Twice-decorated Army war veteran decodes Doklam standoff

Brigadier VRP Sarathy (retd)
Brigadier VRP Sarathy (retd)Aug 17, 2017 | 13:35

Twice-decorated Army war veteran decodes Doklam standoff

For over 60 days, Indian and Chinese troops have been facing each other at the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction, in combat readiness! The Chinese are at their belligerent and ballistic best (worst) - both in their unprecedented, (un)diplomatic language calling our foreign minister a “liar”, asking India “to come to senses”, reminding us of 1962 - and issuing threats of war.

Where is Doklam?


Doklam, or Donglang as the Chinese prefer to call it, is in the eastern Himalayan mountain ranges at an altitude of about 16,000 feet, where due to lack of sufficient oxygen troops need acclimatisation for survival, and carriage of heavy arms and fighting at these heights is extremely strenuous.

Location and topography

Doklam plateau, about 80-85 sqkm in area, is Bhutanese territory, connects with Chumbi valley in the north with Tibet (China) and in north-west with Sikkim (India). Hence this plateau has strategic significance for Bhutan, India and China.  

Historical perspective

China claims that Doklam (Bhutan) was under the Quing dynasty’s rule in the past, and Bhutan used to pay taxes to them. China follows the policy of “once mine, always mine”, and as the famous historian Dr Majumdar said: “There is, however, one aspect of Chinese culture that is little known outside the circle of professional historians. It is the characteristic of China that if a region once acknowledged her normal suzerainty even for a short period, she should regard it as part of her empire forever and would automatically revive her claim over it even after a thousand years whenever there was a chance of enforcing it.”


In 1890, the Chinese signed a treaty with the British, without any consultations or participation by Tibet, Bhutan or Sikkim, and on the basis of their bilateral treaty with the British, they claim Doklam as theirs!

The Tibetan government refused to accept the treaty and the British sent an expedition to Tibet in 1904, but the problem remained unresolved till 1960.

Notwithstanding all this, China has officially acknowledged the various areas of dispute including the Doklam plateau with Bhutan, despite 24 rounds of negotiations held so far. It has formally been agreed to by China and India in 2012 that the tri-junction points between India, China and third countries will be finalised in consultation with the countries concerned.

A treaty of friendship exists between Bhutan and India since 1949 (revised in 2007) sharing a special relationship which gives both the right to use each other’s territory for “activities harmful to the national security and interests of the other” and a clear understanding of India’s commitment to “protect” Bhutan in case of external aggression!

As stated by Brahma Challaney, “Bhutan was not a party to the 1890 accord which, in any case, identifies the watershed principle for defining the boundary. The highest ridge line separating river flows runs through Batang-la, not Mount Gipmochi, making Doklam part of Bhutan.”


Why is Doklam important to India?

The implications are strategic. First, it poses a constant threat to Sikkim (India) next door; secondly an offensive via Rangpo river and Kalimpong into Arunachal Pradesh - already being claimed by China as “Southern Tibet” and hence Chinese territory - is a possibility, and thirdly the threat to the Siliguri (chicken’s neck) corridor which has the potential to cut the only Indian access to its north-eastern states is a possibility, though the rough and rugged mountainous terrain further hindered by lack of roads will make these options extremely difficult for the Chinese, especially with adequate Indian forces deployed to deter such misadventures. But military prudence demands that India should deny such ingress routes.  

Neighbour’s bully, China

Everybody knows China's a bully. Photo: Reuters

China has annexed/claimed territory from almost all its neighbours: Xinjiang and Tibet (annexed), about 40,000 sqkm of land in Aksai chin (Ladakh, roughly the size of Switzerland), claims the Spratly islands (Vietnam), Mischief reef (Philippines), Senkatu islands (Japan) and Taiwan and with USSR claiming 52,000 sqkm of Tajikistan, in 1969.

Psychological war - bullying India

“The supreme art of war”, argued by well-known Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu (some 2,500 years ago), is to subdue the enemy without fighting. “Supreme excellence”, he said, “consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting”.

When China arrived at Doklam they probably did not anticipate the strong Bhutanese and Indian reaction and the will to stand up to China, a bully. Having thus boxed themselves into a corner, they are desperate and this probably explains their unprecedented, undiplomatic and open war threats!

Interim encounters/standoffs

Since 1962 till date, China has resorted to posturing/encounters/standoffs and even limited aggression to intimidate our troops, using loudspeakers constantly reminding them of the 1962 debacle!

In 1965, during the India-Pakistan war, the Chinese warned us to vacate two of the passes - Nathu La  and Jalep La-  and later in September 1967 in a battle that lasted for six days suffered an estimated 300 military casualties, against our own 65 dead and 145 injured. In the 1980s, their threat was met firmly by us in Sumdorongchu by movement of brigade-level troops.

Financial implications

The defence ministry has sought an “urgent” additional allocation of Rs 20,000 crore for “combat readiness, military modernisation and day-to-day operating costs” from the Union government in addition to the Rs 2.74 lakh crore allocated for defence in the 2017-2018 budget!

It is worthwhile to remember that the present year’s budget and ad hoc allotments for defence are necessitated to make up for failure and cumulative neglect to equip even the minimum essential requirements for an Army which has been fighting a “two-and-a-half” war/enemies for decades.

Hindering the Army, assisting our enemies

On March 12, 2012, a very detailed letter written by then Chief of Army Staff himself about the existing deficiencies in arms and equipment affecting fighting capabilities adversely (authentic top secret information, meant only for the eyes of the PM), was leaked to the media by an irresponsible bureaucrat, and I won't be surprised if the Chinese bravado is based on their military assessment of such critical shortage!

It must be realised that both China and Pakistan would have willingly spent crores of rupees to get such vast and accurate intelligence about the precise aspects of the Indian Army’s critical shortage of arms and ammunition and we shared it for free, with the person responsible for such gross negligence going unpunished.

To add to the Army’s woes - with the Chinese threatening war - the CAG released its report last month announcing to the Chinese (and the Pakistanis) - “No 'significant' Progress In 3 Years: Auditor On Army Ammunition Shortage”.

The CAG report said that of the 152 types of ammunition used by the military, availability of 55 per cent of the types was below the minimum inescapable requirement for operational preparedness. For another 40 per cent types of ammunitions, the Army had a stock for less than 10 days!

The irony is that the CAG was himself the defence secretary in his previous avatar and hence it is extremely unfortunate that he released such sensitive intelligence in the open, when China is threatening war.

Indian response

The Indian armed forces of today are no “pushovers” and with full knowledge about the terrain advantage being in their favour, the Indian government’s quiet, confident yet restrained and free-of-jingoism approach seems to be unnerving the Chinese, both the ruling elite and the media.

Last updated: August 17, 2017 | 13:35
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