Signs of a Thaw in India, China Border Dispute
After six weeks, tensions remain high in the Dolam Plateau (within the Doklam area), a contested border area nestled between India, China, and Bhutan. China’s road building project on a disputed portion of its border with Bhutan presents a strategic threat, according to India. Such a road would allow Chinese troops to move quickly into Indian territory in the event of conflict. China asserts the road is on sovereign territory, but India will not back down because of the strategic location of the road. The stand off now sees Chinese and Indian troops just 150 meters apart along the contested border. Though neither side is prepared to back down, there are avenues to de-escalation. The Cipher Brief spoke to Sameer Lalwani, the Deputy Director of the Stimson Center’s South Asia Program, to learn more about how Asia’s two strongest powers can find a peaceful compromise.
The Cipher Brief: What are the origins of this border conflict, and what has precipitated the recent uptick in tensions?
Sameer Lalwani: Now entering its sixth week, the current confrontation between Indian and Chinese military forces centers on a Chinese road-building project around the western tri-junction border of China, India, and Bhutan, properly described as the Dolam Plateau but sometimes referred to interchangeably as the Doklam Plateau. While the main antagonists are India and China, the dispute arises over contested territory between China and Bhutan at the Doka La pass of the Dolam Plateau and fundamental misperceptions of each sides’ sensitivities.
India argues that on June 16 a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) construction unit not only attempted to improve existing roads to accommodate Chinese military vehicles in Dolam, but was also seeking to extend the road into what India believes is Bhutanese territory. While details on the exact timing and sequence of events remain uncertain, India claims that after observing PLA engineers begin preparations to build a road on disputed territory in defiance of Bhutanese Army patrols, a company-sized Indian army unit crossed into Dolam to interdict the project on June 18. To India, this subtle form of encroachment is reminiscent of China’s “salami slicing” strategy in the South China Sea.
Since Bhutan has no formal diplomatic ties with Beijing, the tiny Himalayan nation lodged a complaint with the Chinese government through its embassy in New Delhi on June 20. After ostensibly coordinating with Bhutan, Indian troops interdicted the Chinese construction party and “urged them to desist from changing the status quo.” India worries China is unilaterally creating permanent facts on the ground in an ongoing dispute that would pose “major security implications.” China maintains that they are building roads on their own territory and allege that India’s troop deployment constitutes an “invasion,” violating Chinese sovereignty and/or interfering in a bilateral affair between Bhutan and China.
TCB: Reports indicate there has been a buildup of Indian military forces at the border with China. Can you describe the nature of this development? What forces are being moved, and is this a direct response to China’s encroachment or is it part of previously planned movement?
Lalwani: The Dolam standoff comes amidst decades of competitive buildups in infrastructure and troops in response to frequent border incidents along the India-China border. China has undertaken large-scale initiatives to improve its military infrastructure and capabilities along its Western border for decades. Over the last decade, India has also pursued a broader military buildup of new infrastructure projects and forces over a decade, including a new, 90,000-strong, mountain strike corpsalong its northeast border.
As of July 11, there are an estimated 300 to 400 troops from India and China around the vicinity of the standoff site. The Indian army has also moved an additional 2,500 soldiers as potential reinforcements, while multiple divisions remain in the vicinity. China possesses the capacity to surge several divisions into the region within days and preparedness for an “all-out confrontation.”
TCB: What are the reasons for India’s actions that have resulted in a standoff?
Lalwani: India contends PLA probes or incursions along the Line of Actual Control—the effective border area between India and China despite ongoing boundary disputes—number in the hundreds per year and are increasing. Thus, India’s more assertive approach regarding Dolam may stem from a variety of concerns related to security, regional influence, its international reputation, and domestic politics.
The most obvious explanation is security. The Dolam plateau, and the tri-junction border area in general, holds strategic significance for India. An adversary controlling this terrain would be able to easily access India’s 20-kilometer-wide Siliguri valley, often referred to as the “Chicken Neck,” that connects northeastern India to the Indian “mainland,” severing India in two. If the PLA successfully completed roads here, China would be in a position to coerce India by holding this vulnerable corridor at risk. Yet, other notable analysts voice skepticism, arguing that India’s insecurity over the Siliguri valley is “overblown” and based on outdated assessments.
India has also become increasingly concerned about its eroding influence in South Asia and may see the standoff as an opportunity to shore up regional credibility. China has intensified ties with Pakistan and encroached on traditional Indian spheres of influence in Sri Lanka and Nepal. Consequently, expanding Chinese influence in Bhutan—especially with important parliamentary elections scheduled for next year—may have struck a nerve in New Delhi, prompting a tougher stance.
