By M D Nalapat
The decision to build the road at the trijunction had been taken by PLA officers of four-star rank. They did not understand the sensitivity of what they were attempting to do.
Nearly nine weeks ago in India, and about four weeks back in China, key decisions concerning the Doklam standoff between two of the world’s four largest armies began to be handled at the top of each government. In other words, by consultations on the subject with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. From that time onwards, despite the swear-words and jostling by troops, it was a given that the issue would get settled without recourse to force. Indeed, the very fact that the Ladakh encounter (which went viral on the internet) between Indian and Chinese troops saw both well-equipped armies literally relying only on Stone Age weapons against each other, indicated the tight control that both Xi and Modi have exercised over their men in the field. The cause of the Doklam standoff, which was the PLA’s decision to build the road at the India-Bhutan-China trijunction, objected to by India, had been taken by officers of four-star rank. They did not understand the sensitivity of what they were attempting to do, and hence initially failed to refer the issue back to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. The PLA decision-makers had assumed that the Indian side would do little beyond verbally protest the building of a road, the only utility of which to the Chinese side would be to serve as a jumping-off point for an attack on the “Chicken’s Neck” linking the Northeast with the rest of India. Building such a capacity was significant in the background of credible reports by multiple agencies both at home and abroad that GHQ Rawalpindi was working to secure a NATO-style agreement with the PLA. This would oblige the latter to come to the armed defence of the former, should the Pakistan army find itself in a war with India caused by its own misdeeds. Reports from agencies located in different capitals had indicated that more than a few senior officers of the PLA were leaning in favour of such a partnership with the Pakistan army. In other words, they were apparently willing to transfer the decision as to when China would go to war, in the hands of the generals at Rawalpindi. However, those tracking the Chinese Communist Party say that such a view was clearly not acceptable to the CCP leadership, which under President Xi has understood the importance of India as a potential global partner in economics and geopolitics.
ROBUST INDIAN RESPONSE
The fact that the Doklam heavy duty road was fast becoming a reality in mid-June, caused concern at Army HQ in Delhi. The robust Indian response to the road was scripted by Chief of Army Staff Bipin Rawat, who took care to keep National Security Advisor Ajit Doval in the loop. Both felt confident in their refusal to follow the longstanding Indian precedent of feeble responses to such action by the other side. The reason was that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had conveyed by the middle of last year itself to the armed forces that they were free to take any action deemed vital to the protection of national security interests. During the UPA period, all such actions had to be, in effect, cleared by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which almost always meant that any recommended military response to provocative acts on the border got vetoed on the civilian side. Since last year, however, the Army has been in a revved up mode against both internal as well as external (Pakistani) provocations, and these had been replied to with robust kinetic force. These received tacit support from the Prime Minister, who communicated through the Defence Minister his willingness to countenance determined counter-measures by the military. It was within the parameters of the policy of robust response cleared by the Prime Minister that the Army took unprecedented steps to ensure a stoppage to the road construction being carried out in the vicinity of Doklam by the other side, a program that had caused anxiety in Thimpu, which had promptly communicated its misgivings to Delhi. It was in that context that the decision of General Rawat to resort to force was taken. To the disappointment of the Pakistani side, the PLA refused to adopt the recommended GHQ tactic of using firepower to clear away the Indian contingent, confining itself to the bulletless feints and jabs that have characterised Line of Actual Control (LoAC) encounters between China and India for years. The troops on the Indian side were similarly disciplined, refusing to use weapons other than their fists (and in the case of another incursion in a separate sector, a few stones). The mutual forbearance of the two powerful militaries indicated the effect on the field of the high value placed by Prime Minister Modi and President Xi on improving relations between India and China, a sentiment not shared by all of those at lower levels in both administrations.
