For 73 days from June-August, Indian and Chinese troops faced off across the Himalayas in the worst border confrontation in years. At Doklam, an unremarkable patch of territory disputed by Bhutan and China, troops eyeballed each other after China attempted to extend a mountain track.

While that standoff ceased via a disengagement agreement implemented on 28 August, the latest satellite imagery indicates that India bit off quite a handful by making its stand on the border. In fact, imagery shows an estimated 1,600-1,800 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) now camped out nearby.

While Delhi declared it had achieved its ‘strategic objective’ of preventing China from extending a military road in Doklam, that objective can now be reinterpreted as being merely tactical. Instead, the strategic result is that the PLA has formed a year-round presence near Doklam instead of a seasonal one.

A recent report, written by Col Vinayak Bhat (Retd) and published by ThePrint, revealed that the PLA has constructed two helipads, improved roads and established scores of prefabricated huts to create a permanent presence in the vicinity.

‘A Chinese build-up of troops and military infrastructure near the contentious Doklam plateau has gained pace in November, with fresh satellite images showing new mortar positions, hardening of gun positions and evidence that more than 5,000 troops could be deployed within 5-10km of the conflict point,’ Bhat reported.

Improved Chinese emplacements for mortars and guns are visible near Doklam. (Google Earth)

Satellite imagery revealed increased PLA deployments compared to August, particularly at several locations southwest of Yadong town. 

‘This presence of almost nine battalions is in addition to the troops that China has deployed just 50km behind in the Chumbi Valley,' the report continued.

Bhat added, ‘Satellite images confirm that work is progressing at a feverish pace even in the winter. The images show at least nine three-storey buildings that are occupied and almost 300 large vehicles, suggesting that almost one division of troops are located in areas ahead of Yadong town.’

Additionally, a communications centre has been improved to include a receiving station, four antenna dishes and two tall antennas. Defensive positions, many defiladed from Indian outposts, are connected by trenches.

An expanded Chinese signals facility sited near Doklam. (Google Earth)

The Doklam plateau is of vital importance to India. Any Chinese progress there pushes its troops closer to the vulnerable Siliguri Corridor, the so-called ‘Chicken’s Neck’, that connects eastern India with the rest of the country.

The two sides are keeping a wary eye on each other, illustrated by the crash of an Indian UAV, believed to be a Heron 1, on Chinese territory in the Sikkim area earlier this month.

Yet the Doklam dispute is simply part of a larger Sino-Indian contest. Neither country can tolerate any compromise on territorial claims and, with President Xi Jinping in an even stronger position after October’s 19th Party Congress, time will tell whether he has an appetite to assert even greater military power.

China’s three-warfare strategy encompasses media, legal and psychological pathways to ‘win without fighting’, just as it has successfully done by marginalising Taiwan. Beijing used the same modus operandi against India during the Doklam dispute, even taking the unusual step of publishing a 15-page position paper where it accused Delhi of ‘invading Chinese territory’.
‘A Chinese build-up of troops and military infrastructure near the contentious Doklam plateau has gained pace in November, with...evidence that more than 5,000 troops could be deployed within 5-10km of the conflict point.’ — Col Vinayak Bhat (Retd)
Crafting an image of itself as a peace-loving and stabilising force in Asia and around the globe, China is guilty of a persistent pattern whereby it maintains virginal blamelessness in whatever dispute it might be embroiled. As in the South China Sea, its leaders believe that if you say something often and convincingly enough, then people will believe it.

A quick survey by The Geobukseon of Chinese social media posts at the time of the Doklam tensions showed about 60% approved the use of diplomacy to solve the argument. Alarmingly, however, 20% of Chinese netizens urged war to end the standoff. 

Examples of this sentiment included one patriot: ‘Why don’t we expel those Indians by force?...It’s time to show off our military power!’

While China uses nationalist sentiment to its advantage, it could also become a double-edged sword if it races out of control. There is thus a risk that individual Chinese border units will act out under the broad encouragement of the communist party, similar to the shoving and stone-slinging clash of Chinese and Indian troops that occurred at the Four Finger area in Ladakh on 15 August.

