If you’re struggling to make sense of the latest standoff between the Chinese and Indian militaries 10,000 feet in the Himalayas, don’t fret: You’re in good company. The showdown at Doka La is the product of a multi-layered, multi-party dispute steeped in centuries-old treaties and ambiguous territorial claims. Only recently have sufficient details emerged to piece together a coherent picture of the crisis and we’re still left with more questions than answers. However, one thing is clear: While stare-downs at the disputed China-India border are a common affair, the episode now underway is an altogether different, potentially far more dangerous, beast.
This crisis began in mid-June when Chinese forces were spotted constructing a road near the disputed tri-border linking India, China, and Bhutan, prompting an intervention by Indian troops in nearby Sikkim. Nearly a fortnight later, over 100 soldiers from each side are eyeball-to-eyeball, with India moving thousands more into supporting areas. Each passing week has seen a further hardening of each side’s position.
On July 5 China’s ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, described the situation as “grave” and insisted and there was “no scope for compromise.” A vitriolic outburst from China’s Global Times followed, accosting “Cold War-obsessed India” for “humiliating the civilization of the 21st Century.” It mused:
[T]he face-off in the Donglang area will end up with the Indian troops in retreat. The Indian military can choose to return to its territory with dignity, or be kicked out of the area by Chinese soldiers…India will suffer greater losses than in 1962 if it incites military conflicts. We hope India can face up to the hazards of its unruly actions to the country’s fundamental interests and withdraw its troops without delay… The more unified the Chinese people are, the more sufficient conditions the professionals will have to fight against India and safeguard our interest. This time, we must teach New Delhi a bitter lesson.
India’s Ministry of External affairs has been less strident but sent a clear signal about the stakes by claiming China’s activities “would represent a significant change of [the] status quo with serious security implications.”
A History of Non-Violent Standoffs
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the China-India border dispute, traveling to secluded locales dotting the Himalayan frontier like Leh, Tawang, and Pangong Lake. I’ve interviewed dozens of diplomats, experts, and military officials from both countries. And I’ve written at length about the subject. A holistic account of the dispute and its arcane origins are beyond the remit of this article (there is an abundance of literature on the subject, including John Garver’s Protracted Contest and my book, Cold Peace) though some points of context are in order.
First, the de-facto border, the Line of Actual Control (LAC), is a magnet for standoffs between Chinese and Indian border patrols. Unlike the turbulent Line of Control with Pakistan in Kashmir, however, an elaborate series of bilateral mechanisms has kept the LAC free of any fatal exchanges for decades. Only once since 1962 has a standoff turned bloody. That’s the good news. But there is also bad news: That fatal exchange, the Nathu La incident of 1967, unfolded near the site of the current crisis.
Second, the peace that has prevailed at the border masks a disconcertingly ambiguous tactical situation along select portions of the LAC. Not only is the roughly 3,500-kilometer border unsettled and un-demarcated, there are roughly a dozen stretches along the frontier where the two countries cannot even agree on the location of the LAC. These are the source of hundreds of relatively innocent “transgressions” by Chinese border patrols annually. (China doesn’t publicly track Indian transgressions). On occasion, these devolve into more serious “intrusions,” as witnessed in 2013 and 2014 when the People’s Liberation Army spent several weeks camped across the LAC in the Western Sector.
Third, there are several reasons the current episode differs materially from these common transgressions and even the more serious intrusions. It’s distinguished by the location of the standoff, the conduct of the two sides, and the public messaging from both capitals.
This Time is Different
Whereas the vast majority of incidents at the LAC occur in the disputed western and eastern sectors at Askai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, the current standoff is not even technically a product of the Sino-Indian border dispute, but is rather related to the Sino-Bhutan border dispute. Nevertheless, India has become intimately embroiled by virtue of its special relationship with Bhutan and the geographic proximity of the standoff to its vulnerable “Chicken’s Neck” – the narrow stretch of territory connecting the majority of India to its more remote northeast. For all practical purposes, the standoff has become an extension of the China-India border dispute.
