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Month after Doklam withdrawal, more Chinese troops on the plateau than ever before

India Today logo India Today 30-09-2017

© Provided by India Today Sometime in early August, the dry, desolate plateau around the Gurudongmar lake in north Sikkim resounded with the roar of tank engines. A squadron of 14 Indian army T-72 tanks kicked up dust as it raced towards the Line of Actual Control with China. The explosive reactive armour panels slapped on their turrets can defeat enemy anti-tank shells and thermal imagers ensure they can fight through the night.

The tank move occurred even as the Doklam standoff -- where the Indian army blocked the People's Liberation Army, or PLA, from building a road through disputed territory in Bhutan -- entered its third month. The army had its eyes on the Tibetan plateau. Military spy satellites had indicated that two regiments of PLA Type 96 battle tanks, artillery and troops continued to remain on the Tibetan plateau near the town of Khambha Dzong, nearly 30 km north of the border.

Complete Coverage: India-China stand-off

Their manoeuvres, unusually, had been on for three months now, since May. Worryingly, the Indian army noted, they were just 10 km away from north Sikkim, a short sprint away from the only part of the rugged eastern sector where its own forces sit on the Tibetan plateau. The flat and wide terrain of the plateau is ideal for armoured warfare, one reason why the army had pre-positioned two regiments of T-72 tanks and BMP armoured personnel carriers there since 2009.

© Tanmoy Chakraborty/India Today

India Today has learned that the army's northward advance, which happened with the concurrence of India's top political leadership and NSA (national security advisor) Ajit Doval, were meant to pre-empt any attempt by the PLA to make good its war rhetoric over Doklam. The rare move of offensive units so close to the border was meant to demonstrate India's resolve in the face of Beijing's belligerence and did not go unnoticed across the border. "So, your tanks have started moving up...," a Chinese officer told his Indian counterparts during one of the flag meetings held to resolve the standoff. The message had gone across. Force would be met by force.

For good measure, the army also began moving firing units of Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles which had the ability to conduct pinpoint strikes from nearly 300 km away. They also issued anti-tank mines from their stores which they also wanted the Chinese side to see. The game of Himalayan chess was on in full swing even as Indian and Chinese diplomats held at least 38 meetings in Beijing to defuse the Doklam crisis.

In Securing India the Modi Way, defence analyst Nitin A. Gokhale describes how the sustained and often bruising negotiations in Beijing were led by India's envoy Vijay Gokhale, a China specialist. The Indian team was given instructions by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his two principal aides -- NSA Doval and foreign secretary S. Jaishankar -- on the redlines: India would remain 'resolute on the ground and reasonable in diplomacy'. In other words, India was willing to discuss mutual disengagement or withdrawal but it would not step back just because the Chinese were making threatening noises.

So it came as a relief when the PLA on August 28 folded up its tents and rolled its bulldozers back from what had in just two months become the world's most contentious road - the two Asian giants locked in a tense 72-day standoff. The coordinated withdrawals saw both sides pull 180 metres behind the disputed spot. The PLA's road rollback, though, had more to do with ensuring the BRICS summit at Xiamen went off successfully. India's foreign ministry confirmed Prime Minister Modi's visit on August 29, the day the army verified that the Chinese had stopped road construction and stepped back.

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Just how temporary that withdrawal was can be surmised by the ground situation a month after the pullback. The PLA is now back in greater strength at the contentious trijunction between India, China and Bhutan. Army surveillance cameras have revealed camp stores and construction material under camouflaged tarpaulin sheets near Doklam. Indeed, there is no attempt to even hide the new prefabricated structures to accommodate the troops. "Doklam was never about the PLA leaving," says an Indian army official. "It was about them staying." And while the world's attention was focused on Doklam, the PLA quietly moved deeper into Bhutanese territory. Since June, the PLA has built three 'incursion camps' opposite the Royal Bhutanese Army border observation posts in the Duktegang region of western Bhutan.

This area is along the Bhutan-China border, less than 100 km northeast of Doklam. The PLA's moves seem to be what army chief Gen. Bipin Rawat warned in a seminar on September 8 in Delhi, the "flexing of muscle", China "salami slicing, taking over territory in a gradual manner, testing our limits of threshold", something he said India needed "to be wary of".

