What’s Driving the India-China Standoff at Doklam?

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What’s Driving the India-China Standoff at Doklam?

India’s insecurities and China’s indignant conviction have contributed to a state of absolute gridlock at Doklam.

What’s Driving the India-China Standoff at Doklam?

A Chinese soldier looks into the camera at the India-China trade route at Nathu-La (January 17, 2009).

Credit: REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Since mid-June, scores of Indian and Chinese troops have reportedly been locked in a standoff on a piece of territory claimed by China and Bhutan. Though the dispute between the two nuclear-armed rising Asian giants might appear to be a bilateral affair, the dispute in question is a tripartite one, as it involves the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan at its center: the terrain in question is claimed by Bhutan, which has long had a special and privileged relationship with New Delhi while having no diplomatic ties with Beijing. As of this writing in mid-July, China’s position remains that diplomacy can only be possible after India unilaterally withdraws its troops back to its side of the international border and the standoff appears no closer to a resolution.

Last week, in the first installment in this series, I explored the political geography of the obscure slice of Himalayan terrain at the center of the ongoing standoff between India and China: the Doklam triboundary region, or the Dolam plateau. Given the obscurity of the geography under contention and the lack of robust historical information about the origin of Indian, Chinese, and Bhutanese claims, the place to begin in understanding the standoff at Doklam is a map — or multiple maps, to be precise. This week, I turn to more granular questions of the strategic stakes for each side that have resulted in effective gridlock between India and Chinese troops at Doklam.

At the core of the question is the idea of the status quo — specifically, the status quo before and after June 16. On that day, according to separate statements by both the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and the Bhutan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a group of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) engineers reportedly began construction of a motorable road from the terminal “turning point” at the end of a track that had existed since at least 2005 and possibly much earlier. According to the Bhutanese government, the PLA sought to construct a “motorable road from Dokola [also known as Doka La] in the Doklam area toward the Bhutan Army camp at Zompelri [also romanized as Jampheri].”

An overview of the Doka La crossing, with India’s border outpost, China’s “turning point,” and the direction to Jampheri ridge shown.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not disputed the account that some sort of “construction” was attempted by the PLA — if not completed. On June 30, Geng Shuang, spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, made reference to the “area where the construction activities are underway,” noting that the area was under Chinese jurisdiction. As I discussed in part one of this series, despite the long-running dispute with Bhutan, Beijing effectively considers the terrain under contention as part of China. As a result, China likely sees no reason to obfuscate the fact that some construction was taking place.

The specific nature of the construction on the road remains unclear. The Indian statement released on June 30 merely notes that the PLA “construction party … attempted to construct a road.” Effectively, the Indian action of crossing the border, which took place on June 18, according to a Chinese diplomat in New Delhi, was an act of preemption. Based on credible fears that the PLA would extend the road southward from the existing terminal point, which is about 68 meters from the Doka La border crossing between India and the disputed territory between Bhutan and China, the Indian Army crossed over, seeking to deny any construction of a motorable track. Based on an examination of satellite imagery since June 16 of the area, the Indian Army succeeded in this endeavor; no extension was under construction from the existing terminal point on the road.

Judging by official Chinese statements from the foreign ministry and numerous editorials published in the state-guided Global Times and more authoritative People’s Daily, the overall Chinese reaction to the Indian Army’s decision on June 18 was nothing short of apoplectic. China perceived the Indian move, which took place across a settled international boundary, as unexpected, exceptionally hostile, and a violation of its sovereignty. Even Indian commentators, including former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, have acknowledged that this move was a first in many ways; most critically, it was the “first time that Indian forces have engaged China from the soil of a third country.” This is why the Chinese side has refused to treat this incident with the same level of relatively measured seriousness as it did in the 2013 and 2014 standoffs in the Ladakh region in the Kashmir sector of the disputed border. For China, this was a case of India creating a bilateral standoff where no reason for one should exist. To further underline the seriousness of this incident in the Chinese view, the PLA held live-fire drills in southern Tibet over the weekend.

All this raises the question of why Indian troops decided to move preemptively across the international boundary on June 18. Various commentators in India have framed the Indian decision to cross the border as an act of collective security provision for Bhutan, a tiny kingdom that has long relied on India for defensive ballast. The two countries have a 1949 Treaty of Friendship that gave India total guiding influence over Thimphu’s defense and foreign policy; this treaty was revised in 2007 to give Bhutan far greater autonomy, though it retained a clause noting that “[n]either government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.”

While obligations toward Bhutan have factored into New Delhi’s framing of its decision-making — notably in the Ministry of External Affair’s June 30 statement — the reality has to do with long-standing perceptions of insecurity along the India-China border area in Sikkim. Though both New Delhi and Beijing officially agree that the border is settled, misunderstandings and provocations aren’t alien to this border area. Most recently, in 2007, a group of PLA soldiers reportedly protested Indian positions on both sides of the settled Sikkim border. In 2008, PLA troops reportedly crossed the settled border into the Indian side, causing a minor incident that was quickly resolved.

