What’s happening in the Doklam plateau and why it matters for India
It began in late June when Chinese construction trucks, accompanied by soldiers, rolled into the disputed Doklam plateau near the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction. Doklam, known as Donglang in China, is disputed between Beijing and Thimphu. Bhutan protested the Chinese construction, saying Doklam is part of its territory. India supported Bhutan’s claim and sent troops to the region. China saw it an escalation and demanded India withdraw troops for peace.
Border tensions between India and China are not new. Both countries fought a war in 1962 in which India suffered a humiliating loss. After that there were several border skirmishes. Five years later, there were a series of clashes between Indian and Chinese troops alongside the Sikkim border. In this conflict, Indian troops drove the Chinese away from their attacking positions and the Chinese also suffered huge loss of life. Indian sources said India lost 88 people during the three-week long clashes while the Chinese side lost 340. There were firing incidents even after these clashes, not a major military conflict between the two countries. They also launched border talks and had held a series of sessions over the past several years, without many results.
The problem is historical. In the west, India claims Aksai Chin as part of Jammu and Kashmir and the Ladakh region. But it is controlled and administered as part of the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang. In the east, China claims Arunachal Pradesh. The 1962 Sino-India war was fought in both these areas. The 1967 border clashes were on the borders of Sikkim, which was then an Indian protectorate. In 1975, the Sikkim monarchy held a referendum, in which a majority of the Sikkemese voted in favour of joining India. The Chinese had objected to the annexation then, but years later the Sino-Indian Memorandum of 2003 sought to settle the Sikkim issue. After the agreement, the World Affairs Book 2003-04, an official Chinese publication, carried a map showing Sikkim as part of India. In 2006, the Nathu La border point was opened following a number of trade and bilateral agreements, signalling sharp de-escalation on the India-China border on the Sikkim side. In the last few years, even as there were clashes in the western side of the border and the Chinese were stepping up their claims over Arunachal Pradesh, the Sikkim side remained largely peaceful. But the Doklam dispute suggests the border crisis spreads to the Sikkim side as well.
The timing of the crisis was amusing. The Chinese construction began around Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States, the first after Donald Trump became the President early this year. While it’s not certain whether China was sending a message to India over New Delhi’s growing closeness with Washington, it is not a secret that Beijing is alarmed by its neighbour’s U.S. tilt. India’s response was also tough this time. In the last several years, the practice is that, whenever there’s a military standoff, political leadership on both sides will step in and rein in their respective armies. But in the case of Doklam, India quickly decided to respond to Chinese construction by sending troops to the Bhutanese side. China now says India is weaponising the border.
To be sure, India has genuine concerns over the Chinese construction. First, it believes the Chinese move threatens the ‘Chicken Neck’, the narrow strategically important corridor which connects the northeast with the rest of India. Besides, Sikkim is the only frontier where Indian troops have a terrain and tactical advantage over China in the Himalayan region. Indian positions are on elevated region, while the Chinese are squeezed between India and Bhutan. So by building infrastructure in the region, the Chinese are trying to undo the natural Indian advantage. Therefore, as soon as Chinese construction started, Indian border troops stepped in to stop that. “We did not open fire, our boys just created a human wall and stopped the Chinese from any further incursion,” a brigadier told BBC on condition of anonymity. In return, the Chinese troops rushed to Indian positions and smashed two bunkers. India sent reinforcements and so did China.
Secondly, India has a friendship treaty with Bhutan, which is the country’s most trusted ally in South Asia. According to the treaty, originally signed in 1949 and updated in 2007, India and Bhutan “shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.” Bhutan and China do not have normal relationship, but keep contacts through their diplomatic missions in Delhi. But in recent past, Bhutanese position has slowly been changing. It has shown interest to normalise ties with Beijing, and India has been wary of this tilt. So even if the Chinese are building the road a territory plateau disputed between Bhutan and China, India doesn’t want to stay out of its as a spectator. It sees its interested are at stake, both tactical as well as strategic long term ties with Bhutan.
The Chinese have said that there won’t be any resolution to the stand-off unless India withdraws troops. If India withdraws, Bhutan would sense that India has backed off in the face of pressure from China and it would impact Thimphu’s long-term policy formulations. If India doesn’t, there’s a chance for escalation with China and also turning one of the peaceful border points between India and China also into a flashpoint. Does New Delhi have the stomach for an escalation?