The Doklam crisis of last year holds the key to peaceful resolution of conflicts
Maj. Gen. Raj Mehta (retd)
National security adviser A.K. Doval represented the quiet self-assurance of emerging India in his diplomatic jousting at Beijing with Chinese Counselor Yang Jiechi on 27 July 2017. Asked by his Chinese counterpart whether the Doklam Plateau was Indian territory, Doval replied that British India had concluded an important treaty with Thimphu in 1910 by which Bhutan was to pursue its foreign policy in consultation with India.
Doklam was part of Bhutanese territory but longstanding treaty obligations demanded that Bhutanese territorial sovereignty be protected by India. Doval ended the exchange by asking the Chinese Counselor: “Does every disputed territory become China’s by default?” There was no response.
What was noted by China and the watching world was that India had refused to be brow-beaten yet combined her newly demonstrated strength with skilful diplomacy by foreign secretary S. Jaishanker and India’s ambassador to Beijing, Vijay Gokhale. Good diplomacy has no winners or losers but what did emerge is something China and the watching world noted: India stood up to China but did so subtly and without loss of face for China. India’s diplomacy, political savvy and military astuteness had invited favourable comment world-wide.
Doklam, a Strategic Red Line for India
Doklam is an issue that has the potential of mutually destructive limited war on its bare, high altitude ridges that, if occupied by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), will threaten India’s and Bhutan’s core interests. Doklam is a red line that China should not cross, nor India-Bhutan stretch to breaking point. In other words, tripartite diplomacy and realpolitik is the way ahead, not military confrontation.
Doklam is clearly an area of great significance for all three protagonists involved in the dispute. Its continued and unchallenged possession due to legitimate ownership claims (Bhutan’s stand); occupation by force due to ‘disputed territory’ claims (China’s stance) or overriding compulsion to retain oversight over inimical military activity centred on and around this high altitude plateau due to treaty obligations and threat to core Indian strategic interests (Indian stance) needs to be deciphered objectively and maturely. To do so, we need to start at the very beginning and understand why the Doklam stand-off took place and why resolving it is in tripartite, if not world interest, since it involves a potential military conflict that could escalate from local/ limited conventional war to general war between two nuclear powers of substance and ability.
Before we examine the origins of the dispute, the topography of the conflict area needs to be placed in context. This article covers Chumbi Valley, its domination by India; Doklam and how China plans its exploitation and, thereby, the need to defend the vulnerable Siliguri Corridor which is overlooked by portions of the Doklam area.
Chumbi Valley with an elevation of 9,500ft was formed by the Amo (Torsa) river and is a historic trading route between India-Tibet. It is located on the southern Himalayan drainage divide and has common borders with Sikkim and Bhutan. It is 70km deep, 54km wide at its base and 11km wide at its tip at Batang La. This forested valley is connected to Sikkim in the southwest through the high-altitude Nathu La and Jelep La passes.
During the ‘Great Game’ period when British India feared Russian intervention through Afghanistan/ Tibet, Lord Curzon, fearing the then Dalai Lama’s Russian tilt, ordered the Younghusband Expedition in 1904 which advanced through Chumbi Valley, securing Lhasa. In actual fact, it was a thinly disguised excuse to advance British trade. Besides physically occupying the Chumbi Valley till 1908, the British demanded a steep war indemnity (Rs 75 lakh) to be paid over 75 years. The amount was later substantially reduced but trade continued till 1962 even after the PLA took over Chumbi in 1951.
Chumbi is like a dagger pointing towards India’s gut and offers a secure base to China for massing forces in the event of war. However, the Dongkya Range watershed that towers almost 5,000 ft above the Chumbi Valley floor in the southwest (occupied by India but for Jelep La pass held by China), south and east (kept under surveillance by Bhutan) completely dominates Chumbi. This deployment provides protection to the narrow Siliguri Corridor which is hemmed in by Nepal to its west and Bangladesh to its immediate south. Through this corridor pass India’s land/ rail communications/ defence infrastructure to its seven North-eastern states and the critical land link to Bhutan.
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