Army, PLA Skip Border Meet as China Keeps up Pressure in Doklam

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping meet at the BRICS Summit in Xiamen on September 4 2017. Image Credit: PIB

The Indian Army and the PLA did not attend regular border personnel meetings scheduled for Sunday even as wider standoff on the Doklam plateau continues unabated.

Border personnel meetings (BPMs) were to be held at five locations on China’s 68th national day, but the Indian side never got an invite. It’s also unlikely the two sides will hold their annual ‘Hand-in-Hand’ exercise this year- a key confidence building measure.

Early last month this blog had noted that the Doklam standoff hadn’t really ended. Indian and Chinese troops had only partially disengaged on August 28, with each side moving back 150 metres. This eased what was then a tense 72-day long confrontation, but the wider contest in Doklam may yet be in its early days.

Recent reporting from Sandeep Unnithan of India Today indicates that the ‘PLA is now back in greater strength at the contentious trijunction between India, China and Bhutan.’

According to Unnithan, the Indian Army has spotted ‘camp stores and construction material under camouflaged tarpaulin sheets near Doklam.’ There are also prefabricated structures to house PLA soldiers. About a hundred kilometres northeast of the site of the India-China confrontation in Doklam, the PLA has reportedly ‘built three ‘incursion camps’ opposite the Royal Bhutanese Army border observation posts in the Duktegang region of western Bhutan.’

While the Chinese are no longer building the road that was at the heart of the Doklam confrontation, they’re consolidating their presence on two 12,000-feet high ridges not far from the road, according to Unnithan.

‘Doklam was never about the PLA leaving,’ an army official told Unnithan. ‘It was about them staying.’

The Doklam standoff was worse than previously thought

Unnithan’s reporting comes soon after revelations about Doklam from author Nitin Gokhale in his upcoming book. While the book will be released on October 15, some news organisations have accessed the chapter on Doklam.

Gokhale’s account makes it clear that elements of the confrontation started earlier than generally recognized. On May 21, the Chinese informed the army that they would conduct ‘infrastructure activities in the area’. The Chinese returned three days later to face Royal Bhutanese Army (RBA) personnel. On June 5, they ‘jostled with Bhutanese soldiers and forcibly “escorted” them to the RBA posts after threatening them’, a story in The Indian Express reports, referring to Gokhale’s book.

‘The Chinese also started construction of temporary defences along the Sikkim border in the form of stone-and-mud emplacements and undertook blasting to improve road infrastructure in their territory’, according to The Indian Express.

On June 16, the Chinese brought in construction vehicles and began extending the road. The Indian side asked the Chinese to stop multiple times over the next two days. On the afternoon of June 18, human chains of soldiers from both sides faced off, beginning the confrontation.

The confrontation also sparked a larger build-up of military forces. According to reporting on Gokhale’s revelations, the Chinese positioned 12,000 soldiers along with 150 tanks and artillery pieces opposite Sikkim in Chumbi Valley. At the site of the faceoff itself, the Chinese used portable loudspeakers to threaten a repeat of the 1962 war.

The Indian side also responded. According to Unnithan, at least one squadron of 14 Indian Army T-72 tanks were deployed near the Line of Actual Control in Sikkim. The army also moved ‘firing units of Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles which had the ability to conduct pinpoint strikes from nearly 300 km away.’

China’s goals

Whatever the reasons for the Doklam faceoff, China now has a clear incentive to apply relentless military pressure in the region. Indian and Bhutanese interests diverge on Doklam. It is perceived to be important by many in India, while the Bhutanese are more willing to concede the area to the Chinese in exchange for other, more attractive regions to the north.

It makes sense for the Chinese to exploit these differences by gradually encroaching on the Doklam plateau. This might highlight the differing priorities between two closely knit allies and fuel anti-Indian sentiment in Bhutan.

All of this is happening even as the stakes in Doklam have been raised for the Indian side. An army official told Unnithan there was no question of letting the Chinese build a road in Doklam. “It will have to be built over our dead bodies.”

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