military or civilian officials or just political sources) to put out the story in late June. It talked of Indian soldiers ‘stopping the PLA by ‘forming a human chain’. It seems we are not talking of a normal border confrontation, a tense face-off but a China-India kabbadi match in the High Himalayas
The Army Eastern Command has maintained total silence on the issue, though a brigadier told this writer that the escalation was checked by a timely flag meeting. Though the media reports said both foreign office were in touch, neither commented formally which they are so prone to do on the flimsiest of issues. There hangs a tale.
This incursion happened just before Modi’s US visit, ahead of which the Chinese foreign office warned India and US against any plans to ‘intervene together’ in South China sea or elsewhere. China has been very wary of India’s intentions in Tibet since Delhi helped organise a not-so-hush-hush conference of Tibetans, Uighurs, Falun Gongs and 1989 dissidents at McLeod Ganj in 2015. The recent visit of Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh led to a fierce Chinese verbal fusillade, perhaps because Beijing apprehended the Dalai Lama to announce his successor in Tawang. One should see the incursion in Sikkim as a continuation of Beijing’s muscle flexing on the Himalayas — all to impress on Delhi that if it responded strongly to Delhi’s many moves to needle China, the US will not be able to come out to help. That is interesting, because in the late 1990s, India and China had decided not to question each other’s control over Tibet and Sikkim, following which the Nathu La pass was reopened for border trade after forty years.
Chinese state media, while praising Modi’s recent comment of ‘not a bullet being fired on the border’, have reminded Delhi of 1962 when the US abetted the Tibetan insurgency with close support from India but backed off from providing any meaningful help when Nehru asked for American fighter squadrons in desperation.
The Chinese are also wary of India furiously beefing up its military infrastructure in the Himalayas, which means their capacity to impose a 1962 type military solution is evaporating fast.
Why the Chinese foreign office have protested against Indian border roads and bridges like the one at Dhola-Sadiya, saying it was not fair to beef up military infrastructure on a disputed border without resolving the dispute.
Sikkim is the only sector in the long 3500-kms border where India has a tactical and terrain advantage. India’s raising the mountain strike Corps, though mired in financial uncertainties, has upped the ante, as for the first time, the Indians seem to be planning for an effective counter-thrust into Tibet in the event of a conflict and not just hold the border in a defensive war. Any such counter-thrust must come in Sikkim and the Chinese, who earlier in the century agreed to reopen Nathu La to border trade, are wary of any military infrastructure the Indians put in place in Sikkim.
After the much publicised PLA incursions during President Xi Jinping’s India visit, the LAC had cooled down.
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Both Xi’s and before that Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s visit to India were punctuated by PLA incursions in the Ladakh sector, at Depsang and Chummar.
But as the two countries worked out the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement, piloted by former NSA Shivshaker Menon, the incursions sharply dropped in the last three years.
China is also trying to show Bhutan who calls the shots in the Himalayas in an effort to take it out of the Indian ambit of influence. This has significance because Bhutan joined India in staying away from the May 2017 OBOR summit, whereas all other South Asian countries participated, as did US and Japan.
That is why perhaps the effort to build a road through what Bhutan sees as its territory, so that India is forced into confrontation to defend Bhutanese interest in keeping with the 1949 treaty.
Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and author.