GHQ WANTED NATO-STYLE AGREEMENT
Since mid-2015, GHQ Rawalpindi had put onto the fast track a plan of converting the existing loosely structured understanding with the Chinese military into a formal alliance that would include the condition that either side immediately get involved in any attack by a third country against the other. Simultaneously, GHQ Rawalpindi had spread scare stories to the PLA of illusory Indian plans to open a “Himalayan Front” against China, should that country find itself in battle with the US-led alliance in the Korea, China Sea or the Taiwan sector. GHQ had concocted reports that road building and other logistical works that were being undertaken in some parts of the LoAC were “in preparation for Operation Himalayan Front”, when in fact these were entirely defensive in intent. The relative lack of contact between the Chinese and Indian militaries made it easy for GHQ Rawalpindi to plant seeds of suspicion and distrust within some officers of the PLA about the intentions of the Indian Army, thereby ensuring the sanctioning by the PLA brass of moves that would be provocative to the Indian side, such as the road sought to be built in the vicinity of Doklam. A road that was the cause of the 73-day standoff that got resolved only because of the involvement of the highest levels of the Chinese and Indian states.
Once a NATO-style agreement got put into operation between China and Pakistan, the latter was intending to substantially ramp up its provocative actions, thereby triggering an inevitable response by India’s armed forces. Under the proposed NATO-style treaty with China, this would almost immediately involve the PLA on the eastern front. GHQ Rawalpindi would simultaneously activate sleeper and active cells throughout India to conduct acts of sabotage against rail and road traffic, besides instigating a rash of suicide attacks in key cities. The Modi government would therefore have to fight what Chief of Army Staff Rawat termed a “two-and-a-half front war”.
The generals in Islamabad calculated that the India-US alliance had yet not reached the “NATO stage” of immediate involvement of the US in any attack on India. This meant that, in their reckoning, the US would not get directly involved in the India-Pakistan-China war in which they were planning for India to find itself. They, however, calculated that by a second Modi term, such an alliance between Washington and Delhi would become a reality, hence (in their calculus) the need to ensure that a conflict erupt before such an elevated defence understanding between the US and India took place. In the meantime, they would goad their proxies and hangers-on in both the US and India to join with others in opposing moves for closer security cooperation with the US, by constantly bringing up the refrain that doing so “would abandon non-alignment” and “dilute sovereignty”, rather than assist in the defence of India against potent threats.
MILITARY RESPONSE STRICTLYCONTROLLED
Sino-Indian tensions over the Doklam road caused champagne corks to pop across the ranks of the senior officers at GHQ Rawalpindi, as they anticipated a Pakistan army-style reaction from both sides, of shooting first and asking questions later. Unfortunately for them, the control exercised by Xi and Modi over their respective militaries ensured that not a single shot was actually fired during any of the more than two months that the standoff commenced, although some harsh words were exchanged, much of which in the form of media commentary screaming for war by “studio and print warriors” in Beijing and Delhi, who would run away in fear at the mere sight of even a revolver actually getting fired.
Only those in China completely in the grip of the false logic purveyed by GHQ Rawalpindi would consider (in exchange for the completion of the Doklam road) as justifiable the sacrifice of a potential $100 billion dollar trade between India and China. Or the two former victims of colonialism bickering with each other in international fora, to the delight of those wishing either or both ill. Now that the “Pause” button has been activated, the Chinese side is expected to conduct an exhaustive review of the trade-offs of the proposed road, before mulling over when and if to resume construction. This hiatus has removed India’s cause of action for sending troops into the Doklam area. Hence, both sides have achieved a win through the decision taken by the leaders of both countries that Sino-Indian cooperation had a much greater priority than succumbing to the siren calls of third countries eager to witness another military conflict between India and China. In matters such as China’s decision to oppose India at the NSG, and India’s decision to oppose the entire $2 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), rather than just that segment passing through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, which has been misnamed as a “China-Pakistan” corridor, the two leaders had signed off on the recommendations of their subordinates. However, once the ice once again melts between Xi and Modi at Xiamen, as expected during the 3-5 September BRICS Summit, it is expected that the two leaders will continue the Doklam precedent of direct supervision of the details of the all-important geopolitical relationship between China and India, and will propel it forward in the manner desired by Modi and Xi, when they had so cordially met each other in 2014 in Gandhinagar and Xian.
Rather than champagne bottles, the generals at GHQ may need to reach for a stiff single malt in order to dull the pain they must feel on seeing Xi’s China and Modi’s India escape from the trap of conflict that had been so carefully laid for them by the generals in Rawalpindi.