Thursday, 20 July 2017

With Doklam negotiations under way, military believes it has emerged victor

Generals say: "In a stalemate, India will have achieved its aims" (Photo courtesy Global Times)

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th July 17

Senior military officials in New Delhi believe Beijing badly overplayed its hand by heating up the rhetoric over the presence of Indian soldiers in the disputed Doklam bowl, adjoining Sikkim. They say in the stalemate that has emerged, India will have achieved its aims.

The planners say that Indian forces have held the upper hand ever since they surprised Chinese troops by confronting them on behalf of Bhutan, and sticking to their position despite unprecedented aggression and threats from Beijing.

“However this plays out, China is going to lose face, since it has made its threats publicly. And India is going to come out looking like a credible and reliable partner for Bhutan”, says a general, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Asked about the possibility of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launching military operations against India, as Beijing has hinted, Indian generals are sanguine.

“There is no military mobilisation by China, nor will the Indian military mobilise unless war becomes imminent. If it comes to fighting, we are prepared to shed blood to uphold the India-Bhutan cooperation agreement. That would only raise our credibility in Thimphu’s eyes”, says a senior military planner.

“But that will not happen. The Chinese know they can achieve no military goal. They are smart enough to realise they have miscalculated badly”, he adds.

On Wednesday, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar admitted to a parliamentary panel that diplomatic negotiations are underway, both in Beijing and New Delhi, to resolve the month-old crisis.

On June 16, after Chinese road construction crews entered Doklam – an 89 square kilometre patch claimed by both Bhutan and China – Indian troops also crossed into Doklam and physically blocked Chinese road construction activity. Since then, hundreds of Indian and Chinese soldiers built up there, deployed eyeball-to-eyeball, initially igniting apprehensions of a shooting war.

Over the past week, however, as diplomatic discussions on de-escalation have moved along, Beijing’s foreign ministry spokespersons and government-controlled media have noticeably toned down the aggressive rhetoric they had earlier adopted.

Until last week, China’s foreign ministry insisted that a unilateral Indian withdrawal from Doklam was “the precondition for any meaningful dialogue between the two sides”. On June 6, Beijing threatened: “We once again urge the Indian side to immediately pull all of the troops that have crossed the boundary back to its own side before the situation gets worse with more serious consequences.”

On Tuesday, however, questioned about a briefing that China’s foreign ministry had given to diplomats in Beijing, a government spokesperson answered more benignly: “People will reach the just conclusion. If Indian wants to achieve its political purposes by sending military personnel across demarcated boundary, China urges India better not to do so.”

China’s media too is noticeably softening its stance from early June, when mouthpieces like the Global Times and Xinhua threatened India with a repeat of the 1962 military defeat. Over the weekend, China Central Television (CCTV) broadcast high-altitude, live fire exercises by a PLA brigade, without mentioning that the drills took place before the Doklam incident began.

This week, articles on the Doklam faceoff have been fewer in number. On Tuesday, after Pakistan’s “Dunya News” – a 24-hour, Urdu language television news channel –concocted news that a Chinese rocket attack in Sikkim had killed more than 150 Indian soldiers, Chinese media dismissed the report as “baseless”.

In India, even as the media keeps the spotlight on Doklam, the government is keeping a level tone. On Wednesday, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar reportedly told a parliamentary panel that hypernationalism and the media spotlight had inflated the crisis out of proportion.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Doklam faceoff: Motives, stakes and what lies ahead?



By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 19th July 17

What motives underlie the month-long standoff between Indian Army troops and Chinese border guards in the Doklam bowl, on the Sino-Indian border in Sikkim? What is at stake there for India and China? How could this play out, and is there a real threat of war?

The confrontation began in mid-June, when the Chinese entered the Doklam bowl, a picturesque, 89 square kilometre series of meadows near the Nathu La border crossing between Sikkim and Tibet’s Chumbi Valley. Doklam is claimed by both China and Bhutan; while China, India and Bhutan do not agree where their borders meet. The Chinese and Bhutanese armies send occasional patrols to Doklam in summer, while graziers from both sides herd their yaks here – traditional ways of staking claim to Himalayan territory – but the patrols and graziers are only temporary visitors.