Given India’s relationship with Bhutan, the Indian Army regularly patrols with and trains the Royal Bhutanese Army. This is no different in the Doklam area, where India and Bhutan possess multiple outposts to the south of the long-standing Chinese road. (These outposts are likely located at the following coordinates: 27.283708, 88.920580; 27.287314, 88.925917; and 27.290499, 88.922744; it is unclear if one of these locations is the one referenced in the Bhutanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statement.)

The Indian government has primarily framed its decision to intervene across the international boundary in terms of its obligations to Bhutan. “In coordination with the RGOB, Indian personnel, who were present at general area Doka La, approached the Chinese construction party and urged them to desist from changing the status quo. These efforts continue,” the June 30 statement by the Ministry of External Affairs noted. However, that same statement, further down, notes that the planned “construction would represent a significant change of status quo” in Doklam, which would have “serious security implications for India.”

Therein lies the best proximal explanation of why the Indian Army undertook unprecedented action to preempt and deny the PLA space to construct a road heading southward toward Jampheri ridge. As I briefly discussed in the earlier installment in this series, Jampheri marks the point at which the mountain range’s altitude breaks from the 10,000-plus feet on the Doklam plateau to the foothills of southern Bhutan, eventually giving way to the Bhutan-India border near the Siliguri Corridor, where India, at its narrowest point, measures just 23 kilometers wide between Bangladesh and Nepal. For Indian strategists, the Siliguri chokepoint is seen as a core vulnerability; its capture is regarded as unacceptable given that losing Siliguri would sever the states of Northeast India from the rest of the country.

Even if the vulnerability of Siliguri might be overstated given the Indian armed forces’ quantitative military advantage against the PLA in the Sikkim-Siliguri area, where multiple mountain divisions sit ready, the sensitivity over Jampheri ridge cannot be overstated. As I discussed in the previous installment, China’s claimed triboundary point — the point where the settled borders of India, China, and Bhutan should meet — is Mount Gipmochi or Gyemochen, which sits at the easternmost node that ridge. Though PLA patrols are reported to have scouted as far south as Jampheri on a regular basis, the activity in question that precipitated this standoff — the construction of a road extension — is new.

One of the lingering questions is how the Indian side managed to assess that the PLA was intending to extend its road from the turning point. Given the tight control of leaks from the frontline of this standoff, there is understandably a lack of well-sourced material to draw on. Certainly, the Indian Army first observed the PLA for at least two days and perhaps even longer before taking action. One report, citing a single anonymous source within the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, notes that the Chinese informed the Indians on June 1 that they would begin construction of a road in the area in June, with two weeks’ warning. That has not yet been reported anywhere, but would certainly highlight that India’s decision to act across the border was based on credible information of China’s intentions; it would also explain China’s extremely negative reaction in light of what Beijing might see as a good faith effort at notifying New Delhi before taking action.

Regardless of any possible pre-notification, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs statement noted that the PLA’s attempted construction began on June 16 while the Chinese side said that the Indians crossed the boundary to interdict construction on June 18. Even without notification, that time may have been sufficient to determine with a degree of certainty that the PLA’s intention was to extend a motorable road southward toward Jampheri. Given Indian sensitivity, even a low-confidence assessment that this was the PLA’s objective could have prompted the action we saw on June 18. As M. Taylor Fravel has observed, the PLA’s miscalculation may have been under-assessing just how sensitive the Indian Army would be over any attempt to extend control to Jampheri Ridge.

Moreover, serious questions remain about the quality and persistence of the existing Chinese road, which was part of the status quo before June 16, 2017 that India and Bhutan seek to return to. Twelve years of satellite imagery show evidence of a road without extension, connecting what appears to be a major PLA encampment within Chinese territory (at 27.396420, 88.914441) to the so-called “turning point,” just 68 meters from the Indian boundary at Doka La. Along this road, there are at least four small outposts, presumably used for supply and shelter by PLA patrols venturing on to the Doklam plateau. Additionally, there is one small bridge (at 27.313148, 88.946008) to facilitate crossing across a tributary of the Torsa, or Amo Chu, River.

In sum, the above casts doubt on why the PLA would have decided to commence an alleged extension of the road past the long-standing “turning point” this summer. One of the few data points all three countries seem to have ceded is that the PLA was engaged in construction. India and Bhutan claim this was intended to extend the road, but the Chinese have not confirmed plans to extend the road either way. Sushant Singh at the Indian Express reported more detail on the Indian assessment of China’s plans, noting that Beijing sought to “extend the track by approximately another 3 km up to Gymochen (Mount Gipmochi).” The Chinese Foreign Ministry has noted the considerable improvements on the Indian side of the Doka La border as part of its justification for its own activities: “Over the past few decades, it is India that has built many facilities, deployed a large number of troops, and even built such military installations as fortifications riding or overstepping the border line, which has changed the status quo of the border areas,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang noted on July 6.