Rory Medcalf, writing for the Australian think tank the Lowy Institute, concluded, ‘At Doklam, China was caught off-balance by India’s military response of deterrence by denial. No amount of full-throated bluster, condescension or war talk from Chinese party-state mouthpieces could make India’s forces budge…Yet within weeks, we saw a negotiated resolution. This makes it more likely that others will discount Chinese threats in future.’

Medcalf suggested that such firmness, ‘combined with the patient and low-key nature of India’s diplomatic negotiations… may provide a new template for handling Chinese coercion’.

Yes, China’s assertiveness was challenged by Delhi’s refusal to bow to pressure, and doubtlessly Xi must have been angered by this.

However, it is essential to realise that the PLA was at a tactical disadvantage at Doklam and could not take any quick or decisive action. Furthermore, amidst all-time-high suspicions of Chinese motives, any fighting would have destroyed China’s carefully crafted narrative of a peaceful rise.

China never viewed it as a defeat. In the wake of the Doklam pullback, Chinese defence spokesman Ren Guoqiang promised, ‘The Chinese military will continue to carry out its missions and responsibilities, beef up patrol and station troops in the Dong Lang area and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and security… The Chinese armed forces will firmly carry out its sacred mission of safeguarding territorial sovereignty and protect every inch of the land in the Dong Lang area.’
‘The Chinese armed forces will firmly carry out its sacred mission of safeguarding territorial sovereignty and protect every inch of the land in the Dong Lang area.' — Chinese defence spokesman Ren Guoqiang
Compared to Medcalf, other commentators were more restrained in rushing to label this a victory for India. For example, M. Taylor Fravel, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), argued that India did not win, since the status quo was merely restored.

In an article published by War on the Rocks, Fravel insisted India had actually lost at the strategic level.

‘Ironically, perhaps, India’s actions underscored to China the importance of enhancing its military position in the Doklam bowl. Before the standoff in June, China’s permanent presence in the area had been quite limited… Now that India has chosen to confront China at Doklam, however, China may well seek to rectify this tactical imbalance of forces.’

Large numbers of heavy vehicles, including those visible here, suggest motor pools and substantial troop numbers near Yadong. (Google Earth)

Fravel argued, ‘When India challenged China’s construction crews in June, it only had to move its forces a hundred metres from the existing border. In the future, India may be faced with the uncomfortable choice of deciding whether to risk much more to deny China a greater presence farther inside Doklam or to accept it. This will be a tough decision for any leader to make. Even if India won this round, it may not win the next one.’

The MIT professor further argued that this incident ‘does not offer a ‘model’ that other states can apply elsewhere for countering China’s assertiveness’. 

‘Given that China will continue to press its territorial claims against India and Bhutan, as well as in the East and South China Seas, policymakers should be wary of learning the wrong lessons from the disengagement at Doklam,' he warned.

China is gradually building up forces in Tibet, which will contribute towards rectifying an imbalance currently skewed in India’s favour. Beijing may also test Indian resolve elsewhere in places like Ladakh or Uttarakhand.

Furthermore, Gen Bipin Rawat, India’s Chief of Army Staff, warned in September that China would continue to nibble away at Indian territory through its ‘salami slicing’ strategy. Beijing’s methodology, which has proved so successful in the South China Sea, will not change.

As the PLA strengthens capabilities near Doklam, this could well evolve into a tug of war of national resolve and a test of how the two countries manage their fraught relationship. Their intractable border dispute rests upon legacies of history that cannot be solved in the medium term. The Doklam incident, rather than boosting mutual trust, damaged it.

There are positives, though. For instance, the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement of 2013 sets out norms for behaviour, plus the 20th round of border talks – involving India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and China’s State Councillor Yang Jiechi – takes place this week.

Nonetheless, Delhi must remain vigilant, as China can raise tensions elsewhere along the disputed Line of Actual Control that demarcates the frontier, especially in areas where it has a numerical or tactical advantage. Such probes are a real threat, as are punitive ‘cross-domain’ reactions such as naval operations in the Indian Ocean or cyberattacks.

India did well to stymy Chinese military adventurism at Doklam. However, amidst a sense of foreboding as the PLA dramatically boosts its presence there, Delhi needs to maintain its resolve.