New Delhi: This writer’s worst fears about Doklam have been realized. China has initiated discussions with Bhutan, according to the papers, for a territorial swap which would give it Doklam and Bhutan equivalent Chinese territories to its north. In one stroke it would open an avenue for China to the vulnerable Chicken’s Neck linking India to the North East. If India had not mindlessly executed the Doklam standoff last year with little tactical or strategic effect, the Chinese may not have gone this far with Bhutan. Now it is clear that a strategic military gap has opened for this country in the Doklam area. While India will obviously exercise its political influence with Bhutan to attempt to stop the swap, the Chinese will not give up. They have enough resources and persistence to bend the Bhutanese to their will. Bhutan could stop the Chinese in their tracks by inviting a third party to make strategic investments in the country, which could only be the United States. It is not clear if the United States would be interested under Donald Trump, and it is also not readily apparent that India would welcome the move, because it would advertise its own weakness. There could also be unintended consequences for India from the United States setting up a base in the Himalayas. Besides it cannot be a long term arrangement. When the United States is withdrawing into isolationism, why should it make a fresh commitment to a tiny kingdom outside its critical sphere of interest? India and Bhutan, it is not hard to conclude, may have played into China’s hands.

Military actions foremost must be imbued with political logic. Political objectives must be served by the action. Political objectives must be carefully constructed based on their feasibility with the available military instruments. What was the political objective for India’s Doklam action? It ought to have been permanently to dissuade the Chinese from attempting any adventure via Doklam on the Chicken’s Neck. Was that the objective? This writer can’t say with certainty. Was the objective achieved in case it was articulated to the forces? Definitely not. The Chinese are back in strength in Doklam. India has given up trying to counter them. And China has now made the swap proposal to Bhutan. So what was the Indian standoff all about? The Chinese would have calculated that sheer bravado on the part of the Narendra Modi government caused the Indian army to march into foreign territory. When the illegality of the action, which could have been made lawful by an open Bhutanese petition to India, was provided a face-saver by a Chinese withdrawal for geo-economic reasons, the Chinese also realized that India lacked the political will to back its military convictions. Doing nothing should have been better than talking actions that were untenable. India emptied its quiver of arrows on blank targets. Biding their time in contrast, the Chinese have returned in strength. The Chinese are not thumping their chests and have tackled Bhutan with businesslike ruthlessness. To soften the blow for India, they speak of Sino-Indian cooperation in Africa, which brings its own share of dangers. It is manifest that the way ahead in Doklam is fraught for India, thanks to the ineptitude and perilous overconfidence of the Narendra Modi government.

What’s to be done now? Obviously, any territorial swap with Bhutan that gives advantage to China in Doklam must be resisted, but it is not clear how long the resistance will work. India could attempt its own territorial swaps with Nepal and Bangladesh to widen the corridor, but this would require proper military appreciations prior, and there is no guarantee that the neighbours will agree with China exerting pressure. Consultations with the United States are a possibility which would positively alarm the Chinese, because China’s expansionism would be challenged should the denouement take the form of an American military presence in Bhutan. But Trump would demand his pound of flesh, and the Bhutanese themselves may not be pleased with their country overrun with US troops. Finally, there are steps India has to take to secure the Siliguri Corridor as never before. This has been previously discussed and its importance cannot be overstated. The Chicken’s Neck must be insulated with tactical nuclear weapons and they must become the basis for initiating nuclear conversations with China. China must be told in no uncertain terms that any military action from its side threatening the Corridor would be met with a tactical nuclear response carrying the attendant risk of escalation. Such a conversation must be conducted with gravity and conviction.Summitry with China must be shunned for the foreseeable future. It only understands the language of power and India must act accordingly. Doklam requires a befitting response that is self-sustaining.