Beijing’s public messaging was the second indication this standoff differed from its predecessors. Whereas the Indian media covers each border skirmish with hyperactive zeal, China often avoids public commentary altogether. When it does comment, Beijing’s messaging is generally bland and de-escalatory, noting the ambiguous nature of the LAC and appealing for patience and dialogue. Not this time.
China’s Foreign Ministry has called the standoff “essentially different from the previous border frictions…in undefined areas.” Unlike previous stare-downs along the LAC, Beijing says this dispute is unfolding on Chinese territory, on which India has “illegally trespassed.” What’s more, China has refused to negotiate a resolution until its “pre-conditions” are met: namely, a complete withdrawal of Indian forces. On July 11, the popular CGTN talk show “Dialogue with Yang Rui” featured Chinese analysts urging Beijing to escalate the situation. The recommended that China begin using the term “invasion” to describe India’s activities at the tri-border and issue Delhi an ultimatum to either depart the area or be evicted. They stated that China should modify its position on the Kashmir dispute and encourage Bhutan to hold a referendum on whether it wants to be an Indian “puppet state.”
Finally, China has matched its rhetoric with retributive action by canceling an upcoming pilgrimage to Tibet and deactivating a historic border crossing near the site of the standoff. Closed since the 1962 war, the Nathu La crossing was re-opened only in 2015 as a confidence-building measure. Beijing insists its fate “totally depends on whether the Indian side can correct its mistake in time.”
He Said, Xi Said
So, what really happened? Following an uptick in Chinese activity in the region, on June 16 a Chinese military construction team was spotted building a road near Doka La, several miles south of Batang La, where India and Bhutan place the border, but several miles north of Gamochen, where Beijing places the tri-border.
According to India’s Ministry of External Affairs, “a Royal Bhutan Army patrol attempted to dissuade them from this unilateral activity.” When that failed, Indian military personnel from neighboring Sikkim intervened some 48 hours later. In “close coordination” with Bhutan, they then “approached the Chinese construction party and urged them to desist from changing the status quo.”
China’s Foreign Ministry corroborates this account but argues the standoff “is located on the Chinese side of the boundary and belongs to China.” Beijing insists the tri-border junction was fixed at Gamochen through an 1890 convention signed by the British Raj and the Qing dynasty. It claims India’s intervention is “a betrayal of [the] consistent position” held by Delhi since Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Delhi has indeed affirmed the validity of the treaty in the past but maintains that in 2012 the two agreed the tri-border was unsettled and would be resolved through consultations with all three parties. Any attempt to “unilaterally determine tri-junction points is in violation of this understanding.”
Second, as former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon notes, China’s claim is likely based on flawed colonial mapmaking: The watershed principle Beijing uses as justification for the tri-border actually favors Batang La – Bhutan’s and India’s position – over Gamochen. Third, Bhutan was not a party to the 1890 convention and, on June 29, told China its border activities violated two agreements signed in 1988 and 1998 committing both sides to abstain from any unilateral actions that would alter the status quo.
High Peaks, High Stakes, and the Border
Unsurprisingly, there is more at stake in the Doka La standoff than a few dozen square miles of desolate Himalayan frontier. There are grander geopolitical dynamics and ambitions driving the dispute related to the balance of power at the LAC, the broader Sino-Indian rivalry, a struggle for Bhutan’s loyalties, and the strategic vulnerability of India’s “Chicken’s Neck.”
For several years Beijing has been floating a proposal to freeze the operational status quo at the Sino-Indian border — an idea Delhi has flatly rejected. Buttressed by superior infrastructure and more favorable geography, China enjoys a substantial tactical advantage along the LAC — though Iskander Rehman persuasively argues the gap may not be as formidable as is commonly portrayed.
