Both sides have compelling reasons to avoid it, but India will now see the peril in ignoring its defence preparedness.
A week ahead of August 1, when China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) marks its 90th anniversary, Xi Jinping's Red Army had a stern message for India. A PLA major-general, flanked by three senior colonels, held a rare meet-the-press in Beijing. "Our willingness and resolve to defend our sovereignty," Senior Colonel Wu Qian thundered, "is indomitable. We will do so whatever the cost." India, he continued, should "not harbour illusions". "The history of the PLA of past 90 years," he said, "has proven our resolve."
China's sabre-rattling, ever since the June 16 standoff with India came to light, has been relentless. One reason, insiders suspect, is that for the PLA and for Xi, the face-off at Doklam couldn't have come at a more sensitive time. On August 1, President Xi, who also heads the PLA's Central Military Commission (CMC) and is the commander-in-chief, will supervise the army's largest-ever annual war games in Zhurihe, Inner Mongolia, a show of strength that is meant to test the military a year after Xi kicked off its most far-reaching reforms. Not only that, in November, Xi will preside over a once-in-five-years party congress that will be key to his second term, as rival factions jostle for the top slots. Any sign of weakness will be seized upon.
Beijing's bluster has been met with quiet resolve from New Delhi. Nearly 300 Indian soldiers have pitched their tents on Doklam blocking the PLA from building a contentious road into territory Bhutan claims. Army officials says the troops will stay for as long as New Delhi wants them to, even through the 10 below zero winter temperatures of the plateau.
Doklam comes at a time when China is pitching its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) even as it aggressively asserts territorial claims around its periphery. "It hurts China's self-image as an emerging global power and Asian hegemon that India should turn its back on BRI and thwart its South Asian plans," says former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.
Doklam is now in the domain of the PMO which steers foreign policy. The MEA has been silent after its June 30 statement where it noted India's "deep concern at the recent Chinese actions" and "conveyed to the Chinese government that such construction would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India".
A senior MEA official rejects China's stand that the issue is between China and Bhutan and explains why India is on firm ground, legally and logically. "China's physical movement towards Bhutan automatically pushes the trijunction towards the Indian side thus bringing it closer to the 'chicken's neck' that connects India's Northeast to the rest of India. It's not a unilateral issue but a tripartite one. China alone or even China and Bhutan can't resolve it. The solution has to be tripartite," he says.
As China ramps up the rhetoric, New Delhi is soft-pedalling the standoff. Instructions have apparently gone out to politicians, bureaucrats and the military to not publicly comment on the stalemate. Hectic parleys are under way to defuse the crisis without any perceived loss of face. In a nudge that Beijing is unlikely to take kindly to, a US department of defence spokesperson on July 22 encouraged "India and China to engage in direct dialogue aimed at reducing tensions and free of any coercive aspects". New Delhi is looking at National Security Advisor Ajit Doval's visit to Beijing for the BRICS' NSA meeting on July 27-28 as one channel for dialogue.
The PLA's war rhetoric has so far not translated into additional boots on the ground. Even a month after the standoff, there has been no mobilisation on the Tibetan plateau, a prerequisite for carrying out its threats. Footage of recent 'live firing drills' released on Chinese media were from a PLA exercise last month.
The Indian and Chinese armies last fired in anger 50 years ago, in 1967. The Indian army hit back at the PLA's attempt to disturb the status quo in Sikkim, with a ferocious artillery bombardment at Nathu La on September 11 and Cho La on October 1 where over 300 PLA soldiers were reportedly killed. The incident came exactly five years after the 1962 war loss.
Since 1967, every aggressive move the two sides have made along the 4,057-km-long Line of Actual Control (LAC) has essentially been posturing, each side manoeuvring to prevent the other from altering the status quo on the ground. The closest India and China came to another war was in June 1986 when General K. Sundarji heli-lifted a mountain brigade to face off against a PLA incursion which had built a road into Arunachal Pradesh. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping conveyed, through visiting US defence secretary Caspar Weinberger, his intent to "teach India a lesson" if the crisis was not resolved. The Chinese troops did not withdraw until 1993 when Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao visited Beijing.
