Today's Editorial

05 August 2017

Brinkmanship and diplomacy



Source: By Maj Gen Sathish Nair: Deccan Herald



Today, India and China have mobilised their forces and concentrated troops to dominate Dokola in the Chumbi Valley, opposite Sikkim, over the latest Chinese territorial transgression there. From an Indo-centric security perspective, the Dokola-Tri Junction approach enables China the shortest approach to the Siliguri Corridor in West Bengal. The Corridor is the only landmass within the Indian territorial boundaries and connects the seven sisters of North-East India to the rest of the country.


Therefore, the Siliguri Corridor has strategic importance for India. Another aspect is that India's defence against China in Arunachal Pradesh will be rendered untenable due to denial of a land route for access into the area. Why has China chosen to initiate this brinkmanship with India now? Will this confrontation result in a 'hot' or shooting war? The Chumbi Valley is essentially a low-lying area, in comparison to its surroundings, essentially being a part of the Tibetan plateau. The Chumbi Valley is shaped like the blade of a dagger with its sharp tip pointed towards India, at the point of Dokola and the Tri junction of India, Bhutan and Tibet.


Both flanks of the Valley are dominant due to the high and rugged mountainous ranges. On the western flank, the ridge line rises from Dokola and runs in the North-North Western direction where numerical superiority favours the Indian Army. The defences at Batangla, Dongchiula, Jelepla, Nathula and Chola are based on this mountain range. On the eastern flank, the mountain range runs along the international boundary between Tibet and Bhutan in the North-North Eastern direction from the Tri junction. This range has relatively fewer troops as it is part of Bhutan. On the western slope of this mountain range is the Doklam Plateau which overlooks the Chumbi Valley.


Today, China plans to develop its road network in the Doklam plateau as the area is more favourable for road construction activity vis- a-vis the Chumbi Valley. It would facilitate the Chinese logistical build up and progress ground operations towards the Siliguri Corridor. The capture of this Corridor will render Bhutan extremely vulnerable to Chinese designs. As a result, China has the potential to exploit this short and safe approach along the international boundary between India and Bhutan. The eastern flank being held by Bhutan has a thin military presence of the 8,000 strong Royal Bhutan Army which would make it vulnerable to hostile Chinese operations.


Clearly, climatic considerations are an important issue given the Himalayan high altitudes and with the onset of winter, the mountainous terrain becomes that much more hostile with greater risk to life and limb. The tricky nature of the mountainous Himalayan terrain has invariably resulted in innumerable territorial transgressions between the Asian neighbours time and again, but resolved through military and diplomatic channels without further escalation.


In 2014, these two neighbours were engaged in a military stand-off at Chumar in Eastern Ladakh when 1,500 Indian troops were involved against 750 Chinese soldiers that lasted 16 days. Similarly in 2013, the two sides militarily faced off against each other at Depsang 19 km into Indian Territory and the Chinese had pitched five tents for almost three weeks there. The latest military stand-off between India and China should be viewed in the backdrop of the international strategic environment over India's participation in the recently commenced naval exercise along with the US and Japan in the Indian Ocean waters. This loose alliance between these three countries which have had a history of hostility with China, signals an exercise in collective security to thwart Beijing's regional political-military dominance.


Moreover, India's relations with several smaller Southeast Asian nations which also perceive a level of military threat from China characterise the regional strategic environment. This refers to India's ties with Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam which are also political-military in character. At the individual level, it is necessary to look the "great man in history" concept where the personalities of leaders shape their countries national security and foreign policy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not hesitated to emphasise a military approach in foreign policy towards Pakistan with a solitary surgical strike. However, the same policy cannot hold good for China which has a stronger strategic stature in terms of size of its military, territory, population and economy.


Military muscle


At the state level, whether the Chinese People's Liberation Army or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the dominant decision maker in national security and foreign policy formulation is the question. The fact that China has flexed its military muscle on eight occasions in the post-Second World War period has shaped its strategic culture. Chinese strategic culture comprises two strands of thought namely Confucian thinking which emphasises that "Peace is precious" and Realpolitik that highlights how war is integral to inter-state relations.

While Confucian thinking is relevant to China as a kingdom, Realpolitik relates to China as a modern nation state. The Chinese leadership likes to engage in offensive military operations as a primary alternative in pursuit of national goals and rationalise these actions as being purely defensive in nature and a last resort. In today's international strategic environment, China would be cautious not to escalate the military confrontation with India into a shooting match. Beijing would like the international community to perceive it as a responsible state and not earn the label of an aggressor nation. Now that both neighbours have deployed force levels and locked horns with each other in a stalemate, the next step forward would have to be diplomacy in order to avoid a hot war. Clearly, any kind of military engagement would not serve either India or China's national interests.