Beyond Doklam 2.0: does China aim to absorb Bhutan and Nepal?
The latest news reports state that Indian Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Bipin Rawat, National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary (FS) Vijay Gokhale, with several key army and External Affairs Ministry officials, secretly visited Bhutan two weeks ago to discuss strategic issues, including the situation in the Doklam region.
This joint visit by the COAS, NSA and FS to Bhutan was unprecedented, indicating the seriousness of the issues involved. Rawat had earlier visited Bhutan in April 2017, followed by the foreign secretary at the time, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, in October, while the king of Bhutan visited India in November.
Doklam became a buzzword last year with a 73-day India-China military standoff. China began claiming the Doklam Plateau in the early 1990s, realizing its strategic significance. This was accompanied by claims in other parts of Bhutan that kept inching forward.
China had no ethnic connections in Doklam but the People’s Liberation Army started periodic forays into the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) post in Doklam, telling them to vacate “Chinese territory.” These incidents were mostly ignored by the Bhutanese and Indian media. China then offered a compromise. If Bhutan surrendered the Doklam Plateau to China, it would give up its territorial claims in north-central Bhutan.
The Doklam Plateau is the private property of Bhutan’s royal family. India has had excellent opportunities since the early 1990s to establish an Indo-Bhutanese venture here, or quietly buy this piece of land. This could have been done if the Bhutanese king had been convinced, through bilateral discussions, that this was the best solution to avoid any future confrontation with China.
Diplomacy does not imply ignoring the obvious where national security and other interests are involved. But ironically, none of the governments in India (Congress, Janata Party, BJP) can be credited with credible strategic sense. The Doklam imbroglio is one among many lost opportunities for India.
When the Doklam standoff began on June 16, 2017, China probably did not expect an Indian reaction, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Washington at the time. It was because of corruption allegations – or perhaps the need to find a scapegoat for the Doklam standoff – that General Fang Fenghui, chief of the PLA Joint Staff Department, was fired later.
But the PLA intrusion in Doklam was not a local-level move, as portrayed by China and its state-controlled media. Any trans-border move by China, whether against Bhutan or India, would be monitored by the Communist Party of China and President Xi Jinping.
In fact, General Zhao Zongqi, commander of the Western Theatre Command, had visited India in December 2016 and met with then-COAS General Dalbir Singh Suhag, vice-chief of army staff Lieutenant-General Bipin Rawat, and Lieutenant-General Praveen Bakshi, who was India’s Eastern Army Commander, perhaps to gauge Indian preparations and resolve.
The Doklam standoff ended on August 28 and was celebrated as a ‘victory” in India. But China was only taking a tactical pause
The Doklam standoff ended on August 28 and was celebrated as a “victory” in India. But China was only taking a tactical pause, in all likelihood to prevent the embarrassment of Modi not attending the ninth BRICS Summit being hosted by China in Xiamen from September 3-5.
But even as the standoff continued, Bhutan issued a démarche to China for violating earlier agreements. But China was not sitting quiet either. It kept reiterating that Doklam was Chinese territory, with Luo Zhaohui, China’s ambassador to India, and his deputy Liu Jinsong warning India against any interference.
Luo also held meetings with Indian opposition leaders, while Liu dashed by air to Thimphu to meet with the king and the Bhutanese leadership. This was followed by China’s announcement that Bhutan had conceded Doklam. However, this was quickly denied by Bhutan.
Notably, Luo had visited Darjeeling in April 2017 and met with the district magistrate, perhaps to assess the Gorkha agitation and how China could exploit it.
Immediately after the Doklam standoff being called off, satellite images from September 6 revealed that the China had continued to build its presence close to the contested point. PLA units with heavy and lethal equipment were poised for quick escalation, and reports suggested that nearly 3,000 PLA troops had been deployed. Images depict that a headquarters, a logistics unit, air defense artillery and a mechanized unit were present at the site.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs maintained that there was no change from the status quo, but the imagery said otherwise. On December 11, Indian media reported that 1,600-1,800 PLA troops present in the Doklam area had built two helipads, upgraded roads, and established scores of prefabricated huts and shelters.
On January 17 this year, satellite imagery revealed that the PLA was fully in control of north Doklam with a force of about brigade strength, including two mechanized regiments, two regiments’ worth of tank transporters, and more than 100 large troop/equipment-carrying vehicles, among other vehicles and equipment. There was also a concrete two-story-high observation tower less than 10 meters from the most forward trench occupied by the Indian Army during the standoff.
Another set of satellite images on January 15 revealed that China was building roads and posts in the strategic Shaksgam Valley.
These indicate that China has not given up on Doklam and will continue to push forward its expansionist strategy.
This is the first article of a two-part series on India and the rise of China’s military and territorial ambitions.