Finally, India may seek to boost international perceptions of its toughness after a series of diplomatic setbacks at the hands of Beijing. These include India’s failed bid for permanent membership in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, unsuccessful efforts to designate Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar a global terrorist (whom India holds responsible for major terrorist attacks), and unheeded objections to construction of a China-Pakistan economic corridor through disputed territory in Kashmir. That the recent alleged PLA incursion coincided with Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s visit to the United States could be construed as another attempt to embarrass India.
Both sides allege the current brinksmanship is driven by the other’s domestic politics and pugnacious nationalist audiences. Chinese analysts believe Modi pursued a hardline China policy to appease his hawkish base amidst lagging economic growth. Indian analysts contend Chinese President Xi Jinping is deliberately courting a crisis to consolidate power just ahead of the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party this fall.
TCB: What has been the track record for attempting to resolve this dispute and what does that say about the urgency of the new situation?
Lalwani: The track record for mitigating border tensions between China and India is normally quite good. Most low-level flare-ups subside in a matter of weeks. The last major stand-off in 1986 lasted for 10 months and involved a dispute over the Sumdorong Chu valley in what is now the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. This crisis was ultimately resolved through higher level talks. However, a couple aspects of the current standoff set it apart from previous crises.
Bhutan’s silence regarding Indian troops in its territory has further complicated the dispute. India argues its troop deployments constitute assistance to their friend Bhutan in the face of PLA aggression. Beijing, however, contends that during a diplomatic visit, Bhutan failed to confirm its request for Indian military assistance, suggesting discomfort in Thimphu with India’s actions. An explicit statement from Bhutan or formal invitation to Indian troops would clarify matters, but Bhutan likely needs to proceed cautiously when dealing with its two major-power neighbors.
Additionally, media commentary on both sides—some state sanctioned—has adopted a much more strident and belligerent tone than in the past, increasing the potential costs to leaders backing down.
TCB: Where does this lead?
Lalwani: In recent statements, China has claimed it will not engage in dialogue with India until India unconditionally withdraws from Dolam. Apart from reputational concerns, such a demand will be difficult for India to follow, given that the resumption of the road-building project would represent a fait accompli with dire security implications. While China faces less severe security concerns in this region and is arguably less vulnerable to domestic pressures than a noisy democracy like India, China, is also unlikely to back down unprompted. This leaves three scenarios that could unfold in the coming weeks and months.
The first possibility is escalation. Since neither side wants to capitulate first, the situation could escalate through miscalculation or misperception. India may have outmaneuvered China for the time being through what border dispute expert Professor Dan Altman terms “advancing without attacking,” pushing the ball into China’s court. Aggressive signals of resolve, like live fire drills by a Chinese front-line combat brigade, could then be misperceived as actual mobilization for war. Since India has the geographical and logistical advantage in Dolam, Beijing may press its advantage in another sector of the India-China border, or even another domain like cyberwarfare.
Another possibility is that the standoff could endure for some time, tense but relatively stable. The crisis could eventually de-escalate by default as winter sets in and both forces choose to quietly withdraw from the region. Unfortunately, unruly domestic audiences and media outlets in both countries may be unsatisfied with this unassuming end and pressure their governments to take more aggressive action. Another scenario is that both sides could dig in take up permanent positions a couple kilometers back from the existing standoff location. The wait-and-see approach becomes all the more risky given that confidence-building measures designed to manage such crises—such as hotlines, flag meetings, and mutual military visits—have been conspicuously absent in this standoff.
A third possibility is direct dialogue to consciously de-escalate the standoff. Former and present Indian national security officials have expressed support for dialogue even while Beijing holds to its position of unconditional withdrawal. Thus, one option might be a backchannel agreement, which is reportedly already being pursued, similar to the resolutions of the 2013 and 2014 standoffs. This might involve a potential freeze in Chinese road-building for an Indian withdrawal. India could also consider softening its stance on China’s One Belt One Road initiative by warming to projects that could benefit India, like the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar forum.
The signs of a thaw may already be evident. In a prepared speech in Singapore on July 11, Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar suggested India-China relations were an anchor for stability and that the two rising powers “must not allow differences to become disputes.” Some reading the tea leaves of Chinese state-sanctioned media suggest there may be some openness to Jaishankar’s message. The more temperate tone of recent Chinese analysis and op-eds, U.S. encouragement of direct dialogue, and the Indian National Security Advisor’s upcoming visit to Beijing may all provide the necessary space for both sides to ease tensions.
This interview was originally published here on the Cipher Brief.