Heights of attrition

Even a year after the Doklam crisis, the story is far from over for India and China

97574659 On the offensive: Chinese soldiers on patrol in Tibet. China is upgrading facilities in Tibet as India shifts focus to its northern border | Getty Images

ON AUGUST 28 last year, in a surprise move, China and India agreed to pull their forces back from the Doklam trijunction of India, Bhutan and China, after a standoff that lasted 73 days. A year later, India and China have put their defence preparedness on the fast track, and are preparing to be in a much better position tactically, in case of another confrontation.

In a big shift after Doklam, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat said it was time to shift the Army’s focus to its northern border to handle Chinese “assertiveness”. India has enhanced its deployment of Su-30 MKI fighters, which can fire the supersonic BrahMos missiles, at the Bagdogra and Hasimara airbases.

China has deployed in the region its early-warning and command aircraft, HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. It has upgraded facilities at the airbases in Lhasa and Shigatse and will open three more airbases in Tibet by the end of next year.

Defence ministry officials in Delhi said around 1,600 Chinese troops in north Doklam had set up permanent huts. The area was earlier barren, and ignored by patrols. China has constructed an observation tower and is developing a road network nearly 12km north of the standoff site to circumvent Indian positions. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told Parliament about China’s construction of sentry posts, trenches and helipads near the standoff site.

Jayadeva Ranade, former additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat, said the Chinese army was not happy with the Doklam disengagement decision, and was itching for revenge. “There is no urgency for them. But I don’t see an ‘easy’ relationship for a while between the two nations,” he said.

The 73-day standoff exposed the Indian Army’s inability to mobilise its resources including artillery and additional ammunition swiftly because of inadequate road infrastructure. As a result, the Army has decided to re-prioritise its 2018-2023 five-year plan to meet the operational requirements along the Line of Actual Control.

A senior Indian official said the emphasis would be to fast track infrastructure development by creating better roads, fuel storage facilities and troop accommodation facilities. Priority will be given to capability enhancement, by adding more infantry weapons with night fighting ability, and placing intelligence and surveillance equipment along the LAC and the International Border.

Construction of 73 strategic border roads has been prioritised to ensure quick mobilisation of troops. India is also constructing 17 tunnels along the LAC to ensure all-weather connectivity. Besides, efforts are on to strengthen the railway network and to build advanced landing grounds and helipads close to the border.

Lieutenant General (retd) Vinod Bhatia, who had commanded the Sukna-based 33 Corps in charge of Doklam, said the Chinese had multi-model infrastructure. “We are no match for them.” He said 73 strategic road projects had been pending since 2005, and while 46 roads were nowhere close to completion, the construction of 19 roads had not yet started. Mountain Strike Corps, the Army’s primary offensive formation against China, has been delayed because of budgetary constraints.

Of late, however, both India and China have been working on improving bilateral ties. President Xi Jinping told Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he wanted to put Sino-Indian relations on the “right track”. The Wuhan Summit played an important role in breaking the ice between the two militaries. In a gesture of conciliation, India kept a distance from the events commemorating 60 years of the Dalai Lama’s exile. During his recent visit to New Delhi, Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe said India and China shared a friendship dating back to ancient times.

“Post Doklam, the Chinese are looking at us more carefully, including on military terms,” said Ranade. “They have understood that they need to deal with India in a different manner, and that threats will not work.”