India and China have rival claims to 90,000 sq km in Arunachal Pradesh in the East and 38,000 sq km in Aksai Chin in the West. China can undertake incursion anywhere along this disputed territory and thereby trigger a war. But China always chooses the place where it wants to extend its claim keeping in mind the strategic importance of the place.
China sent a Border Construction Team to Dok La on 16 June 2017 and started road construction. India has always been sensitive about the Siliguri Corridor which is its life line to the entire North East. Therefore, it has always kept a close watch on Sino-Bhutan Border Negotiations.
Thus when China chose to significantly alter the status quo which threatened the Chicken’s Neck, India had no choice but to respond. If it did not respond, then the Chinese-control over Chumbi Valley bisecting Sikkim and Bhutan toward the Siliguri Corridor would be further strengthened.
Chinese Forces in the narrow Chumbi Valley are currently in the line of sight and fire of the Indian Forces poised on the ridges along the Sikkim-Tibet border. Aware of this vulnerability, the Chinese have been eyeing the Doklam Plateau since any troops there will be away from visible observation and beyond artillery range of Indian Forces based in North/North East Sikkim.
Most border infringements are the actions by over-enthusiastic local commanders. But length of Doklam standoff would indicate that it has the blessings of higher authorities. In any case, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) infringements are always within the overall Chinese Policy dominated by three elements: (a) Consolidate the position where there is PLA control by upgrading infrastructure and building permanent assets; (b) Where both Indian and Chinese troops patrol at different times, follow a “Salami Slice” approach of slowly creeping in and staying put, and (c) Where Indians have a stronger position, have occasional provocations to test the waters.
International Border between India and China is neither demarcated nor delineated by any Agreement/Treaty. In any case, China flatly refuses to acknowledge arrangements of erstwhile British Government on border issue. In absence of any agreement on delineation and demarcation, post-1950 mutual understanding between India and China, has been based on an Informal Agreement on Border conforming to a series of Stone Heap Features.
There are speculations that Chinese action in Doklam was to teach India a lesson for not joining Xi Jinping’s pet project, One Belt One Road Initiative. India declined the invitation to attend the Belt and Road Initiative Summit held in Beijing in May 2017, citing sovereignty issues over the China Pakistan Economic Corridor running through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
Secondly, 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), a very significant occasion that happens once in five years to set the course for the party and the country for the next ten years, is due in November 2017. A new Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee would be put in place.
After he took over as the General Secretary of CPC in 2012 and became President in 2013, Xi Jinping has been systematically consolidating his position. Under his very popular anti-corruption drive, he managed to side line many of his rivals including Governor of Chongqing, Sun Zhengcai.
Five of the current members of the Politburo Standing Committee will have to quit at the Congress because of age limits and Xi is making sure that the new members would be his protégés.
Thirdly, Xi may break with tradition and have a third term after 2022. The elevation of his position to “core leader” last year seems to be a step in that direction. All these could be at risk if the Doklam standoff gets out of hand and China is faced with a situation of a loss of face.
Even a limited skirmish will be blown up by the media to his disadvantage. That might be the reason, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said in Parliament that “War is NOT the only solution; Doklam Problem can also be solved by bilateral talks”. This was an offer to pull him out of the jam. But things have started moving the other way after that statement.
China intensified its activities in Kinnaur, Lahaul and Spiti where Chinese helicopters from Lupsuk, increased road-building and other infrastructure construction activities were spotted along 260 km long porous border. There are 20 outposts of ITBP in this area which is dominated by Shipki La mountain pass at 5670 meters. Sutlej enters India from Tibet through this pass. The region also has Lepcha La, Rang La, and Ranisha Dob Rang La. Sudden increase in the activities by Beijing gives Indian Army the reason to multiply their securities which has incensed China.
President Xi Jinping has made cryptic remarks about the PLA defeating “all invasions”. Beijing has also explained its position to foreign diplomats and made it clear that its troops are being patient but will not be so indefinitely. Given the public posturing and rhetoric, it is clear that the Chinese side has said and done too much to pull back without a loss of face.
India, too, has demonstrated its determination to not let China go ahead with construction of the road on territory that is seen as Bhutanese. If this be the case and China either takes recourse to “Limited Action in Doklam” or resorts to Action All Along the Lac/IB; it would be prudent to know what can India put in against Chinese Action(s).Following information is extracted from IHS Jane’s Data Base, August 2016.
The Indian Army has 9 of its 12 Mountain Divisions deployed in the Eastern Sector. Each of these divisions usually consists of 15,000 combat troops and 8,000 support elements. Of these, three divisions; 17, 21 and 20 are deployed near the India China Bhutan Tri-Junction and are based in Gangtok, Binnaguri and Kalimpong guarding vulnerable Chicken’s Neck, the Siliguri Corridor, which connects seven North Eastern States with the rest of India.