Last month, however, Chinese road construction crews, escorted by border guards, disturbed this delicate status quo by attempting to consolidate permanent “facts on the ground”. Barging into Doklam, they began extending a mud-surface road they had partly built more than a decade ago. This rough track would connect Doklam to Highway S-204, a blacktop Chinese road in the Chumbi Valley, theoretically allowing Chinese troops to drive directly from the Tibetan city of Shigatse, through Yadong, across the border into Doklam, and then south to China’s claimed border line at Gyemochen (which the Chinese call Mount Gipmochi). A Chinese road in this disputed territory would add weight to Beijing’s claim over it.



Since India does not claim the Doklam bowl, China’s entry placed the ball squarely in Bhutan’s court. But Thimphu had not objected forcefully when China had encroached into the Doklam bowl in 2003-07, and it was – understandably, given Bhutan’s power differential with China – reluctant to intervene now. Consequently, Indian troops in the vicinity, acting in accordance with New Delhi’s foreign policy coordination treaty with Thimphu, crossed on June 16 into Bhutanese-claimed territory and physically blocked the movement of Chinese border guards. India also positioned two bulldozers in the Doklam bowl to undo any road construction by the Chinese. Since then, several hundred Indian soldiers and as many Chinese border guards (since their army does not guard the border) have come face to face in Doklam in a testy stalemate.

Backing up their soldiers on the ground, foreign ministry spokespersons in Beijing, Thimphu and New Delhi have rationalised their positions. On June 26, Beijing invoked an 1890 agreement between China and Great Britain that specified Mount Gipmochi as the border junction. Three days later, Thimphu cited agreements in 1988 and 1989 not to disturb the status quo. The next day, New Delhi pointed out that Beijing had agreed in 2012 to finalise the border tri-junction consultatively and that “unilaterally determin[ing] tri-junction points is in violation of this understanding.”

Threat to the Siliguri corridor?

Indian commentators have claimed that New Delhi’s unusual resoluteness in this confrontation stems from a threat to the Siliguri corridor – a 23 kilometre-wide funnel of Indian territory that squeezes between Nepal and Bangladesh, giving India access to its seven north-eastern states. Siliguri is just 80 kilometres from the current border. It is argued that allowing China to shift the border to Mount Gipmochi would bring the threat even closer.


In fact, this danger is dramatically overblown. A Chinese advance to Siliguri would require the mobilisation of large numbers of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops from around Lhasa, and Mainland China. Dennis Blasko, a leading expert on the Chinese military, says the PLA’s on-going reorganisation aims to increase the “new-type combat forces”, which are capable of being used anywhere in China or its borders, but there are not enough of these forces in Tibet to break through India’s forward defences in Sikkim. Bringing in sufficient numbers and acclimatising them to Tibet’s high altitudes would take the PLA weeks, losing strategic surprise and allowing India to comfortably reinforce its defences in Sikkim.

If moving appropriate troops into the Chumbi Valley is a logistical challenge, shielding them from Indian artillery, air and ground attacks in that bottleneck would be even more difficult. Thereafter, the PLA would have to break through formidable Indian defences, attacking mainly uphill, and then advance southward to Siliguri across thickly forested hills, harried all the way by numerically superior Indian forces. Such an advance, carried out cross-country, would inevitably leave behind artillery and logistic support, rendering Chinese infantry spearheads sitting ducks for Indian forces. If, miraculously, the Chinese still reach Siliguri, they would be decimated in massed attacks from Indian reserves that could be built up steadily.

“Sikkim is where India attacks China, not the other way around”, say typically blunt planners in New Delhi. Lieutenant General SL Narasimhan (Retired), who has commanded a brigade and a division in Sikkim and now serves on India’s National Security Advisory Board has written that concerns about Siliguri are overblown.

The Bhutan factor

With Siliguri not a major concern, New Delhi’s purposefulness at Doklam stems, more likely, from the belief that Beijing is testing India’s commitment to Bhutan. China has always been galled by this close relationship, which has withstood sustained Chinese pressure to divide it. At Doklam, military pressure and Beijing’s unprecedented rhetoric have been reinforced by diatribes from Chinese and China-friendly media, alleging India’s colonial exploitation of Bhutan.

Neville Maxwell, as always in lockstep with Chinese propaganda, writes in the South China Morning Post: “The Indian attempt to depict this confrontation as tripartite should be disregarded. Bhutan is not an independent actor [but] rather an Indian glove-puppet.”

