Some Lessons from Doklam
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM

While the resolution of the Doklam stand-off as reported by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on 28 Aug is being hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough and an achievement of sorts for India in the open source reports, this work tries to revisit the incident with a view to draw some lessons which this two and a half month of face-to-face, leaves behind in its aftermath.

The Doklam crises transited through several stages, such as the threat of imminent fallout, diplomatic forays to find mutually acceptable positions, hectic efforts to woo the neighbouring countries towards each other's camps, super power proxies and the 'war of words 'unleashed by a 'chained' and an 'imprisoned' media on one side, only to be responded (thankfully in a much less quantum and in a much matured way) by a fiercely free press on the other. Now that the crises stands resolved, it will be prudent to re-visit the recent past to draw some lessons for the future.

A Now Familiar Game Plan

The Chinese Game Plan has signatures that the world at large is kind of getting familiar with, over time. It all starts with a unilateral projection of a one-sided (fake) narrative flowing out from their own (fabricated?) version of history and the one that lays claim on the sovereign territories of neighbouring nations or on the ‘global commons’ in the international waters. The narrative is vigorously pursued by a show of force combined with repeated threats to use it. This is done in defiance to all norms of international law and civilised behaviour by continuously giving out threats that stop just short of an all out war; letting the situation remain on an eternal boil, without letting it flow over the pot. All the above is duly backed up with a 'controlled' media, parroting out untruths, falsehoods and totally skewed stories, all aimed to align the domestic and international public opinion to the fake narrative; showing China as the victim whose war-like actions are purported to be seen as 'fait-accompli' reactions of the 'victim'. Whether it is the case of converting atolls into fortified military islands in the South China Sea (SCS) or drawing out the 9-dash line in the international waters, or recently, the Doklam (mis)adventure; all run on the above narrative.

Behind all these activities of the dragon, lies her hotly pursued intention of incremental encroachment on the sovereign possessions of its neighbours or the intention of usurping the ‘global commons’. China probably sees these acts as the essential ‘side games’ it must continue to play as necessary accoutrements to her swelling Comprehensive National Power which she wants the world to take note of, or as some sort of stepping stones to its dream of becoming the number one economic world power.


Doklam was in perfect consonance with the above scheme of things and in fact, was very shrewdly chosen.1,2 It lies at such a critical confluence of the boundaries of three nations (India, Bhutan and China) that an ingress through the Doklam Plateau could embarrass both India and Bhutan. That probably would have been a befitting response by China to the two 'defiant nations' who refused to join in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

By trying to build a road in the disputed territory from Doka La (where the current tri-junction of the boundaries between China, India and Bhutan is located) towards Gamochen in the Doklam plateau, China intended to inch closure to the Siliguri Corridor, thus holding out an even more greater threat to cut the lifeline to 4 and 33 Corps at will, or to threaten Indian defences in Sikkim, or to deter a possible Indian foray into the Chumbi Valley. It indeed was case of 'careful selection of the objective'. The documentary and historic logic to this narrative that laid claim to Doklam was also carefully chosen to be the 1890 Anglo-Chinese Treaty. This not only, took away the logic of Tibet as a player in the decision matrix, but also, by implication, smartly decried and eliminated the Dalai Lama factor. The 'victim' narrative was all ready to be fitted in place, if India took any action.

As stated, the Chinese misadventure was duly backed up with a vituperative press; repeated potential threats of war (countdown to clash with India is on!); appeals to the international press highlighting China's fait accompli situation that showed India as a defiant nation; live firing exercises in the background and more. What response did China possibly expect from India? Probably the most expected outcome was, that India might buckle under pressure (after all, they succeeded in damaging some Indian defences on Doka La pass in their approach towards Doklam). If the above did not happen, then the likely outcome from the Chinese point of view could have been to bring the issue to a simmer in a situation just short of war by continuously staking the claim at Doklam, thus serving her vowed policy of incremental encroachment.

A cool, mature and a firm Indian reaction at Doklam and her demonstrated unwillingness to buckle under mounting pressure, actually surprised the Chinese. Another surprising factor for them would have been, that in a country like India, where the political parties are always at one another's throat, there seemed to be no dissenting voices on the Indian stand at Doklam. On the flip side, Chinese knew very well that if the Doklam face-off did escalate into a war in that region, it would result is a tactical and strategic disadvantage to them. The issue would be of non-sustainability at Doklam due to the potential of India to interfere both through artillery and air from Sikkim , as well as from Bhutan side. In addition, its own war-gaming of the situation, given the realities and the constraints of terrain, would have made it clear to China that an offensive between the two giants will eventually end up in a strategic stalemate at best. 3

With the above reality driven home, beating up of a harsh media campaign by an abusive press, banking on repeated falsehoods and skewed exaggerations was probably to mount a huge psychological pressure on India. Thankfully, the international press also was not really amused by the Chinese story line and contrary to the desired support, the Chinese Press got ridiculed internationally for blatant exaggerations and skewed narratives. US had also indicated support to India indirectly by tagging Hizbul Mujahideen and its leader, Syed Salaudin, as a source of terror - dialogue between India and China to resolve the issue.