With China's President Xi Jinping seeking a second five-year term at a crucial party congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) set to begin on October 18, chances of a withdrawal from Doklam appear bleak. On the contrary, Indian planners believe Beijing could spring a surprise after the party congress. "De-escalation at Doklam is one phase," says Jayadeva Ranade, ex-additional secretary (R&AW) and a China analyst. "The Chinese are smarting and will seek to pay us back and restore the party's image within China."

THE HIMALAYAN TRIPWIRE

Winter is approaching on the ground near Doklam. The Merug La-Sinche La ridge lines are already crowned with snow. The Indian army's concerns over the now-stalled contentious three-metre-wide road has now given way to worry over the Chinese build-up on two ridges, 'Ridge 1' and 'Ridge 2' (see graphic), roughly 12,000 feet high and near the road that is being closely watched from the Indian army post at Doka La near the trijunction.

Surveillance photographs show crude bunkers made of stone, wooden logs and tents to accommodate the nearly 300 Chinese personnel still on the plateau. These bunkers were constructed between July and August when the standoff was under way and the Indian army is now attempting to evict the PLA and its bunkers from the plateau.

Hence, the mood at a four-hour-long flag meeting on September 8 between the Indian army major general and his Chinese counterpart at the red-roofed conference hall at the Nathu La mountain pass was anything but convivial. Halting road construction was not enough, the Indian army officer told his PLA counterpart. Status quo would be restored only after the PLA moved back to where they were before June 16 - behind the Merug La-Sinche La ridge line at least 1.5 km away.

The meeting came nearly three months after the Indian army took the unprecedented step of crossing over into Bhutanese territory and physically preventing China from building a road. The army moved in because the road would give the PLA access to the Jampheri Ridge which overlooks India's sensitive Siliguri corridor, also called the 'Chicken's Neck' because of its perceived vulnerability to a PLA military thrust from the Tibetan plateau.

Doklam is now a new flashpoint between the two countries, with the potential to once again flare up particularly in the light of the new redlines that have been drawn. "There is no question of allowing the road to be built...," an army official says. "It will have to be built over our dead bodies."

Judging by its bunkers along the two ridges, China is exploring the space below these redlines and creating the presence which foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying mentioned in her statement on August 29. China, Hua said, would continue "fulfilling its territorial rights and interests and safeguarding territorial sovereignty". The structures will make it easier for the PLA to stake its claim to the entire plateau and even going up to the Jampheri Ridge.

The Himalayan chess has now given way to a tug of war-two meetings since August 28-with India trying to get the Chinese to move back from the road. The first meeting, between brigadier-ranked officers, was called on August 30, a day after the de-escalation, when the Indian army objected to the Chinese leaving behind a flag at the spot guarded by eight soldiers. The Chinese withdrew two days later, but towards their positions on a ridge abutting the plateau.

The September 8 flag meeting at Nathu La was the second since the August 29 de-escalation when the PLA withdrew 180 metres behind the road-to behind the Torsa Nala rivulet where the Chinese patrols used to come in the past. The army is waiting to see how the PLA plans to cope with the onset of winter when the plateau becomes completely snowbound in November and December. But they already know the answer: the PLA has dug in for the long haul.

Why does the PLA continue to remain on Doklam? China's attempts to upset the status quo in the Chumbi valley can be understood by looking at a military map. The valley, created by the Torsa river, flows as the Amo Chu through Bhutan. India dominates the heights on the narrow valley's western flank, Bhutan sits on the eastern flank. India believes the boundary between it, Tibet and Bhutan emanates from the trijunction south of Batang La, moves along the Merug La-Sinche La Point 4421 and then northwest along the Chomo Lhari ridge.

China, however, insists the trijunction is at Gyemochen. All of China's recent attempts have been to widen its presence in this narrow valley and reduce its vulnerability there. "The Doklam plateau gives the PLA the advantage of outflanking the Indian army's defences in Sikkim where we have a major terrain advantage," says former northern army commander Lt General (retd) H.S. Panag. "The implications are strategic. We not only lose our major advantage of a strategic offensive/ counter-offensive from Sikkim but also give the PLA a launchpad for an offensive through the Rangpo river valley towards Kalimpong without violating the neutrality of Bhutan."