Maxwell makes the outrageous assertion that New Delhi keeps Thimphu in line by permanently stationing an army brigade group (3,500-5,000 troops) in Bhutan. Numerous Indian and international commentators too have incorrectly cited similar numbers. In fact, India’s military presence in Bhutan is restricted to 800 trainers for the Royal Bhutan Army, and about 100 soldiers with the Border Roads Organisation, which builds and maintains several Bhutanese roads, using civilian hired labour.

New Delhi understands that backing off would amount to throwing Bhutan under the Chinese bus, allowing Beijing to dictate a border settlement with Thimphu. On the other hand, Beijing understands that allowing India to intervene militarily on behalf of Bhutan would send an undesirable message to other regional states that China seeks to keep divided and mindful of its status as the next global superpower.

New Delhi remains firm about its support to Bhutan. Says former national security advisor, Shivshankar Menon, in a media interview: “[W]e have a certain relationship and certain obligations to Bhutan. In this case, China’s actions have disturbed the status quo, and that needs to be addressed.”

How much of a flashpoint?

The Doklam confrontation does not yet appear a flashpoint that could trigger open hostilities. No shots have been exchanged, in contrast to the 1967 gun battles at Nathu La and Cho La, just kilometres from Doklam, in which 88 Indian soldiers were killed and 163 wounded; and an estimated 340 Chinese soldiers died and 450 were wounded. Nor is this the longest or most tense face-off ever. That dubious distinction goes to the 1986-87 crisis on the Sumdorong Chu (rivulet) near Tawang, after China occupied the disputed Wangdung grazing ground and the Indian Army responded with a months-long build-up of tens of thousands of troops along the McMahon Line. Beijing quickly understood that New Delhi had abandoned its post-1962 defensive mind set and the crisis was resolved, leading on to the Peace and Tranquillity Agreement of 1993 and the Confidence Building Measures of 1996 that have kept the peace on the border ever since.

But this equilibrium has now been disturbed, and both sides have played roles in it. American sinologist, John Garver, writing in the South China Morning Post, says a rising and assertive China, looking to be the paramount power in Asia, wants to serve up a public lesson to India – which it sees as the weakest link in a chain of states, including the US, Japan and Australia, that are trying to contain China. Supporting this rationale for Beijing’s shrill aggression over Doklam, other commentators have pointed to China’s opposition to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, its blocking of a UN resolution to declare Pakistan-based Azhar Masood a global terrorist, New Delhi’s unapologetic backing of the Dalai Lama, including a government sponsored visit to Tawang, and the Indian government’s forthright rejection of China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative. In the Indian Ocean too New Delhi is lining up more visibly against China, with its navy cooperating and training regularly with the American and Japanese navies in exercises like the recently concluded “Exercise Malabar”.

While deteriorating Sino-Indian relations are a reality, there is insufficient recognition of the fact that border incidents are increasingly triggered by India’s increasing military strength and an increasingly assertive posture on the border. Over the last decade, India has strengthened its defences in Arunachal Pradesh by adding two divisions (35,000 – 40,000 troops), and is raising a mountain strike corps (60,000 troops) that can operate in Ladakh, Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh. Besides these, India has moved more than two brigades (7,000 – 10,000 troops) from Kashmir to Ladakh and strengthened defences further with the induction of tank and armoured infantry units. The little-known upshot is that India’s military posture has become significantly stronger than China’s on the 3,500-kilometre Line of Actual Control (LAC).

This is enhancing confrontation between the two sides. For decades, India maintained an insignificant military presence in Daulet Beg Oldi, in Ladakh, ceding the run of the place to China. But, when India’s thickening troop presence blocked Chinese patrols into the area, a prolonged confrontation ensued in 2013. One general involved in that standoff says: “The Chinese demanded to know why we were blocking them now, when they had been patrolling that area for years.”