That statement alone is the sole piece of circumstantial evidence that China may have decided that this would be the year for a substantial improvement to its side of the Doka La border, underestimating Indian sensitivity about the matter in the process. While several commentators have speculated that the decision to move this year could have been motivated by broader tensions underlying the India-China relationship, including New Delhi’s hesitance about China’s Belt and Road Initiative generally and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor specifically, that alone does not underline the PLA’s decision to push southward, ostensibly toward Jampheri. The early stages of this crisis were underway while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi traveled to Astana to formalize India’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping there. The two leaders also met at the G20, once the standoff was well underway.

Not knowing what signatures specifically provoked India into action, an alternative hypothesis is that China’s planned construction activities at the turning point could have focused on seasonal maintenance for the track, which sees full snow cover every winter, or other improvement. For instance, as Singh’s report in the Indian Express notes, the Indian side assesses the Chinese road to be unsuitable for military vehicles, including jeeps. If the PLA sought to make material improvements to the road to extend its suitability for vehicles, that would still qualify in the Indian and Bhutanese view as a change to the status quo. China has said that it sees the matter of changes to status quo in the area as irrelevant given that it sees this territory as its own. Regardless, satellite imagery dating back to 2005 shows no changes or additions to Chinese structures along the road in the disputed Doklam region while India’s position on its side of the Doka La border has seen material improvement.

Magnified section of a 1933 map showing a dotted track line corresponding to the the present-day road used by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army at Doklam. Source: Survey of India, 1933.

Complicating matters, the road may be much older than just the couple of decades that most commentators reference. In researching the political geography of the Doklam area, I came across a Survey of India map from 1933 (shown above) that shows evidence of a track roughly corresponding to the present-day road used by the PLA. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has argued that its claim to Doklam first stems from Qing dynasty-era taxation of Bhutanese herders in the area. In fact, it places this historical claim before its reference to the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 (which I discussed in more detail in the first installment). While the PLA outposts discussed above may be new additions, the track itself may be part of what the Bhutanese and Chinese have bilaterally agreed to as part of the “status quo on the boundary as before March 1959.” Beyond what limited historical evidence exists, neither Bhutan nor China has publicly released any definitive assessment of what this status quo entails. That said, the existence of a lone map showing a proximal track in the same area is far from conclusive evidence lending credence to China’s claim.

The above, nevertheless, elucidates the strategic stakes involved in the current standoff, as perceived by India and China. Bhutan, the tiny, non-nuclear-armed third party to this dispute, is in an awkward position. Of the originally semi-autonomous entities at the trijunction, Bhutan remains the only one to retain its sovereignty today, with Sikkim and Tibet having been fully absorbed into India and China respectively after each only enjoying limited autonomy over foreign dealings at the time of the 1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention. Thimphu today is additionally in an awkward position given its great self-interest in amicably and quietly resolving its border disputes with China after 24 rounds of talks, despite a lack of diplomatic ties and its special relationship with India. Publicly speaking out and siding with India would no doubt invite retaliation from Beijing, setting back its goal of settling the border, and repudiating New Delhi would presumably cost Thimphu more than it would gain in goodwill with China.

For Bhutan, the desired end-state is a return to the status quo before June 16, as its foreign ministry noted, but it would ideally like to do so quietly. This puts India in a difficult position, given that New Delhi, per its June 30 statement, predicated much of its decision to intervene on its coordination with the Royal Government of Bhutan and a 2012 agreement with China that triboundary disputes would be resolved in consultation with third parties. Notably, while Delhi has sought to frame its decision to intervene in terms of its obligations to Bhutan, Thimphu did not mention India once in its sole public statement on the Doklam standoff. For China, this subtle gap between the Indian and Bhutanese positions — at least publicly — is enough to sustain its ultimatum while gradually signaling that escalation may be possible. For Beijing, the “win” state now is less about having a road that terminates at Jampheri ridge and more about seeing the Indians blink first.

This brings me to the conclusion of this second installment in this series on the ongoing standoff at Doklam and sets up the final discussion. As I noted last week, if a solution will be found, it will not be borne of reinterpreting old maps or semantic gamesmanship over what the correct “status quo” in the Doklam triboundary area should be. For India and China, this standoff has released long pent-up frustrations that highlight their divergent paths and aspirations in Asia and the world. For China, the standoff serves as an opportunity to put an increasingly assertive and confident India back in its place as Asia’s permanent second-class great power. For India, despite some de-escalatory messaging, memories of defeat at the hands of the PLA in 1962 continue to sting and so showing resolve at all costs remains the overriding task. For now, India has no plans of complying with China’s ultimatum and pulling its troops past the international boundary.

That’s precisely why the scope for a peaceful walk-back from the brink appears to be shrinking with every passing day and why this standoff matters.

Ankit Panda is a senior editor at The Diplomat, where he writes on security, politics, and economics in the Asia-Pacific region. Follow him on Twitter at @nktpnd. Part one of this series is available here. A podcast discussion on the Doklam standoff is also available here.