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Mainstream, VOL LV No 37 New Delhi September 2, 2017

War Clouds Over Doklam Recede

Saturday 2 September 2017, by Barun Das Gupta

Tens of millions of people in India and China heaved a sigh of relief last Monday (August 28) when the war clouds that had gathered menacingly over Doklam receded, even if they have not totally disappeared. While India said both sides had decided to withdraw their troops and the Chinese side had agreed to stop its road-building activities in Doklam, meaning that the Chinese have decided to restore status quo ante as on June 16, the Chinese statement was ambivalent and ambiguous.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said: “The Chinese side will continue to exercise its sovereignty, uphold territorial integrity in accordance with the historical conventions ... The Chinese Government attaches importance to its friendly relations with India. We hope India can earnestly abide by historical relations and norms governing the international law based on the mutual respect of sovereignty to uphold the peace, tranquillity of the border with India.”

The spokesperson said India had ‘withdrawn its troops from Chinese territory’ but did not clarify whether China was also reciprocating it. Despite persistent questioning, the spokesperson remained ominously silent on whether they had agreed to desist from building a road in Doklam. It is road building which created the critical situation as India considered this unilateral action on the part of the Chinese as an attempt at changing the ground reality in a way that posed a threat to the Siliguri corridor—the narrow neck of land that connects mainland India with its seven North-Eastern States.

While New Delhi deserves praise for its dealing with the crisis with both maturity and firmness without engaging in a slanging match with China in using provocative and vituperative language and at the same time giving a clear message to Beijing that threats and intimidations won’t work, Chinese ambivalence remains a source of concern and anxiety. Was China trying to save its precious face while climbing from the high horse it was riding, or was it keeping its options open for the future? That, future alone can say.

The Doklam crisis, however, has exposed the chinks in our armour. It has brought into the open the hitherto little known fact that the Indian Army’s store of ammunition was critically low, not enough even to sustain a ten-day long war. On July 13 the Union Cabinet gave ‘full financial powers’ to the Vice-Chief of the Army “to procure critical ammunition and spares to maintain an optimum level to fight a short intense war following ‘critical voids’ in capabilities of the Army”. The procurement related to 46 types of ammunition that the Army uses. But for the Doklam crisis, this ‘critical void’ would have continued. The Army has now placed an emergency order for ammunition and spares worth Rs 20,000 crores. But why in the first place was this critical shortage allowed to grow?

Doklam has shown that it is possible to look the Chinese straight in the eye and hold one’s ground and make them blink. This has sent a reassuring message to China’s smaller neighbours who stand in constant fear of it.

Prevention is better than cure. To be fully prepared for war against a treacherous neighbour is the best way to prevent war. One way of developing an effective deterrence against China is to strengthen our Navy. As things stand now, despite the Chinese Navy’s superior fleet strength and firepower compared to the Indian Navy’s, India can still effectively put a naval blockade in the Malacca Strait to prevent the egress and ingress of Chinese commercial vessels. As defence experts have pointed out, China will be at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Indian Navy in the Bay of Bengal because it is India’s own territorial waters while the Chinese will have to traverse a long distance to engage with the Indian Navy. In another five years’ time, the Indian Navy’s fleet strength will go up from the present 137 ships to 200 including half-a-dozen submarines.

Also, the raising of the Mountain Strike Corps should be completed expeditiously as this Corps is being trained specially for fighting the Chinese in the high altitudes of Tibet, if need be.

The Doklam crisis has blown over for the present but India cannot afford to lower her guard. At the same time, it is necessary to keep other countries fully apprised of the situation in our border areas with China so that China cannot be the aggressor and at the same time play the victim card.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62