A similar confrontation took place in Chumar, in Ladakh, in 2014. Now, in Doklam, Chinese anger stems from being blocked in 2017, after facing no resistance between 2003-2007, when they tested the waters by building the existing track. Furthermore, a more active media in both countries is bringing confrontations to public attention, forcing both governments into harder-line stances and depicting as surrender the give-and-take that must necessarily accompany the resolution of each incident.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

As Kashmiris protest Amarnath yatri killings, conspiracy theories abound



By Ajai Shukla
New Delhi, 12th July 17

Drowned out by condemnation from the political mainstream at Monday’s terrorist attack in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) on Amarnath Yatra pilgrims, Kashmiri separatist leaders sharply criticised an attack that they said violated syncretic Kashmiri tradition and faith.

The separatist “Joint Resistance Leadership” (JRL), consisting of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik, sharply condemned the Laskhar-e-Toiba (LeT) strike near Anantnag that killed seven and wounded about 50 Amarnath pilgrims, most of them from Gujarat.

Offering condolences, a JRL statement said: “This incident goes against the very grain of Kashmiri ethos. The annual Amarnath Yarta has been going on peacefully for centuries and is part of our yearly rhythm and will remain so.”

On Tuesday evening, common Kashmiris from Srinagar braved a thunderstorm to stage a sit-in at Pratap Park, near Srinagar’s iconic Lal Chowk, to protest the attack.

Given the broad condemnation it is hardly surprising the LeT has remained silent on the attack. So far, no group has claimed ownership, or supported the attack.

Meanwhile, there is a noteworthy silence from the radicals who propagate Kashmir’s accession to a global Islamist state under Sharia law (the Khilafat, or Caliphate). These include Zakir Musa from Tral, in South Kashmir, who is challenging the dominance of Kashmiri nationalist leaders, like those in the JRL, who uphold Kashmir’s distinct political identity, and reject the notion of being subsumed into a global Muslim “ummah” (community).

That silence stokes apprehensions that the Kashmiri struggle is polarising along the Hindu-Muslim axis, with a radical fringe increasingly accepting attacks on minorities and ethnic cleansing.

The J&K Police (JKP), meanwhile, holds that Monday’s terrorist attack is the LeT’s revenge for the busting last week of a LeT module that included a Hindu member.

A senior JKP officer says the LeT decided to hit back after it was publicly lambasted in a triumphant JKP press conference on Monday. According to this version, Ismail, a Pakistani LeT commander in South Kashmir, targeted the offices of senior police officials – the senior superintendent of police (SSP) and deputy inspector general (DIG) – at Khanabal, near Anantnag. As the LeT attack began, the pilgrims’ bus, straggling behind the heavily guarded Amarnath Yatri convoy because of a punctured tyre, was “caught in the cross-fire”.

There is widespread scepticism of this account. Former J&K chief minister, Omar Abdullah, said people “need to stop peddling the ‘tourist bus caught in cross fire’ bunkum. You can’t be apologists for terror.”

Journalist Ahmed Ali Fayyaz of the State Times, posted a photograph on Twitter of the ill-fated bus. Not a single bullet-hole is evident on the bus’ body, with every shot having apparently pierced through its windows – an unlikely outcome of the melee of a crossfire, and more suggestive of a cold, well-planned terrorist attack.

Whatever the motives and methods, the Monday terrorist attack on the Amarnath Yatra indicates a fraying of the longstanding consensus amongst armed jihadi groups not to strike civilian targets, particularly those quintessentially Kashmiri in nature.

After three consecutive years – 2000, 2001 and 2002 – which saw terrorist strikes on the Amarnath Yatra, the last 15 yatras have been free of armed violence. Even after 2008, when violent civil protests broke out in Kashmir after the government controversially allocated almost 100 acres of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, the yatra was not harmed or impeded.

Securing the yatra for the two months of its annual duration constitutes a major challenge for the security forces in J&K. This requires the securing of 315 kilometres of highway from Jammu to Pahalgam. There is also the requirement to secure the 46-kilometre foot yatra to the 3,888 metre-high Amarnath Cave, including three camp sites – Chandanwari, Sheshnag and Panchtarni – where pilgrims halt overnight en route to the shrine.

Additionally, a secondary, 14 kilometre-long route from Baltal, near Sonamarg, is required to be secured.

Between 10,000 to 15,000 pilgrims reach the Amarnath Cave everyday. Since June 29, when the yatra opened this year, just over one and a half lakh pilgrims have paid obeisance at the shrine. 

