Conflicting Signals on Doklam

It’s now nearly two months into the India-China standoff in Doklam, but there remain contradictory indicators, some pointing to a mutual climb down, others to an intensification of the standoff.

On Friday, Business Standard’s Ajai Shukla provided a detailed account of the tactical situation on the ground, citing Indian Army sources.

According to Shukla, about 120 Indian jawans have formed a roughly 200 metre line in the disputed spot and the Chinese have stationed border guards (and not PLA soldiers) opposite them.

The story quotes an Indian officer as saying the Indian soldiers at Doklam ‘live a far tougher life’ than their Chinese counterparts.

‘In Doklam, they stand guard without moving, while the Chinese keep breaking the line and going back for cigarette breaks. Indian morale is sky-high; soldiers know they are participating in something unprecedented – crossing a border to defend an Indian ally’, Shukla quotes the anonymous Indian officer as saying.

Shukla also notes that the Indian Army has stationed a battalion of 600 soldiers nearby to relieve those stationed at the contested spot. There are also two further brigades stationed further away as reserves, according to him

The Business Standard story cites Indian army sources who note that the Chinese have kept 1,500 border guards and PLA soldiers on standby to relieve those engaged in the faceoff.

Earlier in the week, Shukla had reported that the number of Indian troops on the spot had reduced to 150 men from about 400. Separately, a document released by China’s foreign ministry had placed the number of Indian soldiers at just over 40.

Shukla also claimed the mutual troop reduction was part of a broader de-escalation of the standoff.

However, so far no other reporting on the Indian side has corroborated Shukla’s story or the figures provided by the Chinese foreign ministry.

The threats continue

If there is indeed a de-escalation afoot, official statements from China provide scant indication of it. Less than 48 hours after releasing the 15-page document on Wednesday, the Chinese foreign and defence ministries called on ‘trespassing’ Indian troops to withdraw unconditionally.

On Saturday, Global Times, the English-language newspaper linked to the Chinese Communist Party, cited an expert as saying the PLA may decide to take action soon.

‘If India refuses to withdraw, China may conduct a small-scale military operation within two weeks,’ the paper quoted Hu Zhiyong, of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, as saying.

“The Chinese side will inform the Indian Foreign Ministry [sic] before its operation,” Hu reportedly told the paper, without mentioning the source of this assertion.

Unclear prospects for a mutual winding-down

Not since the war of 1962 has such bluster been evident in Chinese media coverage of border tensions with India. Andrew Small, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund says this ‘reflects the fact that China genuinely believes that India’s actions are of a qualitatively different nature to prior border incidents and necessitate a stronger pushback.’

It also matters that China is a much more assertive country today than it was three decades ago, during the Sumdorong Chu faceoff with the Indian Army.

Also complicating matters is the fact that a prolonged stalemate poses problems for both sides. China’s president Xi Jinping will want to conclude it successfully before he jostles for power in the 19th party congress later this year. For India, any prolonged confrontation could make it harder to manage an already troubled relationship with Bhutan.

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