India and China: Will the Doklam Row Plateau Off?

Soldiers of India's Sikh Light Infantry during a Republic Day Parade. Courtesy of Antônio Milena/Wikimedia.

Since mid-June, India and China have been locked in the most serious crisis between the two countries in 30 years.

Indian forces last month entered the Doklam plateau, an area claimed by China and India’s ally, Bhutan, near the tri-junction point of the three countries, in order to prevent People’s Liberal Army (PLA) personnel from extending a road towards the militarily important Jam Pheri ridge.

If this work is completed, it would put the PLA in a higher and stronger position closer to India’s narrow Siliguri corridor.

China has responded angrily, using official and quasi-official channels to threaten the use of force. India, having prevented the road extension, has preferred to emphasise diplomacy, with the offer of mutual withdrawal.

However, New Delhi has also taken opposition parties into confidence, moved troops from mountain divisions closer to Doklam and indicated that it will keep forces in place as long as necessary.

Neither side is likely to back down unilaterally. Although Chinese rhetoric eased in the last weeks of July, it is clear that Beijing wants New Delhi to believe that a war is a serious possibility.

However, any large-scale use of force is unlikely. The local military balance in Doklam is in India’s favour, thanks to the geography of the Chumbi Valley (Doklam at its southern tip), the proximity of several Indian mountain divisions along the PLA’s western flank and the broad improvements to India’s military position in the north east in recent years. India would detect any large-scale troop movement across the Tsangpo, precluding Chinese surprise.  

Moreover, a wider war – which could involve airpower, ballistic and cruise missiles and cyber attacks – would be devastating for China’s strategic objectives in Asia and the world. It would explode the idea of peaceful rise, compound growing mistrust in Chinese intentions and accelerate the process of India’s convergence with the US and Japan.

Some in India have suggested that freezing the status quo would amount to a victory for New Delhi, by exposing Beijing’s threats as hollow and blocking China’s access to the key ridge.

While China might deem such costs to be worth absorbing in the event of a major threat to one of its core interests, it is implausible that Doklam – notwithstanding its position at the southern edge of Tibet – rises to this level.

This suggests two remaining scenarios: a protracted standoff; and a diplomatic settlement. One precedent for a long standoff is the 1986–87 Sumdorong Chu crisis, which lasted for a year, involved hundreds of thousands of troops on each side and took almost a decade to resolve completely.

While Doklam is on a much smaller scale, involving perhaps a few thousand troops within a kilometre of the site and probably fewer than 1,000 at the road terminus, it could show similar longevity.  

Some in India have suggested that freezing the status quo would amount to a victory for New Delhi, by exposing Beijing’s threats as hollow and blocking China’s access to the key ridge.

Fearing this, Beijing may seek to coerce India in unpredictable and destabilising ways. This could involve moves out of its South China Sea playbook: militarisation of Chinese-held, Bhutan-claimed territory to the rear of the standoff site, aggressive patrolling and construction elsewhere along the India–China Line of Actual Control or even probing in other disputed parts of the Bhutan–China border to drive a wedge between India and its ally.

Reports of Chinese transgressions in Barahoti, in the central portion of the India–China boundary, in late July may be part of such efforts. More widely, China could also pressure India through support for Pakistan, redoubled outreach to India’s South Asian neighbours or more assertive intelligence gathering in the Indian Ocean.

Many of these steps would force India to choose between accepting unfavourable changes to the status quo, or counter-escalating further. A prolonged standoff therefore carries risks of both inadvertent escalation – as China’s road extension may well have been – and the deliberate manipulation of risk as part of brinksmanship. So, can India and China de-escalate the situation before such risks grow?

India’s National Security Adviser (NSA), Ajit Doval, visited Beijing between 26–28 June for a meeting of NSAs from the BRICS countries, where he conducted a bilateral meeting with Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi.

Given China’s previous insistence that talks could not precede without an Indian withdrawal, the fact the meeting took place is encouraging.

So too was the Chinese media response, which did not carry the previous threats. Although the Communist Party’s forthcoming 19th National Congress may make it harder for Beijing to show flexibility, Doval and Yang appear to have agreed that the standoff should not affect September’s BRICS meeting in Xiamen.

This may have a calming effect. The meeting also appears to have laid the groundwork for follow-up visits by Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and other officials.

In the event of an agreement, New Delhi has hinted that it would withdraw forces in exchange for a construction halt – implying that PLA personnel might remain in place.

China’s road through the disputed plateau has existed for at least twelve years and perhaps far longer, and it will not give up its presence. This could lead to misunderstandings or worse. How would India respond if, following the withdrawal of its troops, China abided by the construction halt, but rapidly built up its forces a kilometre or two to the rear, still in Bhutan-claimed territory?

India will be mindful of the lessons of Scarborough Reef in the South China Sea, occupied by China after a mutual withdrawal was agreed with the Philippines. As a deal is negotiated, India’s bargaining power may also be adversely affected by Bhutan’s aversion to a long crisis.

In the event of an agreement, New Delhi has hinted that it would withdraw forces in exchange for a construction halt – implying that PLA personnel might remain in place.

Over the past two weeks, the Doklam crisis has moderated somewhat. Chinese rhetoric has grown less vituperative, and the meeting of NSAs appears to have been constructive. The likelihood of a diplomatic settlement between the autumn and winter has increased, and the risk of large-scale escalation in the interim has decreased.

On 2 August, China released a fifteen-page statement reiterating its case and its demand for an Indian withdrawal, but ended on the softer note that ‘China and India are the world’s largest developing countries’.

However, a protracted standoff, stretching into 2018, and involving Chinese pressure on India both on and beyond the border, remains a serious possibility. Given that the India–China relationship was, even before this crisis, at its lowest ebb in many years, this would herald a new phase of heightened mistrust and competition across the Indo–Pacific region. Indeed, even if the dispute is settled a markedly harder edge to relations will persist.

The views expressed in this Commentary are those of the author, and do not reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.


Shashank Joshi

Advisory Board Member, Defence Editor of The Economist

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