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Amidst Sino-India tensions, biggest-ever navy participation in Ex Malabar



By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 11th July 17

With Indian and Chinese troops locked in confrontation in disputed territory along their border, the Indian Navy is turning out in unprecedented strength in the India-US-Japan naval exercise, Malabar, in the Bay of Bengal from July 10-17.

Nine Indian warships, including aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, and a Kilo-class submarine will join American and Japanese warships in an annual exercise that is all about operational preparation against China’s increasingly aggressive navy.

In the largest-ever Malabar exercise in 2007, 26 warships had taken part, including eight Indian and 13 US Navy warships, two from the so-called Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF), and two Australian and one Singaporean vessel.

While this year’s Malabar will involve only 17 warships– nine less than 2007 – the Indian Navy will field one warship more than it did that year. In addition, Malabar will witness the participation of 95 aircraft.

After Malabar 2007 (which was held twice that year) China officially conveyed its displeasure, seeking to know whom the defence preparations were directed against.

Beijing resents the coming together in Malabar of what has been termed an “Alliance of Democracies” in Asia. Besides India, Japan and the US, this includes Australia and Singapore.

During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit to Washington in September 2014, New Delhi and Washington “agreed to upgrade their existing bilateral exercise Malabar”. This was repeated during President Barack Obama’s January 2015 to New Delhi. Despite these intentions, the 2015 and 2016 Malabar exercises involved only four Indian ships. This year, significantly, Indian participation has more than doubled.

Australia has officially sought to participate in Malabar, but this year Canberra will send only an “observer delegation”. In multilateral exercises, observer participation is very often a step towards full-scale participation later.

“Last year, Malabar became a trilateral exercise, with Japan’s inclusion. It is likely to become a quadrilateral exercise, with Australia’s inclusion, perhaps as early as next year”, says an Indian official, requesting anonymity.

“Naval co-operation between India, US and Japan epitomises the strong and resilient relationship between the three democracies. The Malabar series of exercises, initiated in 1992 between the Indian and US Navies, have steadily grown in scope, complexity and participation into a multifaceted exercise with the participation of Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF)”, said a defence ministry release today.

The ministry has divulged that India will field “aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya with its air wing, guided missile destroyer Ranvir, indigenous stealth frigates Shivalik and Sahyadri, indigenous ASW corvette Kamorta, missile corvettes Kora andKirpan, one Sindhughosh class submarine, fleet tanker INS Jyoti and Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft P8I.” 
           
The US Navy will field the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Princeton, Arleigh Burke-class destroyers USS Kidd, Howard and Shoup, a Los Angeles-class attack submarine and one Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft P8A.

The JMSDF will be represented by JS Izumo, a “helicopter carrier” larger than some aircraft carriers, which can operate vertical take off and landing (VTOL) fighters like the F-35B Lightening II. Japan is also fielding the missile destroyer, JS Sazanami.

The exercise will start with a “harbour phase”, involving joint planning, till Thursday. From Friday to next Monday, the “sea phase” will practice the full range of aircraft carrier, surface and submarine operations.

Meanwhile, Indian and US Special Forces and bomb disposal teams will exercise together at the marine commando base, INS Karna, in Visakhapatnam.

“The primary aim of this exercise is to increase interoperability amongst the three navies as well as develop common understanding and procedures for maritime security operations”, stated the defence ministry.


Malabar: India’s biggest-ever presence

Year
India
US
Japan
Others
Total
Aircraft carriers
Remarks








2005
4
4
-
-
8
-

2006
5
5
-
1
11
2
One Canadian vessel
2007 - 1
5
7
4
-
16
-

2007 - 2
8
13
2
3
26
3
Two Australian and one Singaporean vessel
2008
6
6
-
-
12
1

2009
3
4
2
-
9
-

2010
5
5
-
-
10
-

2011
5
7
-
-
12
-

2012
5
5
-
-
10
-

2013
2
1
-
-
3
-

2014
3
5
2
-
10
-

2015
4
3
1
-
8
1

2016
4
5
1
-
10
1*
Japan’s JS Hyuga, a helicopter carrier, also participated
2017
9
6
2
-
17
2*
Japan’s JS Izumo, a helicopter carrier, also participated

* Japan’s helicopter carriers embark vertical take off/landing fighter aircraft

Figures from 2005-2015 courtesy Shashank Joshi (@shashj)