Peace and tranquility have prevailed on the border ever since, and the two words formed the underlying text of a landmark 'Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement' signed by PM Rao in 1993. More recently, China's thrust on border infrastructure and the PLA's transformation have made the peace an uneasy one.
Xi's reforms of the PLA are without doubt the most sweeping in its 90-year history. The focus is on modernising and enabling greater integration through a newly set-up joint operations command system, something which India itself has long sought-and failed-to implement. The army's various departments are now under the direct control of the Central Military Commission (CMC), which Xi heads. Now, a single western theatre command handles the border with India, integrating the earlier Chengdu and Lanzhou military regions. The focus is on mobility and nimbleness, leveraging the road and rail infrastructure China has in place, and on integrating the army and air force more closely.
On the face of it, the odds seem to overwhelmingly favour the PLA. Weak infrastructure and a stalled military modernisation have hobbled the Indian armed forces attempts to ramp up their posture from deterrence to credible deterrence. This year's defence budget, at 1.5 per cent of the GDP, was the lowest allocation since 1950-51. The army's attempts to replace its ageing helicopters, missiles and infantry equipment after the 1999 Kargil War are yet to bear fruit. Its first howitzer buys in three decades, the 146 ultralight howitzers from the US, will trickle in only next year. Its Mountain Strike Corps, an offensive high altitude warfighting force comprising over 90,000 soldiers, will only be combat-ready by 2021. The armed forces lack strategic reconnaissance to peer at least 300 kilometres deep into China and Pakistan and detect mobilisations. The army has been embarrassed by revelations in a July 21 CAG report of its tank and howitzer ammunition being adequate for only 10 days of intense war fighting against the prescribed 40 days.
But of greater concern is the tardy pace of adding border infrastructure. Only 22 of the 73 all-weather roads along the LAC have been completed a decade after they were sanctioned, the 14 strategic railway lines to rush troops and supplies to the border remain paperbound. The IAF's dip in combat aircraft, 32 instead of the sanctioned 39 fighter squadrons, is so perilous that Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, in a recent interview, compared it to playing cricket with seven instead of 11 players. The navy is short on both submarines and anti-submarine warfare helicopters, key capabilities in tracking Chinese submarines that are now routinely deployed in the Indian Ocean.
The government is yet to move on the recommendations of the Lt General D.B. Shekatkar committee, submitted to the MoD in December 2016. Key proposals include appointing a chief of defence staff, a single-point military advisor to accelerate the integration of the armed forces, creating integrated theatre commands to synergise the three services and cutting back on non-fighting formations to enhance the military's combat potential while saving Rs 25,000 crore over five years. A classified part of the report mentions that the focus of warfare for both the army and the air force are likely to be the mountains since this is where the disputed areas with China and Pakistan lie.
In Beijing, the view is that the timing of China's muscle-flexing over the Doklam incident is no coincidence amid an overhaul of the PLA. The military's massive transformation has created its own stresses and uncertainties. In the past too, PLA observers say, such circumstances have driven the military to adopt a hardline posture, driven both by domestic political considerations and the need to rally public support for the military. In the lead-up to August 1 and the 90th anniversary, for instance, the PLA's officers have been publicly pledging their allegiance to Xi and showering praise on his reforms. Former PLA officers have even used the Doklam incident to attack the army's critics and demand total support for the army.
"It's advantage India in terms of the army's training and professionalism, and advantage China in terms of infrastructure, logistics, supplies, firepower quantity and their second artillery," says Srikanth Kondapalli, an expert on the Chinese military at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Since China's 10th five-year plan (2001-2005), Beijing had embarked on an ambitious push to build a road and rail network across Xinjiang and Tibet. A decade-and-a-half later, it is almost complete, in stark contrast with India's stalled border road-building. Beijing, no doubt, enjoys the topographical advantage of the Tibetan plateau in both western and eastern sectors, it is only bordering Sikkim in the Chumbi Valley where it faces a major disadvantage. But that too is no impediment, for this year the last two towns in Tibet-Gyalasa and Gandeng in Medog county that borders Arunachal will be connected to the massive highway network, which is now over 82,000 kilometres in length.
