Home > Analysis, Opinion, politics > End of the Sino-Indian Impasse at Dong Lang (Doklam) is Over – but Which Side Won?

End of the Sino-Indian Impasse at Dong Lang (Doklam) is Over – but Which Side Won?

Finally, after over two months, the Sino-Indian Crisis at Dong Lang (Doklam) that began with Indian troops crossing into Chinese territory to stop a road construction is over.  On August 28, the Chinese government confirmed that the Indian troops have withdrawn from the Chinese side of Doklam. The Indian government gave the following statement:

  • In recent weeks, India and China have maintained diplomatic communication in respect of the incident at Doklam.
  • During these communications, we were able to express our views and convey our concerns and interests. On this basis, expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site at Doklam has been agreed to and is on-going.

I don’t need to go over all the details of the crisis here, as those are readily available elsewhere.  But those who want a primer, do an internet search for stories between June 18 and August 29, 2017 on “India” and “China” or “Doklam” or “Donglang” and you will get a good sample…

What I want to share here are some of my thoughts about this whole standoff…

First, initially at least, there seems to be a lot of inconsistencies from the Indian side on what prompted the standoff.  In the beginning, the Indians said the Indian amy was  “requested by the Bhutan army” to intervene, but then soon, the Indians said the incursion was actually “in coordination with the Bhutan army,” and then yet later the main reason given because the area was too strategically important for the Chinese to build roads that its army can use to change the “status quo.”

Curiously, Bhutan has remained “silent” throughout the the whole ordeal.  The Indian experts say the Bhutanese silence was “calculated” not to offend China.  But this makes little sense.  Bhutan had no issue with lodging a public diplomatic complaint in early June against China regarding China’s road constructions in Donglang.  It became silent only after India troops stormed into the Donglang area.  Why the change of heart?  With the “great army” of India on hand, what has Bhutan – which was outspoken before India moved in – to fear?

What most likely happened was that the Indians opportunistically saw an opportunity to make an aggressive move toward China on behave of its “protectorate” (from Indian, not Bhutanese perspective), a move that shocked the Bhutanese, who are not stuck between a rock and a hard place … between China’s road construction (which it deemed as potentially prejudicial to its negotiations with China) and India’s aggressive intervention (from which Bhutan had little recourse given its reliance on India on so many fronts).

Wangcha Sangey, a Bhutanese, summarized this perspective well in a blog post on July 16 titled “The Doklam Standoff between China and India is more complex that what is made to appear.”  An excerpt is included here:

In the year 2012,  India and China had agreed not to interfere into border issues that India or China may have with  Bhutan or Burma ( Myanmar) at tri-junction boundaries.  And on that basis, the Border Agreement between Indian Sikkim and Chinese Tibet was finalised. It seems that both the Doklam status of China and the  Nathu La Trade Route Opening were part of several  overall understandings reached between India and China. Also during the Sino- Bhutan Border Talks, the Chinese position on Doklam Plateau was very clear and firm from the very beginning. Bhutan understood the  Chinese claim regarding Doklam.

This time at Doklam, India had breached that Bilateral Agreement and understandings between China and India when Indian soldiers  transgressed into Doklam. And now in retaliation, China is  abrogating that Agreement and demanding that Indian Army withdraw back from its existing position at Sikkim -Tibet border. China is insisting upon re-negotiating the Tibet- Sikkim border.

India had not expected such a strong reaction from China. And caught flat footed, tried to wriggle out of the tight corner by saying that Indian Army entered Doklam at the request of Bhutan Army. In other words declaring that Bhutan is a ” Protectorate ” of India. And projecting a international posture of India protecting  tiny Bhutan from a big bully China.

Bhutan naturally cannot support such blatantly invasive contention of India. Bhutan is a sovereign nation and member of UN. Not a ”  Protectorate ” of India.   And anyway China is not buying any such blabbering from India.

