With media attention focused firmly on rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is minimal international awareness that a new and potentially dangerous stand-off has arisen between two genuinely nuclear powers in Asia, ie China and India.
For almost two months now, Chinese border guards and Indian soldiers in admittedly relatively small numbers (no more than 400 on each side according to press reports, although China has reportedly just moved more troops near to the confrontation apex) have been squaring up in the disputed area of Dokalam (aka Doklam, or Donglang in Mandarin) on the Dolam Plateau, where their two countries meet with Bhutan. So far, this has not resulted in anything in situ beyond pushing and shoving and, more widely, intensifying rhetoric between Beijing and New Delhi. But there are still legitimate grounds for concern.
A long-standing dispute…
There is, of course, nothing new about border frictions between China and India. In 1962, the two went to war after China began constructing a road at the western end of the two countries’ 4,000km border. This came after several failed attempts over the previous two years to reach agreement over disputed territory. On 20 October 1962, China launched simultaneous offensives in Ladakh and across the so-called McMahon Line (set under the Simla Treaty of 1914 between the British government and the authorities in Tibet and therefore effectively the boundary between China and India, albeit never recognised by Beijing). China pushed back Indian forces on both fronts before declaring a ceasefire on 20 November and withdrawing its forces from the disputed areas.
Although Beijing has managed to resolve all of its other land borders, its dispute with India festers on despite formal agreement in 1996 to find a resolution (coupled with the establishment of a Line of Actual Control, LAC) and subsequent commitments from successive generations of China’s leaders (eg then President Hu Jintao visiting Delhi in November 2006 and, more recently, current President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang). Incursions across the LAC by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are regularly reported in the Indian media.
The proximate cause of the latest flare-up also revolves around road building, when China was seen moving equipment onto the plateau. On 18 June, India sent troops into the area specifically to prevent what was clearly a planned regrading of dirt roads. Strategically this is of considerable significance to Delhi as the roads in question run south towards a corridor just 21km wide which connects the eight states of its northeast to the bulk of the country. Admittedly, China’s territorial claim stops 100km north of this corridor; but concerns about its vulnerability remain entirely understandable.
…with new dimensions
In particular, these concerns account for an unusual dimension to this particular flare-up, ie the confrontation is taking place on territory which is disputed between China and Bhutan and to which India has never laid any claim. Here again history plays a part. In the days of the Raj, Bhutan was officially a protectorate of British India. In the immediate aftermath of independence, India tended to treat Bhutan as a vassal state; and to this day Delhi unofficially conducts Bhutan’s foreign policy on its behalf. When Narendra Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister in 2014 his first trip abroad was to Bhutan, which remains the biggest single recipient of Indian foreign aid as well as benefiting significantly economically from the sale of hydro-generated electricity to India. All of which highlights the continuing strategic importance which India places on close ties with Bhutan.
Bhutan’s absence from the summit aside, it isn’t entirely clear why China has chosen this time to pursue actions in Bhutan which Beijing will have fully understood would set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. (That said, stepping back and looking at the ‘big picture’, there is no denying that a more neutral Bhutan would suit Beijing very well in terms of its apparent ambition strategically to dominate India in the whole of their shared border region.) But, as The Economist recently underlined, the Chinese will surely have been well aware that there are those in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, who would like to see the country less tied to India ; and, therefore that their intention is to bring pressure to bear towards that end, possibly coupled with a potential ‘sweetener’ of PLA withdrawal from Dhokalam if Thimphu plays ball. However, there is, as yet, no sign of Bhutan bending — and/or of Delhi allowing it to.
Checks and balances
If Bhutan itself is not willing/able to try to defuse tensions (which are, after all, based in its sovereign territory), one might hope for some effort at international mediation. However, no third country seems the least interested in getting involved, not even the United States which, under past Administrations, might well have stepped up to the plate. It therefore looks very much as if China and India will continue to be left to their own devices in looking for a resolution. But this will not be easy — and especially not with proudly nationalist leaders in office in both countries, ie Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi.
However, neither leader can afford to risk overplaying his hand. In China, Xi Jinping remains determined to avoid any actions which could lessen the probability (high though this now is, in my view) of him obtaining the outcomes he wants from the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China which is due to be held in October or November. In India, memories of the military humiliation of 1962 remain strong; coming second best in a fresh conflict with China would seriously damage Mr Modi’s otherwise solid 2019 reelection prospects.
On the other hand, neither leader can afford to be seen to be stepping back. I therefore expect the current stand-off to run on for weeks, if not months. And, low though the probability of an escalation appears to be for now, the longer tensions persist the more likely it is that a miscalculation by one party of the other could suddenly trigger a full-blown crisis.