Confronting the Dragon

The need of the hour is for the Indian armed forces to be prepared to meet with the challenges of a two-front war in the worst case scenario.

August 11, 2017 Illustration(s): By Anoop Kamath / SP Guide Pubns
By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)
Former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Training Command, IAF


The confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops in the area of Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction, commonly referred to as the Doklam plateau, has indeed become a matter of serious concern for the nation. Doklam is an area with a plateau located between Chumbi Valley of China to the North, Ha Valley in Bhutan to the East and the Indian state of Sikkim to the West. However, a beneficial fallout of this confrontation has been that it has certainly helped galvanise the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) into action. In the wake of an intimidating posture by China and a series of veiled threats including revelation of her intent of sending troops into Jammu and Kashmir, in all likelihood in collaboration with Pakistan, the MoD appears to have hit the panic button. On August 08, 2017, the MoD projected an emergency requirement to the Ministry of Finance for the allocation of 20,000 crore to meet the urgent requirement of military hardware. This amount will be over and above the sum already allocated for Defence in the national budget for the financial year 2017-18.

Dispute with China along the nearly 3000 km long border with India has been a routine feature in the relationship between the two nations that now possess sizeable quantities of nuclear weapons. Despite the 28-odd meetings held between the representatives of China and India to resolve border issues, the situation on the Sino-Indian border has not changed. Transgression across the border by Chinese troops is frequent and shows no sign of abating.

The genesis of the dispute over the Doklam plateau lies in the Border Agreement of 1890 between British India and the Qing dynasty of China, the two empires that are now non-existent. This treaty was inherently flawed as it showed two different alignments of the border. One of these places the Doklam plateau as a part of Bhutan and the other shows it as a part of China. Even after 24 rounds of talks between Bhutan and China, the dichotomy related to ownership of Doklam plateau has not been resolved. India supports the former position and as per a friendship treaty with Bhutan signed initially in 1949 and subsequently updated in March 2007, India is committed to preserve Bhutanese national security interests as well. Besides, the Doklam plateau is of strategic importance to both India and China.

The current faceoff over the Doklam plateau began on June 18, 2017 when Chinese troops initiated construction work to extend the highway running along the Sino-Indian border to the Doklam plateau, an intrinsically disputed area which China claims as its own. Bhutan perceived this move by the Chinese as blatant aggression into its territory and violation of an agreement of 2012 which states that there would be no attempt to unilaterally change the status quo of the tri-junction. India on its part had to honour its commitment for preservation of the security of Bhutan as well as prevent further expansion of Chinese presence in the Chumbi valley. More importantly, India saw this move by the Chinese as a serious threat to the Siliguri Corridor or the Chicken's Neck which is a narrow stretch of land that provides connectivity between the North East region of India to the rest of the country. As the Siliguri Corridor is of immense strategic importance to India, it is highly unlikely that the Indian military will accept its domination by Chinese military.

In cases of transgression of the border in the past, solutions that were amicable and acceptable to both parties, have helped prevent escalation of military confrontation into conflict. However, the current faceoff in the Doklam plateau may not be easy to resolve and could well escalate into a military conflict. The Chinese are bound to be unhappy as India has not and will not support the "One Belt One Road". India also opposes the China Pakistan Economic Corridor that is planned to run through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, a territory over which India has claim. China must also be concerned about the improvement in India'a relations with the United States. Backing down by the Indian military in the confrontation with the Chinese forces at this juncture will therefore be an extremely difficult decision, if not altogether impossible. The need of the hour is for the Indian armed forces to be prepared to meet with the challenges of a two-front war in the worst case scenario. Hopefully, the conflict between India and China over the Doklam plateau will not escalate into a nuclear exchange.

The confrontation with China over the Doklam plateau has exposed the inadequacies in the state of preparedness of both the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force. The government has been fully aware of the state of affairs as the Comptroller and Auditor General has periodically tabled reports in the Parliament highlighting the critical deficiencies in military hardware the two services are afflicted with and the consequent erosion in their operational capability. Unfortunately, the government has not done enough to ensure that the Indian armed forces are equipped to the level required to meet the formidable challenges to national security, routine statements to the contrary by the Minister of Defence in the Parliament notwithstanding. While the UPA II regime is often held largely responsible for complete inaction on this front, the NDA regime too has not been able to achieve rapid modernisation of the Indian armed forces. At the macro level, the lack of concern of the government and the low priority national security has been accorded, is evident in the downward slide in defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP. In the budget for 2004-05 when the UPA II government took over, the allocation to Defence stood at 2.34 per cent of GDP. In the budget for 2014-15, the last budget year of the UPA II regime, the figure had slipped to 2,06 per cent. However, during the three years of NDA rule, there has been persistent downward slide and in the budget for 2017-18, the allocation for Defence stands at a meagre 1.56 per cent of GDP.

The rhetoric emanating from the top echelons of the government reflects a very high level of dependence on diplomacy to resolve the confrontation with China over the Doklam plateau. Unfortunately, diplomatic means alone may not be effective unless it is backed by credible military power.