It appears that an overzealous Defence Ministry of India ordered the Indian Army intrusion into Doklam area. Maybe it was one strategy aimed at foiling Sino- Bhutan Border Agreement happening during the next Ministerial level Sino- Bhutan Border Meeting. It could also be an internal strategy of Defence Ministry officials to push through lucrative Defence Purchase Deals through hyping Sino- Indian conflicts at sensitive border points. Defence Deals worth billions of dollars could result in huge dividends for those making the Deals. And any sign of heightened tensions with China or Pakistan could hrlp to seal big defence related procurement Deals.

Whatever the reasons may have been for the unprecedented transgression at Doklam, the Indian war hawks  had not  envisaged such a huge fallout upon the Sikkim -Tibet Border Agreement and the Kashmir conflict.  India had already breached part of understandings with China by playing up the Dalai Lama card at Arunachal. And Doklam intrusion sort of broke the camel back. Since the departure of the Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to take up the post of Goa Chief Ministership, the Defence Ministry of India under Shri Arun Jaitley has been embarking upon a new defiant policy against China.

It is also quite clear that Indian Army Command was against such a confrontational move at Doklam.  But had followed the order issued by the Defence Ministry. The fallout from the foul up by the Defence Ministry has compelled Modi Cabinet to trim away Defence Ministry bureaucratic  powers and transfer the same to the Indian Army Command. Recently the strategic and defence powers including armament procurement authority of both the Chief and Deputy Chief of Indian Army have been considerably enhanced.  India may also find it necessary to appoint a full time new Defence Minister. Presently Shri Arun Jaitley is holding double portfolios of Finance and Defence Ministries. And that may have lead to war hawks at Defence Ministry taking over.

India could be prepared to fight 2 and 1/2 wars at the same time. But this is turning out to be 5 and 1/2 wars. Chicken Neck, Arunachal,  Kashmir, Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea plus that 1/2 meaning internal security. …

The Doklam standoff crisis may dissipate  if India truly backs off from Sino- Bhutan Border negotiation and in other areas like opposing One Belt Road Initiative and stop playing up Dalai Lama card.  I hope all goes well between our giant neighbours. War is terrible for all of us.

There is no written security pact as such between India and Bhutan or Bhutan with China. However, if Bhutan is invaded by either India or China, one could rightly assume that the other giant neighbour will get involved because of their respective concerns for national security. For both India and China, Bhutan’s buffer status is very crucial and non- negotiable.  As of date,  Bhutan has a 2007 Treaty ( revised 1949 Indo- Bhutan Treaty)  with India which recognises each other’ s sovereignty and declaration of friendship.  Likewise Bhutan has an Agreement with China which also spelts out respect for each country’s sovereignty and declaration of friendship.

In regards to Doklam crisis, I would  like to reiterate that I have always had tremendous faith in the working of the Deities. And I hopefully pray that what happened at Doklam this time is a way of the Deities to clear the path for  Sino- Bhutan Border Agreement. There is always a possibility of a silver lining to every dark cloud. I dare to be optimistic as well as forthright.

May Triple Gem watch over the Kingdom and guide our Leaders. Pelden Drukpa Gyel Lo ! Lha Gyel Lo !

That’s a much more realistic reason for Bhutan’s silence – a real palpable fear of India – than some mysterious deferred deference to China….

But what’s in it for India … why did India make such an aggressive gamble?  What is India’s strategy?

Many observers think something deeper is going on then helping Bhutan stop a road.  Remember again, this is not a secret road China is building with China being caught red handed.  China has actually notified both India and Bhutan regarding its activities beforehand and received no response from India.

After reading many Indian news articles and analyses such as this from the Asia Times, I am convinced that this is not a rash decision India made in response to a surprising action by China to change the status quo.  Instead it is a calculated move.