INCURSION CAMPS IN BHUTAN

An army official points to what the PLA is doing in Bhutanese territory over 150 km northeast of Doklam. There are three incursion camps in western Bhutan almost seven kilometres deep and not far from where the Royal Bhutanese Army has its own camps. All of these camps came up over the past decade. In the past, Chinese patrols merely came up to these Bhutanese posts and went back. Post-Doklam, they are there to stay. Army officials say there has been a sharp increase in Chinese patrolling activity post the standoff at Doka La. This is likely to happen at Doklam also.

China claims approximately 495 square kilometres of Bhutanese territory in the central sector and 269 square kilometres of territory in western Bhutan including Doklam. Each of the three Chinese incursion camps in western Bhutan are meant to house a platoon-sized formation of around 30 soldiers (see graphic) and include infrastructure and tents, permanent white buildings with green roofs and communication trenches which allow soldiers to move between positions when under fire. "The Chinese are here to stay in western Bhutan," an army official says. "Today some of the infrastructure looks like it is of a temporary nature, but expansion in the future cannot be ruled out."

There is nothing the Indian army can do about these deep incursions. Bhutan has not formally protested nor asked the Indian army for assistance. Unlike Doklam, which was just a few hundred metres away from an Indian army post at Doka La, the Indian army is too far away to help. Moreover, the new Chinese incursion camps do not directly imperil India's security position on the ground. The fresh Chinese incursions and bunker construction was recently raised 'at the highest levels' of the Bhutanese government, one government source said, but it did not elicit any response.

Bhutan, on its part, is being cautious because it does not want to risk upsetting its larger neighbour to the north (the Bhutanese embassy did not respond to a questionnaire requesting comment). Analysts are not surprised at what one army official terms as the PLA's 'Op Bully'. "I would expect specific intrusions by the PLA to keep Bhutan under pressure," says Ranade. "Their aim would be to get Thimphu to agree to full diplomatic relations and inhibit them from supporting India in a future situation."

The incursion camps in Chumbi and also the road at Doklam are part of the PLA's larger plan to widen its presence in the narrow Chumbi valley, which protrudes like an inverted thumb of territory between India and Bhutan. The army believes these posts are to widen China's eastern road that travels down towards the Chumbi valley. The road is presently too close to Bhutanese territory. The Indian army has wartime contingency plans for a mountain division to take up defensive positions along western Bhutan in case of a thrust down the Chumbi valley by China. But a wartime contingency clearly cannot become a peacetime exigency. Doklam and the areas around it are unlikely to see a thaw anytime soon.

NEW HIMALAYAN STANDOFF

The Indian army is trying to get the PLA to move back from two ridges towards the Merig La-Sinche La ridge where they were prior to June 16

WHY INDIA WANTS CHINA OUT

- India, Bhutan say the trijunction between India, China and Bhutan lies at Batang la. China says it's further south at gyemochen. China's presence on the plateau strengthens its claim.

- Doklam gives the PLA the advantage of outflanking the Indian army's defences in Sikkim where India occupies higher ground and a terrain advantage.

- China's access to the Jampheri ridge will give it a launchpad for an offensive on the narrow Siliguri corridor linking the entire northeast to the Indian mainland.

5 THINGS INDIA HAS TO DO

Some ways of plugging the army's vulnerabilities on the ground post-Doklam

- Speed up the completion of border roads: Only 16 of the 73 India-China border roads have been completed. The deadline of 2022 needs to be brought forward

- Transit through Bangladesh: Agreements for road, rail and sea access to India's northeast through Bangladesh inked in 2015 could offset the strategic vulnerability of the Siliguri corridor

- Longer sensory reach for the army and IAF in the northeast: The army and air force surveillance capabilities are severely limited and mutually exclusive of each other. They also lack all-weather, continuous surveillance. Needs to be integrated for real-time data flow

- Longer strike reach for forces in the Northeast: No high value targets near the borders for the army or air force on the Tibetan plateau whereas nearly all of north India within range of IRBMs on the plateau

- Military exercises with friendly countries on China's periphery: Will allow armed forces to work on China's vulnerabilities

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