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China is still active in Doklam!

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BOAO, April 10, 2018 (Xinhua) -- Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2018 in Boao, south China's Hainan Province, April 10, 2018. (Xinhua/Li Xueren/IANS) by Xinhua.
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2018 in Boao, south China's Hainan Province, April 10, 2018. (Xinhua/Li Xueren/IANS)

With President Xi Jinping in complete command of the PLA after the reorganisation, it appears likely that by the end of this year, Chinese forces will manage to reach Jampheri ridge in Bhutan, putting India at a strategic disadvantage in the Siliguri corridor. That is the main concern for India….writes Sahadev Sharma

BOAO, April 10, 2018 (Xinhua) -- Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2018 in Boao, south China's Hainan Province, April 10, 2018. (Xinhua/Li Xueren/IANS) by Xinhua.
Chinese President Xi Jinping . (Xinhua/Li Xueren/IANS)

US Congresswoman Anne Wagner recently stated that China had ‘quietly’ resumed its road construction activities in Doklam.  She also compared it to China’s activities in the South China Sea, where China continues to make new islands and construct defence facilities, including airfields on them. India has stoutly denied the possibility of China having resumed work in Doklam and has argued that there is no change in the status quo in Doklam Plateau since the disengagement in August 2017.

At a recent US Congressional hearing, Anne Wagner stated that “Chinese and Indian troops faced off on the disputed Doklam plateau between Bhutan and China after the Chinese People’s Liberation Army began building roads through the area. Although both countries backed down, China has quietly resumed its activities in Doklam and neither Bhutan nor India has sought to dissuade it.”

These remarks were further added to by comparing Chinese activities on its borders with India and Bhutan with what China was doing in the South China Sea. Wagner asked how the failure of the US “to respond to the militarisation of the South China Sea (should) inform the international response to these Himalayan border disputes?”

The Chinese panache for deception comes out very clearly as one reads Anne Wagner remarks. After all, In August 2017, China and India had agreed to a diplomatic withdrawal from the Doklam region of Bhutan, particularly in the region opposite Doka La where the Chinese had wanted to construct a road towards TorsaNala in the direction of Jampheri Ridge. Of course, China has touted “handling of the Indian border troops trespass” in Doklam as among its six major diplomatic achievements of 2017.

“China’s Foreign Affairs 2018”, an official diplomatic record published by the Department of Policy Planning of the Foreign Ministry lists resolution of the Doklam issue as one of the six major “breakthroughs” in 2017. Given this revelation, one needs to ask China as to how a breakthrough can permit changing the status quo on an agreement, that too in Bhutan?

The US position on the Doklam issue was articulated by Alice Wells, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia while responding to Anne Wagner. Alice Wells said: “I would assess that India is vigorously defending its northern borders and this is a subject of concern to India.” Alice Wells stated that US policy on the South China Sea was premised on giving countries in the region the choice of partnerships and how they develop”. Clearly, the Obama pivot has moved on and President Trump does not intend to engage China militarily in the South China Sea that is the only conclusion one can draw.

Coming back the main point of discussion, i.e., Doklam, it may be mentioned that India responded almost immediately to Anne Wagner’s comments by stating that the status quo established in Doklamin August 2017 had not changed. In other words, India does not believe that China has moved its road construction activities from Doka La towards TorsaNala. If this were to happen then it would endanger Jampheri Ridge and consequently be a strategic threat to India.

The real issue is that of China quietly resuming its activities in Doklam (Doklam Plataeau), which is quite different from Doka La. Satellite imagery from the area accessed by The Print suggests that while road construction at the point of contention had stopped, China has been working through the winter to create an alternate route that will give it access to the southern part of the plateau. The new Chinese alignment is deep in Bhutanese territory and over 4 km away from the India’s border with Bhutan.

Earlier, in winter 2017 the Chinese had taken over North Doklam in Bhutan and constructed new facilities to house more troops, and built helipads. They also began construction of a road going down from the side of Chiwuka river towards Jampheri Ridge. Images made public by The Print show that in January 2018, China had constructed approximately a km of road. However, in February 2018, almost 5 km was constructed southwards from a point, where the Chinese had originally moved towards Doka La.

China has done two things since the Doklam stand off. First they have brought in 55th Brigade to Lhasa and they have reinforced northern Doklam. 55th Brigade is the 55th Motorised Infantry Brigade which is one of the four mobile brigades of the 47th Army of the PLA. It is therefore, clear that China intends to get to its ultimate destination, which is Jampheri ridge. Also, with neither India nor Bhutan making a noise, it is quite possible that this process may be completed by the end of 2018.

All this has happened even as China’s Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou paid a three day trip to Bhutan in July 2018. Chinese Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui accompanied Kong on his trip to the country. With National Assembly elections due in Bhutan in November 2018, China is doing all it can to have a government in place that will work to its advantage, with specific reference to acknowledging Chinese control over Doklam. This of course would require both sides to do a deal on the border!

Several things stand out which are of importance to India. First, as mentioned by the US Senator Anne Wagner, there is sufficient evidence to show that China continues to strengthen its defences and logistics in the Doklam plateau in Bhutan. Second, even as high level exchanges between India and China occur, it is clear that China intends to change the status quo in Doklam. Third, with national assembly elections fast approaching in Bhutan it seems that China will try with all its might to come to a pact with the new government to ensure that the Doklam Plateau is formally recognised as being under Chinese control.

With President Xi Jinping in complete command of the PLA after the reorganisation, it appears likely that by the end of this year, Chinese forces will manage to reach Jampheri ridge in Bhutan, putting India at a strategic disadvantage in the Siliguri corridor. That is the main concern for India. It is therefore, necessary to call China’s bluff by raising Anne Wagner’s statement with the Chinese. At the same time, it is necessary for India to keep its guard up, while constantly monitoring the situation.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi and Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov during Russia-India-China trilateral meeting in New Delhi