From the Indian perspective, the Chinese have been building a “String of Pearls” around India for decades: from the CPEC, One Belt One Road offered to Nepal, etc.  The building of the road in Doklam is just another nail in that coffin China is building for India, and it must be pulled out.  Doklam is the place to make an aggressive move because India feels it has tactical military advantage in Doklam area as well as political protection from Bhutan.

Going by that logic, many Indians saw the final peaceful resolution of the Doklam standoff as a great victory for India … so long as the road is stopped.

Many Chinese netizens feel it is the Chinese who won especially since the official Indian statement left out any stipulation about the status of the road construction.

They point that in contrast, the Chinese side held various press events to declare the end of the Doklam standoff.  In all of them, the Chinese side made in no uncertain terms that the Chinese troops will continue patrolling and defending the Dong Lang area as before the incursion, and further that Chinese side will continue exercise sovereign rights over the area, which included building roads and other infrastructures, for civilian as well as military use in the area (see e.g. this and this and this).

What is it with the Indian media that goes crazy with quoting anonymous and unverifiable sources to say that China had agreed to back off from building roads?  There are even reports that China has agreed to pay India billions as a price of Indian withdrawal.

In any case, the bottom line for Indian commentators is that there is no way India would withdraw if the Chinese didn’t make some kind of a deal.   Critically, despite statements focusing on Indian withdrawal and declaring its sovereignty over Doklam, the Chinese also made references to “weather” and other “excuses” for not building its road in Doklam.  This is all just diplomatic face-saving talk that India allowed China to give for its “domestic consumption.”

Perhaps, maybe (I wouldn’t know), the Indians are right.  But to me, it makes little sense that the Chinese would make a concession to India on road building the way Indians understand it.

Remember, for India, the problem with Chinese road building in Doklam is that it “unilaterally” changes the status quo in “disputed” or “undemarcated” land.  But as China has pointed out during the standoff, India too has been building roads – and specifically for military use too(!) – near it’s LAC in disputed areas of its border with China.

In fact, from Chinese perspective, the reason there has been little concrete progress on border resolution between India and China is India has been trying to change unilaterally the status quo in the Himalayas at China’s expense for the most part of the last half century, starting with India’s “Forward Policy” put in place in advent of 1962!

Now … even assuming India did get China to back down on building its road – for now at least – in my mind, India’s recent action to me actually belies great strategic weakness on its part.

Note in this incident, India had advanced only some 100 meters into China’s LAC in stopping the road construction.  What did India accomplish in stopping the construction only here?  I would think for the work crew to be at the border, they must have built a long road (or widened the road as the case may be) to that point already.  Unless China is to tear down the road it has already built, the road has for the most part already been built …

Note also that Indian politicians and media have made clear that they are willing to expand any military conflicts to the maritime domain while the PLA has been planning for at most a contained military operation at Doklam.  Throughout the last two months, Indian politicians and commentators have kept stressing that Inidia is no pushover and that it is “nuclear armed.”

India commentators openly talk about Indian navy shutting off Chinese commerce through the Strait of Malacca and even potentially the use of nuclear weapons if things get out of control.  Why would India threaten full-fledged war over Doklam?  Is the situations on the ground (via its “Chicken Neck” fears or situation in Bhutan) so precarious that the mere existence of expanded Chinese contact might tip the scale on the status quo on the ground?

Perhaps growing national pride in Nepal been stirring up too much national pride in Bhutan…

As Wangcha Sangey noted in a blog post after India’s withdrawal from Doklam titled “Doklam is free from Trespassers. May the Deities of Bhutan always prevail!“, the big winner here is probably Bhutan and peace, not India … not China.

My deepest admirations and respects for His Majesty the People’s King of Bhutan and the Government of Bhutan for ensuring that the  true and natural sovereign respecting status quo is maintained at Doklam. Small and militarily tiny Bhutan is but courage and wisdom saw the nation through intact. The Indian troops have withdrawn back to Indian Border. There is no shame is doing the right thing, dear Indian Army. Defend your great nation and respect our heavenly Kingdom.

