MODI ACKNOWLEDGES ‘VICTORY’ AT DOKLAM; CHINA SENDS MIXED SIGNALS

Prime Minister Narendra Modi while slamming critics of his government’s economic policies as those suffering from pessimism, seemed to suggest that they were dismissive of India’s strength in standing up to China on the Doklam issue.

This is the first instance of the PM uttering the word Doklam. He referred to ‘Doklam’ during his speech to company secretaries from across the country.

The PM’s reference to ‘Doklam’ comes on a day that Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar is on a four-day visit to Bhutan. It is the Foreign Secretary’s first visit to Thimphu after India and China resolved Doklam standoff on August 28. Jaishankar’s visit comes amid reports that China was amassing troops near Doklam plateau, which New Delhi and Thimphu consider Bhutanese territory.

While officials and ruling party politicians in India had termed resolution of the Doklam dispute as a moral victory for India, the PM, any of his senior ministers or National Security Adviser Ajit Doval have been yet to refer to it as such on record.

The Ministry of External Affairs said that during the Foreign Secretary’s Bhutan visit last week, he has met with King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay and Foreign Minister Damcho Dorji. Jaishankar has also held wide-ranging talks with his counterpart Dasho Sonam Tshong.

Asked whether the Dokalam stand-off figured in the talks, the MEA officials refused to comment. The MEA said discussions included implementation of the ongoing India-assisted projects under Bhutan’s eleventh five-year plan.

The ministry said priorities of Bhutan for the twelfth five-year plan and bilateral cooperation in areas of trade and economic ties, hydropower cooperation, and people to people contacts, were also discussed.

No invite from China for its National Day border meet

Meanwhile, China continues to send mixed signals. While its ambassador in India sends positive signals, the People’s Liberation Army does the opposite. Departing from past practice, the Chinese army did not send an invitation to its Indian counterpart for a ceremonial border personnel meeting (BPM) to mark China’s National Day on 1 October. This follows a no-show by the Chinese in response to an Indian invitation to attend a ceremonial BPM on Indian Independence Day on August 15.

This is the first time since 2005 that there was no BPM held on the India-China border. Although tensions between India and China have reduced following the disengagement between the two armies at the face-off site in Dolam plateau on August 28, relations between the two armies have not reverted to normal so far.

These ceremonial meetings include a small cultural show, a sporting contest and a meal. They are attended by officers, soldiers and families from both sides, and are different from flag-meetings, which are convened to discuss border issues.

Both sides had agreed to two ceremonial meetings every year, starting from 2005, consequent to the signing of the Protocol on Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas.

As per Article V of the Protocol, “Both sides shall hold two additional border meetings each year at Spanggur Gap in the Western Sector, Nathu La in the Sikkim Sector and Bum La in the Eastern Sector respectively in celebration of the National Day or Army Day of either side.” The other two meeting points – Kibithu-Damai in the eastern sector and Lipulekh Pass/Qiang La in the middle sector – were also mentioned in the 2005 Protocol.

The two sides then mutually decided to host these ceremonial border meetings on August 1 – China’s Army Day — and August 15, as other national or army days fall during the winter months when holding a ceremonial meeting is not possible in snow-bound areas. The year the Chinese are unable to host the ceremonial BPM on August 1, they extend an invitation to the Indian army on October 1, their National Day.

This development runs contrary to the statement by Chinese envoy to India, Luo Zhaohui, who on 29 September said: “We should turn the old page and start a new chapter with the same pace and direction. We should dance together. We should make one plus one eleven. China is the largest trading partner of India. We have made a lot of progress at the bilateral level, as well as in international and regional affairs”.

The Asia Age writes that “the PLA not extending an invitation to the Indian Army is a reminder, if one was needed, that issues that underlay the Doklam imbroglio are far from resolved, notwithstanding chest-thumping on the part of top leaders of the government, the BJP and the RSS. Our security professionals don’t harbour any illusions on this score. They are aware that China has refurbished its military position on the Tibetan plateau — adding infantry, armour, and bolstering air capabilities. India has done likewise, and is in the process of enhancing infrastructure, where needed, along the 4,000-km border regions. Beijing has also done exactly this. On Sunday it opened a new 409-km expressway linking Tibet’s capital Lhasa to Nyingchi, close to Arunachal Pradesh, much of which Beijing has actively claimed at various times.”

Doklam: About 1,000 Chinese troops still near standoff area

More interesting is the fact that more than five weeks after India and China stepped back from a standoff at Doklam on the Sikkim border, Indian soldiers remain on high alert with around 1,000 Chinese troops still present on the plateau, a few hundred metres from the faceoff site, government sources told The Indian Express. However, sources said, India does not expect another “flashpoint” at the same site between the two countries.

The presence of the People’s Liberation Army has thinned in the area after the process of “disengagement” began on August 28, but one PLA battalion remains on the plateau, said sources. The battalion is located approximately 800m from the faceoff site, sources said.

The presence of Chinese soldiers in Chumbi Valley, where the plateau is located, was also acknowledged by Air Chief Marshal B S Dhanoa during his annual press conference Thursday. “Their [China] forces in Chumbi Valley are still deployed and I expect that they will withdraw when their summer exercise gets over,” he said at the annual press conference ahead of the Air Force Day on October 8. China, he said, held military exercises every year in summer and so their forces were closeby when the Doklam standoff happened.

Earlier, during the stand-off a Chinese division of more than 12,000 soldiers, 150 tanks and artillery guns was moved opposite Sikkim at Phari Dzong in Chumbi Valley

The Chinese have not dismantled any of their tents and temporary construction in the vicinity. The Chinese soldiers in the area still have road construction equipment and other stores, they said. Army sources confirmed that the PLA was constructing a road in Chumbi valley but added that the area was under Chinese control and the development did not have strategic implications for India.

The two sides had moved away by around 150m each from the faceoff site on August 28 as part of a “disengagement” process. Indian soldiers have returned to their posts at Doka La but their numbers have since been strengthened. Sources said that thrice the number of troops have been acclimatised for that altitude and placed closer to the area.

Besides, the tracks leading to Doka La were improved during the faceoff, leading to enhanced logistics supply lines. Road construction equipment, such as bulldozers and JCBs, have also been kept on location, sources said.

Although India doesn’t expect another “flashpoint” in the area, the assessment is that China could attempt a stronger intrusion at another location on the 3,488-km Line of Actual Control (LAC) — possibly at Barahoti in Uttaranchal, in the central sector. Adequate measures have already been taken in that area by Indian forces, sources said.

According to sources, the Army has put in place measures to reduce its mobilisation time on the China border in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. Plans have been put in place to acclimatise one-third of its troops at higher altitudes to reduce their induction time into operational areas, besides placing greater emphasis on construction and improvement of tracks in border areas.

Helipads have been constructed and aviation support reviewed in the border posts, which are cut off due to bad weather, apart from the “staging forward” of specific quantities of artillery ammunition for speedy operational deployment.

The new normal

The Doklam standoff between India and China along the Sikkim border was likely to be the new normal, a reputed defence think tank had warned after the standoff, making a strong case for building military capabilities as China respects strength.

In a paper titled Looking Beyond Doklam, the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS), a think tank set up by the defence ministry a decade ago, said it is crucial for India to demonstrate strength as peace along the disputed border or Line of Actual Control (LAC) will be “constantly and continuously” under stress with “increase in frequency, intensity and depth of (Chinese) transgressions leading to more and more standoffs”.