In addition to the above, the economic costs of war at this point in China where its economy is not on a surge of the bygone era and at a time when President Xi Jinping is seeking a second term, also made Doklam adventure, a difficult choice. On the diplomatic front as well, China was on a difficult ground. Its efforts to establish bilateral ties with Bhutan had not succeeded. Efforts to involve Nepal had also resulted in their Deputy PM refusing to take sides.4 Japan in a clear support to India had stated that 'no one should try to change the status quo on the ground by force'.5 Thus China, more or less, had got alienated by its neighbours (except Pakistan) on this issue.

Our calm and mature position of standing was right on several other counts. To start with, backing off from our stand would have belied the faith of our smaller neighbours in our capability and resolve to stand with them and protect their interests, both militarily, as well as, diplomatically. Secondly, a firm resolve at Doklam actually sent a positive signals to our smaller neighbours like Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives.6 While Ms Sushma Swaraj had made it clear that India would continue to engage with dialogue through diplomatic channels with China to find a mutually acceptable situation, President Xi Jinping was in a difficult spot.7 The Doklam stand-off had hardened to a point of a catch 22 situation. In that, if China pulled back its troops (unilaterally), it couldn't do so without a loss of face and if it continued to stay there, there would have been several negative ramifications.

Firstly the BRICS Summit was round the corner and the Summit theme was "Stronger Partnership for a Brighter Future". If Doklam continued the way it was going, Indian PM was likely to boycott the Summit. If that happened, it would have been India's second snub to China after BRI which would have actually taken out much of the air out of BRICS and would have been damaging to the Chinese dream of becoming the strongest economic superpower in the world. With Doklam of the scene, the same did not happen as our PM is indeed attending the event.

Secondly, later this year is slated the 19th Congress of the CPC, a forum where the President will try to consolidate his position besides bringing in more of his protégés into the CPC. With Doklam going this way, Xi was likely to face a stiff opposition from the Congress.

Weather and terrain wise as well, Doklam would have been untenable after Oct/Nov. The only way face-saving exit route was through the diplomatic door whose credit could be equally shared by both sides;. it thus happened.

What do we Learn from Doklam?

It is the considered opinion of the author that Doklam leaves behind the following takeaways:-

a. Stand firm and tall on what the nation considers its rightful position/possessions. The country is sufficiently strong not to buckle (get deterred) under psychological/military pressure from China. In fact, it is actually impossible for either of the two Asian giants to deter the other to a point of giving away its rightful position.

b. Realise that Doklam is not the first and will not be the last face-off. Many a Doklams are to follow if the Chinese continue to pursue ruthlessly, their vowed game plan of incremental encroachment on rightful possessions of sovereign nations or on the 'global commons' in the international waters. Be prepared.

c. While standing firm is the face that the nation must show, at the back, 'the powder must be kept dry' and focussed efforts must be directed to make up critical deficiencies at the earliest in theatre specific arms and munitions. In this context, the emergency financial powers given to the Service Vice Chiefs by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for making up critical deficiency in ammunition must be utilised fully.8

d. Emerging leverages with neighbours must be consolidated further in achieving proxy strength. Positive linkages now happening with USA, Japan, Russia, France, Israel and UK et al must be given further boost through more meetings and interactions at international forums and networking. This must grow both on the diplomatic fronts as well as on the military front, either through their involvement in Make-in-India initiative or through direct import of military hardware for giving a quick fillip to our critical deficiencies.

e. Lastly, one of the most important takeaway for India is to take full advantage of the short time window that is available before the next Doklam-repeat presents itself. This time must be utilised fully in making up critical deficiencies in a time bound manner.

End Notes

1 "Siliguri Corrodor :Behind China's Sikkim aggression" at (Accessed Aug 26, 2017).
2 Shashi Asthana, ' Doklam Plateau Standoff' at (Accessed Aug 26 2017).
3 "War won't give China any clear gain" at (Accessed on Aug 26 , 2017).
4 2 ibid.
5 TNN news dated 18 Aug 2017.
6 "Our stance at Doklam would make positive impression on friends" at (Accessed on aug 26, 2017).
7 "Why Doklam standoff is not good for the Chinese President" at ( accessed on Aug 26 ,2017).
8 china standoff , defence Ministry wants extra 20,000 cr budget, India Today 08 Aug 17 (Accessed on Aug 26 , 2017).

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