In all three sectors, western, middle and eastern, motorable Chinese roads now reach right up to the Indian border. In the middle and eastern sectors, in the Chumbi Valley bordering Sikkim and in Nyingchi across the border from Arunachal, the Chinese railway network will reach the border by 2019. In the current five-year plan (2016-2020), the Yanga-Nyingchi railway to the Arunachal border, the Shigatse-Yadong railway to the Chumbi Valley and the Sikkim border, and the Shigatse-Gyirong railway to the Nepal border will be completed. As local officials in Yadong county told India Today in 2015, a 500-km rail track has already entered the Chumbi Valley and tests will begin next year. The line to Nyingchi near Arunachal is now being constructed and will be ready in two years' time. This allows China to rapidly mobilise divisions from not only the western theatre command, but also from the central, southern and eastern theatre commands to the Indian border in a matter of days.
The PLA air force also operates around a dozen airfields along the Indian border, with five big airports in Tibet, from Ngari Gunsa in Shiquanhe, which borders Aksai Chin, to Nyingchi airport near Arunachal. The other big logistical advantage for China, Kondapalli notes, is its indigenous military industrial complex that ensures independence of supplies. "They have a 30-day backup which means they don't have to depend on supplies. Our record is relatively bleak on this front," he notes. Most Chinese analyses of the border with India have highlighted Beijing's artillery and missile units as its biggest advantage.
A detailed study published on July 7 in the Sina military portal, China's most widely-read defence website, assessed how the country would handle a conflict with India. It noted that the PLA had made big strides in mobilisation, and revealed that in 2014, during the Chumar standoff, China was able to rapidly mobilise its 54th group army, which was involved in both the India and Vietnam wars, from Henan to Tibet to undertake a drill, while long-range rocket artilleries and J-10 fighters were also sent to border airports as deterrence. "After decades of preparation for war, the PLA has experienced a kind of metamorphosis... Weapons, drills, logistics, and military tactics have improved to a large extent. Troop deployments at the western frontier have been strengthened, as also field artilleries in Tibet. There is serious deterrence towards India," it concluded, suggesting China's aim was to win the war without fighting.
If China does go to war, analysts say, it will be only after carefully weighing the benefits of getting into a full-scale conventional war where it cannot score a decisive victory. To initiate a conflict will mean tearing up multiple peace and tranquility border agreements with India and disabusing its own proclamation of "peaceful development".
"It would be absurd for China to start a war over its own actions, and over disputed territory with a small country that has a security relationship with India under which India has acted," says Sibal. "China's credibility on territorial issues is very low internationally because of its actions in the South China Sea and repudiation of the UNCLOS award. It will suffer heavy casualties if it triggered a border conflict as would India with minor gains, which would puncture its balloon of military superiority."
In the event of the most plausible conflict scenario, a limited war involving only the army and air force, an advancing PLA will first have to reckon with over 250 of the IAF's Su-30MKI air dominance fighters (the IAF's fighter jets sat out the 1962 war). The IAF jets can take off from their bases on the plains with a full payload of fuel and weapons as opposed to the PLAAF fighters operating off the exposed airfields on the Tibetan plateau with reduced combat loads and fuel (due to the rarefied air). "The IAF's unlikely to wait for PLA to make the first move, our fighters will target their concentration areas," says Air Marshal P.S. Ahluwalia, former C-in-C of the Western Air Command.
The PLA will have to break through heavily defended passes and valleys protected by over a dozen Indian mountain divisions with 16,000 soldiers each, protected by artillery, Brahmos missile regiments and, in certain places like Ladakh and north Sikkim, pre-positioned armoured brigades with T-72 tanks. "This is not the Indian army of 1962 which fought with bolt action rifles and PT shoes," says a senior army official. "We have three army corps or nearly three lakh soldiers in the Northeast. Today, we have brigades (3,000 soldiers) where we once had companies (100 men)."
The army's emphasis on manpower is not out of place. Mountains swallow troops. If an attack on the plains would need a ratio of 1:3 or three attackers for one defender, it swells to 1:12 in the mountains. The PLA will need over 50,000 soldiers to mount a successful thrust down the Chumbi Valley and towards India's 'chicken's neck' which the Doklam plateau overlooks.
