Doko La Standoff: Trouble in Himalayas

This article was originally published in www.guerillawriters.com

Our generation can easily claim Donald Trump becoming the 45th President of America as a turning point in world politics. The start of American isolation and a chance for the sleeping dragon to take over the world stage, all owing to confused American foreign policies.

China has just started to push its expansionist policies with new fervor all glossed under the development agenda named One Road One Belt project. Pakistan is all but a satellite state of China, North Korea is a poor version of the Chinese State, Sri Lanka has practically relinquished a part of its nation to repay the debt that was forced onto it by the Chinese.

Amidst all these aggressive moves China flung its might onto a tiny Himalayan Kingdom Bhutan. With a population size of 7,50,000 which is less than the size of PLA which stand at 2.3 million, Bhutan practically stands no chance against the Chinese juggernaut.

Now on a global stage this issue would look like a minor border skirmish, but upon close analysis this is not like any numerous border spats that China has with its other neighbors like Vietnam, Philippines or Taiwan. The skirmish with Bhutan is a bit grave because it even involves India another nuclear armed country with a robust economy of $2.5 trillion.

The Situation

Far away from the world India and China are vying for supremacy over the Himalayan rock of Dokho La which has been a bone of contention between Bhutan and China. Bhutan is the only nation in the Himalayan region which does not maintain any diplomatic relations with China, hence any communication between the kingdom of Bhutan and China has to be dealt through India.

This is a major red flag for China because it has been eyeing complete dominance in its backyard given the ineptitude of the previous Indian governments. But with a strong leadership at helm in New Delhi Beijing dominance and bullying has been checked at Dokh La in Bhutan, and this is a major red flag.

Bhutan does not have an army of worth which can stand up to Chinese incursions, but a major factor to note here is the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) has always had close military ties with the Indian Army. An Indian Army Corp of Engineers is permanently stationed in Bhutan since May 1961, and the air force needs of Bhutan are taken care of by the Eastern Command of Indian Air Force.

This token Indian presence turned out to be a spanner in the works of the dragon whose dubious plans of building a road in the disputed tri junction area and was thwarted. China and Bhutan have agreed to maintain status quo over the disputed territory in year 1988 and 1998. But China continued to grab land inch by inch by sending in unwarranted Chinese patrols deep inside Bhutanese territory and even encouraging Tibetian herders to graze their cattle on the disputed plateau. Emboldened by the meekness of Bhutan and the reluctance of Indian Army to take a stand against PLA, China crossed the line in 2017 by starting to build a road in the disputed territory. The least it expected was the Indian Army to stand up for Bhutan which enraged the dragon.

The Chinese reaction on this standoff has been particularly fierce with the cancellation of the passage for Indian Pilgrims to Kailash Sarovar located in the region of Xi Zang (Tibet Autonomous Region), and in a very unprecedented move releasing a video of the Chinese Ambassador urging the Indian public to desist their government from confronting China.

Since then India supporting Bhutan and an increasingly aggressive China have been locked in a standoff that still continues.

Why Dokha La important?

The Chinese Viewpoint

China is undoubtedly the second super power in the world economically and militarily even surpassing Russia by a great margin. The amount of financial investments it makes round the world stands testimony to its increasing clout. But beneath this shiny armor there are some chinks which trouble this great giant.

China is currently facing repercussions from its One Child policy due to the increase in ageing population and by 2030 China would face a severe shortage of working age population. This is a worrying scenario for a nation which uses its manpower as a bargaining chip to around the world.

With increasing protectionism and a weakening Yuan Moody downgraded China in a timely move, a factor which did not go well for Beijing. An increasingly hostile America supplying South Korea with THAAD missile systems and pro democracy protestors mocking Beijing from Hong Kong, the last thing it expects is Bhutan standing up to it backed by India.

Unwarranted escalation from the Chinese side would lead more hostility from the West and America. With the increased protectionist policies of America and $578.6 billion trade at stake China stands more to lose from a war with India which is perceived as a close ally of US in Asia.

The disputed area of Dokha La which lies at the India Bhutan China tri junction lies on a higher plane which gives the controller a strategic advantage to overlook the Chumbi Valley which is Chinese territory. Any move by the PLA to move their army units to cut off the Indian North East during a war scenario can easily be thwarted by inflicting heavy casualties by direct artillery shelling from the Indian side.

Apart from that the Indian Air Force stationed at Siliguri has the strategic advantage to strafe the advancing Chinese force an advantage which the PLAF does not enjoy due to its location in Tibet.

Apart from that the trade between India and China also stands at a whopping figure of $ 70.8 billion which shows Chinas reluctance in closing down its borders for trade with India in spite of the increasing hostility between both the giants.

The Indian Viewpoint

India is on the verge of taking its economy to the next level but grapples with internal issues like low HDI, corruption and poverty. The strides India took in improving its Human development factor and GDP in the past few years is really commendable. With a young and vibrant population, rising middle income population and strong IT services sector providing the much needed backbone to the country’s economic rise, India is precariously poised at a crossroad.

India shares a hostile western border in the west with its arch nemesis Pakistan and in the east with a bullish China, and faces internal strife in the region of Kashmir where the insurgency is fueled by the rogue state of Pakistan.

In such a situation it only makes sense for an aspiring regional power like India to stand up for its friend Bhutan against Chinas expansion. Historically India faced a humbling military defeat with China in 1962 due to lack of preparedness, the shadow of defeat still dictates Indias policy towards China.

India backing off from a standoff would send the wrong signals not only to the neighbors who are not in a position to face China, but also place Indian State at a strategic disadvantage.

The presence of Chinese army units in the disputed area would give them increased access to the Siliguri corridor of India, which is shaped like a chicken neck connecting the restive Indian North East with the mainland.

This would leave the North Eastern states of India at the mercy of China in case of a war and forever India would play a second fiddle to Chinas policies after losing face with its allies.

This standoff taking place between two aspiring and great nations will definitely lead the way to a new Asian hegemony with America slowly losing prominence in the region. It is for time to tell who would blink first in this game that is being played in the Himalayas.