By Felix K. Chang, Foreign Policy Research Institute
During the summer of 2017, an unusually volatile territorial spat between China and India erupted in the Himalayan Mountains. For over two months, hundreds of Chinese and Indian troops were locked in an escalating standoff on the Doklam Plateau, a region disputed by China and Bhutan near the Indian border. (See map.)
The fact that there was a standoff came as little surprise to most observers of China and India’s long-running territorial dispute. Other standoffs have periodically occurred along the two countries’ 4,057-km mostly disputed border—called the Line of Actual Control (LAC)—from the rocky peaks of Aksai Chin in the west to forested mountains of Arunachal Pradesh in the east. But this latest case was different in three respects: the parties involved, the strategic location, and the length and level of escalation.
In the past, whenever such incidents took place, they occurred on parts of the LAC that China and India shared. This one did not; it transpired on land claimed by a third country, Bhutan. The incident began in June 2017 when Chinese troops and bulldozers moved onto the Doklam Plateau to build an all-weather road. With no ability to stop them, Bhutan appealed to India for assistance. Obligingly, New Delhi dispatched a military detachment to confront the Chinese, prompting the standoff.
Of course, China saw things differently. It accused India of sending troops into its territory and obstructing its road construction. China also intimated that India had exercised its historic influence over Bhutan’s foreign affairs to manufacture the Bhutanese request for help. But while one can debate the propriety of India’s intervention, what prompted China to attempt to build a road on land that it disputes with Bhutan in the first place remains unclear. Some speculated that Beijing may have been trying to gain a bargaining chip with which it could pry Bhutan away from India’s influence. If true, that would have been a long shot, given Bhutan’s economic dependence on India.
While standoffs have developed in sensitive areas before, the most recent one occurred near a particularly strategic location for India. The Doklam Plateau sits near a part of India where its territory is squeezed between Bhutan, China, and Nepal to the north and Bangladesh to the south. That location, known as the Siliguri Corridor, is strategic because it connects India’s northeastern states with the rest of the country. The Indian military has long worried about a possible Chinese thrust through Sikkim that could sever the corridor and cut India in two.
China’s rapid infrastructure development and military modernization over the last two decades have only heightened those concerns. Indian strategists fear that China could use its new all-weather roads, high-speed railways, and airfields to quickly mass its military might on the border. Chinese military doctrine and exercises suggest that China is preparing to do just that. During its Stride 2009 exercise, the Chinese military mobilized and transported four divisions across China in record time. Meanwhile, the Chinese military has been steadily acquiring new combat platforms suited for mountain warfare, from helicopters to light tanks able to operate at high altitudes. It also recently completed a major reorganization of its command structure to boost its joint war-fighting capability.
On the other side of the Himalayas, India has struggled to keep up with China. Already five years behind schedule, India has competed only 27 out of 73 roads that it had wanted built to improve its access to the LAC. To compensate for that weakness, the Indian military has stationed sizable forces near the LAC so that it can quickly respond to any crisis there. But as the gap between Chinese and Indian military capabilities continues to widen, India has felt more pressure to strengthen its border defenses. In 2013, it began to raise a new two-division formation, the 17th Mountain Strike Corps, to be better prepared to repel a serious Chinese incursion. The Indian army is now outfitting the corps with some of its newest arms, including U.S.-designed M777 howitzers.
Length and Level of Escalation
Historically, when a standoff on the LAC has arisen, it is settled in a few weeks through a diplomatic resolution whereby both sides agree to a mutual and simultaneous withdrawal. Most observers expected that to happen in this latest case. Instead, whether by coincidence or design, China conducted a series of live-fire drills in nearby Tibet after the standoff began. Then, when India’s national security advisor travelled to Beijing in July, China rebuffed him. Rather than negotiating a resolution, China issued a lengthy position paper accusing India of wrongdoing and insisted on a unilateral Indian withdrawal.
In August, India upped the ante. It increased the combat readiness of its 50,000 troops along the eastern portion of the LAC, advancing the timetable for its annual exercise in the region and deploying its forces to their wartime positions. China’s state-owned Global Times warned that “China is more than capable of defeating India in potential military conflict” and had already mused that “perhaps it is time that [India] be taught a second lesson,” a reference to the 1962 Sino-Indian War.
The Next Standoff
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed by late August, and the two countries reached a settlement. India withdrew its troops, and China removed its road-construction equipment from the disputed region. Eventually, what drove the easing of tensions may have been Beijing’s desire for stability ahead of a Chinese-hosted BRICs summit (to which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was invited) in September and China’s Communist Party Congress in October.
In any case, how Beijing handled the standoff on the Doklam Plateau seems to have marked an incremental shift in Chinese behavior. It demonstrated that China has become more willing to directly challenge the strategic interests of a large neighboring power and is less concerned over conflict escalation than it once was. If there is a lesson for India to learn from all that, it is to be better prepared for the next border standoff.
 Rahul Bedi, “Deadline for construction of India–China border roads extended to 2022,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Aug. 3, 2017.