In the decades following the Sino-Indian war India pursed a strategy of deliberate neglect toward its border areas, convinced a scarcity of infrastructure would hamper any invasion force from the north. In the late 2000s, Delhi acknowledged the futility of that strategy and ordered massive border infrastructure upgrades that received additional support from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For the time being, Delhi appears unwilling to enshrine its tactical disadvantage at the LAC and it’s plausible Beijing is using the border tactics to pressure India to the negotiating table on a “freeze-of-forces.”
Some analysts have speculated that China’s border incursions are the product of rogue actors in the PLA, a theory rejected by most seasoned China analysts. One senior Indian diplomat formerly responsible for high-level negotiations with China recently explained to me that the PLA’s border activities were unquestionably orchestrated from Beijing. They are designed to embarrass India’s leadership, he suggested, and to show the Indian public and the world that China can operate at the border with impunity while underscoring Modi’s inability to secure India’s sovereign borders.
China has indeed built a lengthy resume of launching border incursions at politically sensitive junctures. A two-week Chinese incursion into Ladakh in 2014 overlapped with President Xi Jinping’s inaugural visit to Delhi, spoiling bilateral atmospherics at the outset of the Modi-Xi era. Perhaps it’s no coincidence the world learned of the Doka La standoff just as Prime Minister Modi was in Washington meeting with President Donald Trump.
The Xi-Modi era has witnessed an intensification of the Sino-Indian rivalry, particularly since Modi’s frustration with Beijing seemed to reach critical mass in 2016. After an unsuccessful attempt to forge a strong personal relationship with Xi, Modi balked at China’s efforts to block India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers group and shield Pakistan-based terrorists from U.N. sanctions last year.
Since then, Indian policy toward Beijing has assumed sharper, more confident edges. It is possible Beijing is signaling its displeasure with any number recent Indian initiatives, including Delhi’s decision to boycott Beijing’s highly-touted “Belt and Road” summit in May, allow the Dalai Lama and the U.S. ambassador to visit Chinese-claimed Arunachal Pradesh, and vocally support an arbitration that ruled decisively against Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. Since the standoff began, Indian firms have renewed an oil exploration contract with Vietnam in waters disputed by China and the Indian press has highlighted a trip to the LAC in Ladakh by the prime minister of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama and these Tibetan leaders in Dharamsala has been a major source of contention with Beijing for decades.
Yet perhaps no issue has generated more friction in recent years than China’s creeping inroads into both the Indian Ocean and the subcontinent. Since 2005 smaller neighbors like Nepal and Sri Lanka have substantially expanded their relationships with China, heralding the appearance of Chinese submarines in Colombo and crackdown on Tibetan refugees in Nepal. In capitals across the region China and India have been waging a shadowy but intensifying struggle for the loyalties of local political and economic elites. It is possible China sees an opportunity for a breakthrough in India’s last subcontinental stronghold, Bhutan.
The tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan served as a virtual Indian protectorate after Delhi assumed control of the country’s foreign and security policies in a 1949 treaty. The “Friendship Treaty” was revised in 2007 to accord the Bhutanese nominally more control over their foreign affairs but maintained the two sides would “cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests.” India still accounts for all of Bhutan’s defense trade as well as 75 percent of its imports and 85 percent of its exports. Remarkably, Bhutan receives over two-thirds of all Indian foreign aid.
By contrast, Bhutan remains the only Chinese neighbor yet to establish formal diplomatic relations with Beijing. Together with India, it’s also one of the only countries to host an outstanding land border dispute with China. Beijing claims several hundred square kilometers in Jarkarlung and Pasamlung in north-central Bhutan, and several hundred more at the Doklam plateau along Bhutan’s western border with Tibet, the site of the current crisis.
Sino-Bhutan border negotiations began in 1984, with India initially negotiating on Bhutan’s behalf before withdrawing to a supervisory role. In the mid-1990s, China offered Bhutan a “package deal” whereby it would renounce its claims in the north in exchange for control of the Doklam plateau. Bhutan demurred, not least due to India’s fierce opposition.