I sincerely thank His Excellency Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India for taking the right step and correcting the mis- step of war- mongering politicians and bureaucrats. Please appoint an independant Defence Minister to avoid free rides for war- mongers. Shri Arun Jaitley is over stretched and buried under Note Ban deluge and GST complexities.

Bhutan has been a sovereign nation since time immemorial and a Kingdom since 1907. The Kingdom of Bhutan and their Majesties the Kings have been genuine friends of India. Bhutan shared the joys of India when she received her independence from the British Empire in 1947. And in 1962,  Bhutan sympathised Indian losses and defeat from the Chinese forces  and extended all help to provide safe passage to the fleeing Indian soldiers from Tawang through Bhutan to India. Bhutan always extended a  helping hand to India in times of real need.

India on the other hand,  instigated two uprisings of ethnic group in Southern Bhutan ( 1956 and 1989 ). Flooded Southern Bhutan with Indian militant groups during the 1990s after the unsuccessful 2nd ethnic uprising. Then attempted to hijack Bhutanese democratic Government formation in 2013 and this year 2017, India invaded Bhutanese territory. Please review history. Bhutan did not seek Indian assistance or friendship.

This time at Doklam, India did not bother to ask His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. Indian Army simply trooped into Bhutanese and Chinese territories at Doklam Plateau on the pretext of defending Bhutanese territory.  India thought it would be a piece of cake like the 2013 intrusions in the General Election of Bhutan. Few years ago, the Bhutanese authority was ill prepared for such well orchestrated action and propaganda that various agencies of India enacted. But this time, once burnt twice shy kind of maturity was demonstrated by Bhutan after the initial confusion that resulted in ” one namesake demarche and one solitary press release”.

That ” Protectorate state ” claim of India  shocked the Bhutanese leadership to the danger that loomed over the Kingdom’s sovereignty. Thank God this Indian attempt at Bhutanese sovereignty heist occurred when the reigning King had acquired 11 years of experience on the job and the birth of the  Crown Prince to whom the King has the hereditary duty to enthrone later in likened manner of his own enthronement by his illustrious great father the 4th King. There cannot be a future King if the Kingdom is not preserved now.  And above all our Great 4th King is in the best of health and immensely over versed in  all the intricacies and manoeuvres of politics of India. Modi is just another Prime Minister of India whose time has come and whose time will pass. And the Wangchuck Dynasty will flourish along with the Kingdom and the people of Bhutan for many more centuries.

I am relieved that China stood firm and upheld Bhutanese sovereignty. And the  Deities of our beloved Kingdom stood omnipotent and omniscient. Thank You Triple Gem. Kuenchho Soum is the Greatest !

Despite so many unsavory threats posed by India to Bhutsn’s sovereign existence, Bhutanese wish to be friends with Indian people. We cannot choose our neighbours so we choose to be friends with both the neighbouring giants:  India and China. India will always enjoy better advantages than China. But do not squander away such opportunities. Be deserving of Bhutan’s goodwill and best of friendship.

Bhutan, China and India have been designed and destined to be neighbours whether the geographical positioning is to our liking or not. So we might as well move forward for sounder peace, greater prosperity and better trust worthy friendships. We cannot be equal in material resources and military might. But as sovereign nations, practise  equal respects. May Bhutan, China and India become better neighbours.

Hurrah for the sacred sovereignty of the Kingdom of Bhutan. Pelden Drukpa Lha Gyel Lo !

Only time will tell what the long-term strategic fallout from the Doklam incident will be.  But something seems to be afoot for India to want to threaten full-scale war – including nuclear exchange – over a road in the Himalayas.

In the short term, Indians would like to believe that India has achieved a great victory.  As long as the road is stopped, they say, Chinese can go back to patrolling all land falling behind its actual line control…

That’s all good, because that result is compatible with Chinese strategy, too.

