In laying claims to territories in the SCS and ECS and extending her EEZ beyond the 200 nautical miles norm, China adopted a line drawn by the erstwhile Kuomintang regime that the PRC did not recognise and overthrew. But the Kuomintang drew no such lines to the South along or over the Himalayas. China therefore resorted to improvise through juggling history. Though the northern border of Arunachal Pradesh was signed between Tibet and the British in 1914 when Tibet was not under control of China, PRC refuses to recognise it and claims Arunachal Pradesh as ‘South Tibet’; euphuism for the hegemonic. The Tibet-British boundary accord of 1914 actually followed the McMahon Line. China laid its claims to Tibet based on 13th Century history. So why not go all the way to the 6th and 7th Century when Tibet was a bigger kingdom than China and had even annexed the capital of China. The CCP would do well to read the book ‘Genghis Khan’ but then they would conveniently label it distortion of history.
Coming to the Doklam Plateau of Bhutan, the followers of Sun Tzu apparently slipped for once. The Chinese strategists famed to be distant gazers laid claim to this piece of ground only in early 1990’s. Possibly the strategic significance of Doklam was realised by the Chinese at much later stage because they were eyeing major chunks of Indian Territories as pieces of cake. Perhaps the move by Sunderji through Op ‘Chequer Board’ in occupying forward positions along the Sino-Indian border forced the Chinese to focus on what was left for grabs. Bhutan, with its limited military capability seemed lucrative. Hence claims were laid to the Doklam Palteau. This was accompanied by claim lines in other parts of Bhutan that kept creeping forward like the proverbial Arabian camel with its head inside his master’s tent. It is possible that Arabs may have coined the phrase having studied Chinese moves although Chinese contacts with Arabia were quite unknown then and it took another decade or so for PRC to discover its newfound camaraderie with Al Qaeda spawned by Saudi Arabia’s Osama-bin-Laden.
The Doklam Plateau lies immediate east of Indian defences in Sikkim. Chinese occupation of Doklam would turn the flank of Indian defences completely. This piece of dominating ground not only has a commanding view of the Chumbi Valley but also overlooks the Siliguri Corridor further to the east. China lays claim to the strategic Doklam Plateau is on account of following: threatens Indian defences in Sikkim; deters possible Indian forays into the Chumbi Valley that may be quid-pro-quo to Chinese offensive actions elsewhere; and provides launch pad to progress operations into the Siliguri Corridor. The latter reason is most important to China who is seeking every possible avenue to reach the warm waters of the Indian Ocean through the land route, be it Myanmar, Pakistan or India. It is also no secret that when the BNP was in power in Bangladesh, their military was practicing a ‘cold start’ to seize the Siliguri Corridor, which may have well been on Chinese advice – similar to Chinese advice to Pakistan to raise a militia to fight in India’s backyard. In case of Doklam, China could not claim any ethnic connections due to the abysmal population in the area. So PLA troops started periodic forays into the Doklam Plateau. The modus operandi was to arrive on the plateau, threaten the Royal Bhutan Guards (RBA) personnel, stay on their post for few hours and tell the RBA they are sitting on Chinese land and they should get out. These incidents were mostly not reported by the Bhutanese and neither in the Indian media for reasons best known to policy makers. Simultaneously, China offered to Bhutan a barter that if Bhutan surrendered Doklam Plateau to China, China would give up equal territorial claims in north-central Bhutan – talk of ‘magnanimity’ of the devil.
Though Bhutan should logically be wary of what China has done to Nepal; Maoists running riot and PLA virtually having invested northern Nepal akin to Gilgit-Baltistan, the lure of trade may yet enlarge relations, providing opportunity to the head of the Chinese Camel (like British East India Company) to enter Bhutan surreptitiously. China also has the advantage of having achieved finesse in development of infrastructure, particularly roads and railway, as demonstrated in Tibet. It is a different matter that all these construction companies are owned by the PLA and provide avenues for a hybrid soft-hard invasion – PLA soldiers and veterans quietly investing foreign lands. Unlike India who still follows BOT (Build, Operate and Transfer), China continues to operate whatever projects they build. That is why today there are three million Chinese in Myanmar, Chinese operate three star hotels in heart of Kathmandu and Chinese/PLA strength in Pakistan/POK is going to rapidly rise far above the present purported 11,000. Ironically, India has not yet even taken the railway into Bhutan albeit great amount of effort has gone into power projects that have boosted Bhutan’s economy considerably. However, the advent of democracy in Bhutan gives a chance to China to work on Bhutanese politicians, for which China possesses the lure and time, all under garb of opening up Bhutan.
Then is the danger of use of force by PLA which may simply manifest in a strong patrol walking into the Doklam Plateau, refusing to leave and even a skirmish to establish them permanently. This may even be preceded by unleashing irregular forces into Bhutan to force decisions in China’s favour. Should the Maoists assume complete control in Nepal, unleashing the one lakh strong Bhupalese into Bhutan on China’s behest can hardly be discounted? China’s links with Al Qaeda and Taliban plus support and arming of insurgencies in India is proof that PRC has no compunctions in playing dirty. The Bhupalese can be sent to destabilise Bhutan before the ‘assassin’s mace’ strikes. Xi Jinping is already showing his mettle as a hardliner in Tibet and SCS.
So what does India do? To start with, the Doklam Plateau is private property of the Royal Family – belongs to the King. What India should do is to make an offer that China has not. The offer could be to establish a joint Indo-Bhutanese venture on the Doklam Plateau. Alternatively, this underdeveloped piece of land can be developed by India through a development project, which after completion can continue to be operated by Indians or jointly by Bhutanese and Indians. A third possibility is that the king of Bhutan may consider selling the Doklam Plateau to India so that this bone of contention is resolved permanently. It would be prudent for the foreign policy mandarins not to let the issue lie in a state of limbo, permitting China the initiative.
Prakash Katoch is a former Special Forces Lieutenant General.
Views expressed are personal