Like many Indian analysts, Abhijnan Rej believes “one of the key Chinese objectives in initiating the Doklam standoff seems to be testing India’s resolve to stand by Bhutan.” Beijing’s public diplomacy lends some credence to the view that it’s trying to drive a wedge between the two countries. China’s first public comment on the Doka La standoff claimed Bhutan was unaware Indian troops had entered the Doklam plateau and accused India of wanting “to infringe on Bhutan’s sovereignty.”
On July 9, The People’s Daily doubled-down, insisting India had “affected Bhutan’s independence by intruding into Chinese territory and using Bhutan as an excuse.” Bhutan’s media, it said, “have long been criticizing India’s interference in its domestic affairs. Their infuriation should be understood.”
While a border incursion would appear an unusual negotiating tactic, it tracks with the peculiar mix of carrots and sticks China has employed in an attempt to simultaneously wean Bhutan away from India while pressuring it to cede the Doklam plateau and establish formal diplomatic relations. “When stakes are high, Beijing has shown no hesitation in mounting military pressure along the border,” says Bhutanese analyst Talik Jha, who describes China’s strategy as one of “military intimidation followed by diplomatic seduction.”
Meanwhile, the tug-of-war for Bhutan’s loyalties has been intensifying in recent years, albeit gradually. An international conference in Rio in 2012 witnessed an impromptu, first-ever meeting between the prime ministers of the two countries, raising hackles in Delhi. Shortly thereafter Bhutan imported 15 buses from China. Ahead of a national election in Bhutan the following year, India suspended fuel subsidies to its eastern neighbor. The vote produced a more emphatically Indophile government and an apology from Delhi over the “unfortunate technical lapse” in the provision of subsidies.
While Bhutan’s outreach to China has cooled since, border talks and surveys have continued. The People’s Daily claims India’s involvement in the Doka La standoff is a product of its concern over advancing China-Bhutan negotiations.
The Chicken’s Neck
Delhi has kept a close watch and tight grip on the Sino-Bhutan border negotiations for the same reason it joined the fray at Doka La: Chinese control over the Doklam plateau would represent a grave strategic threat. The Chinese-controlled Chumbi valley bisecting Sikkim and Bhutan cuts toward the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow, strategically-vulnerable strip of territory connecting the main mass of the Indian subcontinent to its more remote northeastern provinces.
A Chinese offensive into this “Chicken’s Neck” could sever India’s connection to the northeast, where China still claims up to 90,000 square kilometers in Arunachal Pradesh. China’s Global Times seemed to acknowledge as much, and further stoke Indian anxieties by arguing “northeast India might take the opportunity to become independent” if Delhi’s fears were realized and China launched an operation to “quickly separate mainland India from the northeast.”
The topography of the region further elevates the strategic value of the Doklam plateau, and helps to explain how India bloodied China’s nose during the nearby skirmish at Nathu La in 1967. Whereas China holds a tactical advantage along the vast majority of the LAC, the Chumbi Valley is arguably the only position along the de facto border where China’s position is deeply compromised. As Indian analyst Nitin Gokhale observes:
Chinese forces in the narrow Chumbi Valley are currently in the line of sight and fire of Indian forces poised on the ridges along the Sikkim-Tibet border. Aware of this vulnerability, the Chinese have been eyeing the Doklam plateau since any troops stationed there will be away from visible observation and beyond artillery range of Indian forces either based in North or north-east Sikkim.
In other words, control over the Doklam plateau constitutes a “win-win” for the PLA; both a knife to India’s jugular and shield to blunt its sharpest spear. With existential stakes for Delhi, and Beijing posturing growing more uncompromising by the day, there’s no end in sight to the longest standoff at the China-India border in over three decades.
By Jeff M. Smith
Jeff M. Smith is the Director of Asian Security Programs at the American Foreign Policy Council
War on Rocks