Just when there was bonhomie at Nathu La in Sikkim during the visit of defence minister A.K. Antony on December 2 (see FORCE cover photograph), right under his nose, the People’s Liberation Army was busy flexing muscle into Bhutan through the Chumbi Valley. On his return, Antony and the external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee reportedly reviewed the situation with the armed forces in New Delhi on December 5. The defence secretary, Vijay Singh was sent to Fort William on December 10 to receive the first hand account from the army’s eastern command. The word from the army is that the media has exaggerated the incident. This may be true, but the mentioned high level reviews suggest that all may not be well. Emboldened by New Delhi’s repeated downplaying of its intrusions into Arunachal Pradesh, the PLA is up to tricks into Bhutan with serious implications for India. But first a few facts are in order.
India’s 33 corps, about 40,000 troops, is responsible for the defence of Sikkim and for ensuring that the strategic Siliguri corridor that links India with its north-eastern states remains intact. This is not all. Troops of this corps are also meant for the defence of Bhutan that has a special relationship with India. The Chumbi Valley that makes a wedge between Sikkim and Bhutan is part of the Tibet Autonomous Region (but the overlooking interspersed China-India locations along the western crest wall of the Chumbi Valley and north Sikkim are disputed) and has excellent infrastructure including roads and tracks developed by the PLA in the Nineties.
This includes the military class 18 Gyantse-Yatung and the military class 9 Shigatse-Khamba DZ-Yatung roads running north to south in the Chumbi Valley. The only town in Chumbi Valley, Yatung is held in sizeable strength by the PLA. In 1993, out of the blue, the Chinese laid claim on the Doklam plateau in West Bhutan. This area is close to Yatung and is the southern tip of Chumbi Valley. The latter has a width of 25km in the north and tapers down to about three to four km in the south close to Yatung and provides the closet point to the 20km neck of the Siliguri corridor which is 180km by 75km and comprises four districts of West Bengal, namely, Dinajpur, Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. As Chumbi Valley has restricted deployment areas, it favours offensive operations.
India’s Achilles Heel in this area has been the severing of the Siliguri corridor through the Chumbi Valley (with probably assistance from Bangladesh) by the PLA. The Indian Army, however, has enough contingencies in place to ensure that this does not happen. However, between 33 corps and the next door 4 corps in Tezpur meant for Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian Army’s problem is that it lacks the infrastructure available with the PLA. For this reason, it constantly worries even about the lowest of the three levels of threat from the PLA. The lowest is PLA’s Border Management Posture (BMP) which is wholeheartedly offensive in nature. With little territorial claims in TAR, the Indian Army has adopted a defensive BMP: to hold the passes which are likely ingress routes round the year, and to undertake regular patrolling to ensure that there are no intrusions by the PLA. Small and big level threats are the other challenges faced by the army. In the small level, the PLA could launch a limited offensive, requiring two divisions’ strength, to ensure the security of Chumbi Valley, or capture areas in north and north east Sikkim to deny launch pads to the Indian Army. The big level threat would require about 18 to 20 divisions and would imply a complete severing of ties between the two countries.
Even as the big level threat is improbable in the foreseeable future, the army has assessed that adequate warning would be available before it materialises. But there are three major impediments to the army’s job. First, Sikkim is on a low priority for almost everything. A rough comparison can be made from the fact that 33 corps gets a total of Rupees 10 crore annually for defence works, while the 14 corps in Ladakh gets around 100 crore every year. Second, maximum troops of 33 corps are employed on dual-tasking role against Pakistan or on counter-insurgency duties away from its operational areas. And third, the external affairs ministry does not want to displease China.
Thus, within the army, there is great unease over PLA’s BMP which could snowball into the small level threat. This is exactly why the latest PLA muscle-flexing in west Bhutan should be a matter of grave anxiety. At present, the PLA is improving BMP close to its claimed area in Bhutan. The next step could be the wrestling of its claimed area. What will India do then? It will be in an unenviable situation. On the one hand, it cannot start a war with China over Bhutan. On the other hand, if India remains quiet over Bhutan as it does over PLA’s intrusions into its own territories, Thimpu will loose faith in New Delhi and may veer into the Chinese sphere of influence. Will that be acceptable to India that views itself as a rising global power?