China's New Assertiveness: The Doka La Face-off
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China's New Assertiveness: The Doka La Face-off

By Jayadeva Ranade

China's New Assertiveness: The Doka La Face-off

The ongoing face-off between Indian and Chinese troops at Doka La has continued for an unusually long time. With China first publicizing the face-off, then launching a propaganda offensive and insisting that there would be no negotiations till Indian troops first withdraw from the area, it reduced the room for diplomatic maneuver. China’s insistence that the area is Chinese territory complicates negotiations. India has been equally firm that it will not be the first to withdraw. With both sides bringing in more reinforcements and troop strengths increasing to over 3000 on each side the situation is serious.

India-China relations, under increasing strain for the past couple of years, are now under greater pressure following China’s intrusion in Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau in violation of previous agreements. On June 8, 2017, China began building a road through the strategically important Doklum Plateau and leading to Gyemochen, on the southern tip of the India-Bhutan-China borders. As on past occasions, Bhutan objected. China had recognized the territory as ‘disputed’ and agreed that any resolution regarding the tri-junction would involve all three parties. China’s objectives were clearly to pressure Bhutan, before the general elections scheduled to be held next year, into establishing diplomatic relations with China and allowing it to set up an Embassy in Thimpu. The other goal was to build the road to Gyemochen to reinforce China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh. China’s contention is that Gyemochen is the tri-junction and watershed while the Geological Survey of India maps of 1956 shows Batang La, 18 km north, as the watershed and tri-junction. The McMahon Line too goes eastward from Batang La.

India’s robust and swift response in coming to Bhutan’s assistance clearly caught China by surprise. For India, the Doklam Plateau and Doka La are of military importance as the Plateau overlooks the Chumbi Valley and a road to Gyemochen would make the 37 km wide Siliguri corridor, the only link between the Indian mainland and its northeast, more vulnerable.

As the face-off at Doka La continues, China is exploring various options including the military. Its propaganda offensive has broadened the scope of the incident with both running the risk of losing international prestige. For both sides simultaneous withdrawal and mutual satisfaction are essential. Neither can afford the loss of face. Since 2013 China has exhibited declining willingness to contemplate any compromise on sovereignty or territorial issues. Xinhua reported that Xi Jinping had directed “no compromise” on sovereignty and territorial issues and China’s ‘2015 White Paper on Military Strategy’ similarly affirmed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will “uphold bottom line thinking”, a reference to Xi Jinping’s principle that China’s sovereignty and territorial interests are a non-negotiable “bottom line”.

A factor in China deciding its future course of action will be the view of the PLA and its commanders in the PLA’s Western Theatre Command.  The Doka La area is within the operational jurisdiction of the PLA’s Shigatse (Xigaze) Military Sub-District subordinate to the Western Theatre Command. The present Commander of the Western Theatre Command, 62-year old General Zhao Zongqi, is one of the few serving PLA Generals with battle experience and has over two decades of service in Tibet. Fang Jianguo, the incumbent PLA commander in Shigatse, similarly has a sterling record and promising career ahead. Both anticipate further promotions. They could view India stymying the road building as a setback to their operational capabilities and argue in favor of action against India.

Raising the temperature – at least of the propaganda rhetoric – have been the unprecedented string of threats in China’s official media, including the authoritative Xinhua news agency. Xinhua raised the ante by reproducing on September 12, 2017, without comment, an editorial from its issue of the same date published in 1962.  Earlier, over 20 articles in the state-owned English-language Global Times threatened that: India would do well to recall the lessons of the China-India war in 1962, that China could ferment trouble inside Sikkim, campaign internationally to rupture India’s close ties with Bhutan, revive direct support to the insurgency in the northeast, and send troops into Kashmir at the ostensible behest of Pakistan! Such rhetoric in China’s state-owned media reveals the Chinese Communist Party leadership’s insensitivity to relations with India.

Chinese diplomats in New Delhi have also selectively briefed think-tanks and individuals in the capital. China’s Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, has met opposition leaders including Rahul Gandhi, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, former Assam Minister Tarun Gogoi and his son Gaurav. His intention would be to try and exploit political differences.

Both sides are trying to get the other to blink first. Diplomatic channels are simultaneously active, but a delay in finding a mutually acceptable resolution could heighten the chances of action elsewhere along the border.

About the Author:

Jayadeva Ranade is President of the ‘Centre for China Analysis and Strategy (CCAS)’. He is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and was a Member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB). He is also a Member of the Core Group on China of the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA).

Mr. Ranade is the author of the book ‘China Unveiled: Insights into Chinese Strategic Thinking’, (ISBN 978-9381904435) released in January 2013. He regularly contributes articles relating to China and East Asia in leading Indian newspapers and defense and strategic publications. He is often invited to speak at international conferences on national and international Television channels.

Cite this Article:

Ranade, J. "China's New Assertiveness: The Doka La Face-off",  IndraStra Global Vol. 003, Issue No: 07 (2017) 0025, | ISSN 2381-3652

AIDN0030720170025 / INDRASTRA / ISSN 2381-2652 / China's New Assertiveness: The Doklam Face-off / By Jayadeva Ranade