India likes to say the road is do or die for China … for India … for Bhutan.  But from the Chinese perspective, is it?

Every nation in the world understands that one often must take into account neighboring countries’ interests and concerns in what one does within one’s territory.  Neighboring nations often notify each other of troop movements near the border, or have agreed upon protocols for military air movements near the border, for example.  Taking into others account does not mean forsaking sovereignty.  Heck recently, China has attempted to convince S. Korea from deploying THAAD on its territory.

There is no reason why China would have categorically say damn you all, I will do what I please in my “territory” – as long as India or Bhutan presents legitimately how their interests are affected by Chinese actions.

If India and Bhutan had both made serous diplomatic effects, who is to say China would still continue with the road as is?  What India did was at best to choke off diplomacy, and at worst threaten full war over a relatively small dispute.  Given the peaceful state of the border at this time, what India did was truly repugnant.

Strategy aside, India media and commentators also like to point out that with India’s strong response in Doklam, China should learn the lesson that unlike the smaller nations with which China has disputes in the S. China Sea, India will not take Chinese unilateral actions helplessly.  Indians even cast themselves as leaders now of all those who have dispute with China on how to confront China.

I highly doubt India will pull another Doklam again.  The Doklam incident I believe came as a surprise to China.  China had then not calculated sufficiently how to respond to weaker nations that try to hold the Chinese nation hostage by threatening full war.  Everyone knows that China – at least at this time – does not want any war.  China is doing too well to want to risk it all with petty wars.

But if what India is doing is truly to affect an alliance – together with U.S. and Japan and whichever other nations willing to go along for the ride – to confront and contain China, China will begin to react differently.  Just a couple of days after the settlement of the Doklam standoff, for example, India and Vietnam announced a weapons sale that China opposed.  The timing I think says something…

By India’s own admission and actions, Doklam may just be India’s reverse “Pearl of String” applied to China.

Of course, there is a big difference between strategic pipe dream and reality.  But even if this is the future China faces, I believe China has sufficient resources – economically and politically – to counter this.  But if push come to shove, there is always the military option as well.  It’s not something that China should use lightly … but it’s an option that China should not be afraid of using either.

  1. alanking
    August 31st, 2017 at 11:31 | #1

    re: “What is India’s strategy/ Why did India do this”
    This strategy, if it has worked, would be to trick China into starting a “limited war” in the Doklam area. Regardless of whether win or lose, such a war would have allowed Indian troops to completely go into Bhutan, making it a complete “protectorate”, and after that, regardless of result of the war, India would have been able to annex Bhutan by default, just as it annexed Sikkim.
    Two major factors caused this not to work:
    1. The Bhutanese King is wise enough to not fall for this, and refrained, perhaps even under intense Indian pressure, to proclaim that it has asked for Indian help/protection.
    2. The Chinese must have seen through this, and instead of giving indications that they would start a limited war at Doklam, let the Indians know that all bilateral border agreements are off if Indian troops do not retreat – thus any war, if started, will not be limited to Doklam, but all over the border, including South Tibet, etc.

  2. N.M.Cheung
    September 1st, 2017 at 05:50 | #2

    It’s not the road at the border that matters, but the roads and rails from China proper to Tibet and Xinjiang. As China reviews the policy toward minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang, she realizes that the old policy of isolation didn’t work and counterproductive. China has initiated new policies integrating minorities to the national economy. Instead of discourage intermarriage and migration, now she encourages both, in addition market forces and internal tourism will change those isolated Islamic and Buddhist communities and accelerate modernity.

  3. Black Pheonix
    September 5th, 2017 at 09:31 | #3

    Also, Gorkhaland, just on the other side of the border in India, is revolting, since June 2, more than 3 months now.

    The entire region is shut down by the political revolt.

    India has no choice but to pull back, otherwise, it risks inability to supply its troops during the winter.

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