How Long Can China and India Avoid War in the Himalayas?

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A remote corner of the Himalayas has become the unlikely scene of a major power standoff between China and India. Now entering its seventh week, the standoff centers on the tri-junction border shared by China, India, and Bhutan referred to as Doklam in India and Donglang in China. Neither side is spoiling for a fight, nor are they ready to back down anytime soon considering the security concerns, domestic political pressures, and regional reputational stakes. A series of quiet diplomatic interactions has not restrained the brinkmanship or ultimatums and the risk of a major armed clash between two Asian heavyweights remains.

China and India have sparred along the Himalayan border for decades, including a brief war (and clear Chinese victory) in 1962. In areas like Aksai Chin or Arunachal Pradesh, long-standing disputes still play out in regular diplomatic arguments. Yet until recently there seemed to be a settled status quo in the comparatively peaceful tri-national border area, which has special strategic significance, lying as it does above the 14-mile-wide Siliguri valley, or the “chicken’s neck,” that connects northeast India to the rest of the country. As it turns out, both sides had very different visions of just what that status quo was.

The clash of perceptions has left them both smarting, and dialed jingoistic language up to 11. To China, Doklam is its own sovereign territory based on treaties, tacit agreements, and de facto control. India considers Doklam a disputed territory and contends that any changes to the territory’s jurisdiction must be made in consultation with India per a 2012 understanding between the three parties.

Thus, when roughly 100 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers arrived on the Dolam plateau (an area within Doklam) on June 16 with bulldozers and earthmoving machinery to improve and extend an existing Chinese road, a company-sized unit of Indian soldiers crossed into Dolam from a nearby Indian army post and interdicted the construction team. The Indian soldiers formed a “human chain” to physically obstruct the road-building project and urged the Chinese to “desist from changing the status quo.”

Since the Indian interdiction on June 18, PLA construction has halted and both sides remain at an impasse. Between 300-350 Indian troops have pitched tents near the standoff site and dug in for the long haul, supported by supply lines and 2,500 reinforcements. China recently threatened to move its own reinforcements into the area and conducted live-fire military exercises in Tibet. While Indian officials have voiced interest in dialogue, official Chinese statements demand India’s unconditional withdrawal before any talks can begin. After issuing a complaint against Chinese actions on June 20, Bhutan has otherwise remained studiously ambiguous as to its views of the standoff.

Read the full article in Foreign Policy here.

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