Three mountain divisions 5, 21 and 71 are deployed in Bomdila, Rangiya and Missamari. Additionally, three mountain divisions; 2, 56 and 57 are deployed in Dibrugarh, Zakhama and Leimakhong.
Against this, China has two Mountain Motorised Infantry Brigades and a Mechanised Infantry Brigade close to IB. While the Mountain Infantry Brigades are based in Nyingchi region of Tibet facing Arunachal Pradesh, the only Mechanised Infantry Brigade deployed close to the LAC is stationed in Lhasa.
In the Western Sector, India has an Infantry Division and a Mountain Division in Leh and Dras. India also has an Armoured Brigade (100 plus T-72 Tanks) to cover the flat approaches from Tibet towards India’s crucial defences at Chushul. China has deployed a Mechanised Infantry Division based in Hotan in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, North of Askai Chin.
Therefore, in terms of the number of troops deployed close to the boundary in both Eastern and Western sectors, India possesses a clear advantage. China’s newly carved out the Western Theatre Command has three Group Armies (corps-level military formations). China’s superior infrastructure allows it to quickly move its Rapid Reaction Forces to the conflict zone within three to five days.
China has built oxygen-rich, hyperbaric chambers in order to quickly acclimatise the forces it will bring to the war front. While India has made some progress in terms of infrastructure development in certain areas such as Arunachal Pradesh, most of its strategically important roads and railway lines being built close to borders have faced considerable delay.
As far as Air Power is concerned, India has 31Air Fields out of which, 9 are in Western and 22 in Eastern sector. Those which are close to Chinese LAC include air bases in Leh, Jalpaiguri (closest Indian air base to the Chumbi Valley), Bagdogara, Chabua and Tezpur. Bases in Chabua and Tezpur are particularly important because of their proximity to the LAC and the presence of the front line Sukhoi 30MKI fighters.
In addition, India has multiple Advance Landing Grounds along LAC. In Chengdu Military Region facing Arunachal and Lanzhou Military Region facing Jammu and Kashmir, which has now been largely merged to form the new Chinese Western Command, the PLAAF has four Fighter Divisions, one Transport Division and one Bomber Division based outside Tibet.
Due to the lack of support infrastructure on the Tibetan plateau, the PLAAF cannot bring all of its air capabilities to the region. This significantly erodes the quantitative advantage that the PLAAF enjoys over the IAF. Moreover, the relatively long lines of communication for Chinese forces, strung across Tibet, would be vulnerable to interdiction by the IAF.
There have been talks on Indian TV Channels on use of Armoured Formations by China in Sikkim and Ladakh. Unfortunately, so called intellectuals/self-styled defence experts participating on these TV shows have bleak knowledge of Tank Warfare.
No doubt, tanks are powerful instrument for power projection with defining images of blazing Armoured Formations in vanguard of major conquests. Chinese used them ruthlessly in Tiananmein square massacre.
In the last six weeks of Dolam stand-off, Chinese, past masters in psychological warfare, have tried to scare Indian public. There has been extensive coverage of routine mechanized manoeuvres in Tibet to give it a slant as if they are being prepared to roll down Chumbi valley to enter the Siliguri Corridor.
Tanks are very effective in plains but their effectiveness in mountains is limited to few narrow valleys and corridors. These areas and avenues leading to them can be kept under surveillance as build-up of Chinese Mechanised Formations is difficult to conceal. They will be countered by establishing an effective Anti-Tank Grid based on layers of Early Warning and Surveillance; Mines and Ditches; indirect/direct Artillery Fire; Accurate Anti-Tank Missiles anchored by Vectored Tank Manoeuvres and Fire Assaults to deny them these limited avenues. Each of these so called Gaps or Funnels in Northern Sikkim and Ladakh will be converted into traps and killing grounds.
We must, therefore, customize our mechanized fleet for high altitude, where biggest problem is de-rating of engine power. Our formidable T-72s with 780 HP lose as much as 25% power due to rarefied atmosphere. There is an inescapable requirement to upgrade power packs to 1000 HP and acquire rubberized pads for tracks to enable them to move on roads.
We must also add two regiments each in Ladakh and Sikkim for Recce and Quick Reaction Roles. With four additional regiments, we will be able to address Force Asymmetry by this Force operating under Mechanized HQs; one each for Northern plateau and Siliguri corridor to control mechanized battles.
In the broader sense, China has a numerical advantage over India in almost every area. But, along the border, India enjoys both operational and numerical superiority. Taking into consideration all the above factors the best course of action would be, (A) To tone down the rhetoric and slowly take the issue away from the limelight, and (B) Follow it up with talks to defuse the tension and arrive at some kind of compromise, even if it is temporary.