Both sides are so evenly matched that neither can advance without incurring heavy casualties which is why experts believe Doklam might not trigger a conventional war. "China prefers to coerce," says defence analyst Ravi Rikhye. "It will be very, very reluctant to actually start a war." G. Parthasarathy, India's former high commissioner to Islamabad, terms Beijing's response to Doklam as "jingoistic and afflicted by hubris" and draws a parallel to the Sumdurong Chu standoff. "This one could last for months, if not years," he says.
There is, though, a view that the standoff marks a watershed moment in South Asia. "What we have done (in Doklam) is absolutely right and in accordance with the existing India-Bhutan bilateral arrangement," says ex-army chief General Bikram Singh. "However, a strategic fallout is that taking it as a precedent, China may, in the future, support Pakistan outright in border disputes. It is, therefore, axiomatic that we expeditiously create a two-front capability to safeguard our national interests."
Over a fortnight before the Doklam face-off, army chief General Bipin Rawat met his five army commanders in Srinagar. The commanders' huddle in Srinagar's Badami Bagh cantonment on June 1 came just two months after the twice-a-year army commanders' conference. The five army commanders, whose area of responsibility-northern, western, southwestern, southern and eastern covers all the zones of future conflict, reviewed war contingencies with Pakistan, particularly its 'proactive strategy', colloquially called 'cold start'. Conceived in 2004, it cuts down on the two-week-long mobilisation time by swiftly mobilising the army to carry out lightning multi-front shallow thrusts across the border with Pakistan within 72 hours. The option of thinning troops from the China border to address the Pakistan front, as the army has done in the past, is no longer viable. "We cannot redeploy troops from our eastern borders now. The risk of losing territory to probes by the PLA is too great," says an Indian army general.
Earlier this year, the government lifted a 2015 MoD freeze on the army's mountain strike corps which had slashed its manpower and budgets by half-Rs 38,000 crore and 35,000 soldiers. The army is working out a revised version of 'cold start' to fight an intensive battle of 10-15 days. An upcoming tri-services military exercise is to be held at an undecided date to work out new strategies to address a multi-front war. On July 8, army chief General Rawat told ANI that "the army is fully ready for a two-and-a-half front war" (the 'half' is for terrorists being used by either China or Pakistan to carry out acts of sabotage).
"It may be difficult to shake a mountain, but it is even more difficult to shake the PLA." Senior Colonel Wu Qian had said at the meet-the-press. The Doklam standoff is serving some other uses too. One of the PLA's most hawkish generals, the now retired Luo Yuan, called on the public to rally behind the army because of it. "The public should be confident about our soldiers," he said in a widely circulated article. "Do not trust the words of those who would condemn us for being too aggressive or for being too weak when we protect peace. Our army would never engage in a war without the full grasp of victory. Frankly speaking, India is truly different from the India of 1962... We really don't want to engage in a war against India. But if so, India would lose again."
Yet, despite the shrill rhetoric, Beijing is well aware that a war would be disastrous on many fronts. "This is a very difficult situation for China," says Bo Zhiyue, a leading expert on elite Chinese politics who heads the Bo Zhiyue China Institute. "There are two sides to Xi 's 'Chinese Dream' slogan. A stronger China and a stronger PLA. These two parts are not necessarily coherent." Key to Xi's ambitions, including his pet One Belt, One Road project, is a peaceful environment and preserving the global image of a responsible, rising China. This is all the more important as Beijing stakes a claim to global leadership at a time when the US is considering a retreat on some fronts.
Bo says the shrill rhetoric and muscle-flexing are more aimed at cowing India down without firing a bullet. "No country today will demonstrate its military prowess with war," he says. "The exercises in Tibet are no different from what North Korea does with its tests or the US and South Korea do with their exercises. Many in China spoke about taking back the Diaoyu Islands [or Senkaku Islands as Japan refers to them] by force, but that was just rhetoric to please the nationalists. They have to say something like that, or they appear weak. Editorials now say they'll kick out the Indian troops. It's loud rhetoric, but doesn't mean action."