It was the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan that sounded the alarm — Chinese soldiers had arrived with bulldozers and excavators, and were building a high-mountain road near India’s border in an area the two nuclear-armed giants have disputed over for decades.
India responded to the call by sending troops last month to evict the Chinese army construction party from the Doklam Plateau. Within a few days, Indian media were running leaked video footage of soldiers from both sides shoving one another atop a grassy flatland.
Two weeks ago the Chinese sent an unusual number of military patrols into the mountains of Ladakh, a remote high-altitude desert at the northern tip of India.
Two Chinese patrols came on foot, two more arrived in military vehicles and a Chinese helicopter flew overhead. With all the activity, the Indian authorities failed to notice until the next morning that about 30 Chinese soldiers had pitched three tents in an area both countries claim.
The tense standoff has only escalated, raising concerns in both capitals of an all-out military conflict. Both sides have made threats while simultaneously calling for negotiations. The U.S. State Department has urged the two sides to work together toward a peaceful resolution.
Indian military officials protested. The Chinese stayed put. India protested again. The Chinese, who had with them a few high-altitude guard dogs, responded by erecting two more tents and raising a sign saying, in English, “You are in Chinese side.”
India told China last week that it was ready to hold talks if both sides pulled their forces back from the disputed border area. But China countered on Monday by insisting the road was being built on its sovereign territory, and warned India not to “push your luck.”
India has said the two governments reached an agreement in 2012 that the status of the Doklam area which falls between China and India on a Bhutanese plateau would be finalised only through joint consultations involving all parties.
But the prime minister has sought to play down the dispute.
Still, jingoistic comments are growing by politicians linked to both the opposition and the government.
“This government is cowardly, incompetent and good for nothing,” said Mulayam Singh Yadav, an important regional leader allied with the governing coalition. Arun Jaitley, a leading opposition politician, said in Parliament on Thursday, “You may have some security options, you may have some diplomatic options, but being clueless is not an option.”
In China, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman denied that Chinese troops had crossed into Indian territory and said the dispute would be resolved peacefully and through appropriate channels.
“I would also like to point out that China and India are neighbors and their borders haven’t been demarcated,” said the spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, at a news conference last week in Beijing. “As such, it is difficult to avoid this or that kind of problem.”
On Thursday, the online edition of People’s Daily ran an editorial that urged China to continue friendly relations with India, but said China should not “indulge” India’s “bad habits,” and in particular the “lies” of the Indian news media.
Though Indian and Chinese politicians have not described the reasons for the dispute, Indian news reports have stated that Chinese officials have demanded that Indian authorities demolish some newly constructed bunkers and reduce patrols in the area.
M. Taylor Fravel, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on China’s border issues, said that China might be responding to local concerns about Indian military construction in the disputed area. But he said information about the incursion was sketchy.
“It’s an inexplicable provocation,” said Gen. Vasantha R. Raghavan, a former top Indian military commander who once commanded the region in dispute. “There is something happening inside China which is making the military act in an irrational manner.”
General Raghavan said the dispute was likely to accelerate improving military ties between India and the United States — a development that is not likely to be welcomed by China.
A look at the key aspects of the dispute:
The dispute is playing out hundreds of miles from what has long been seen as the most contested area between the countries — a stretch of land that separates Tibet, occupied for decades by China, and the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Chinese soldiers crossed that part of the border during the 1962 war and took over a section of Arunachal Pradesh, including the culturally Tibetan area known as Tawang, before decamping and returning to China. In 2009, China became more vocal in its claims to parts of Arunachal Pradesh.
An old quarrel
India and China have faced off frequently since fighting the bloody 1962 war that ended with China seizing control of some territory. Troops from both sides still regularly patrol other unmarked territories, though neither side has fired any shots in decades. Negotiations since 1985 to settle the boundary dispute have seen little success.
The land in question spans 269 square kilometres on a sparsely populated plateau in western Bhutan, which has no diplomatic ties with China and coordinates its relations with Beijing through New Delhi.
But India and China have staked rival claims to other Himalayan areas as well, including 90,000 sq.km in Arunachal Pradesh, which China refers to as “Southern Tibet,” as well as 38,000 sq.km of another plateau called Aksai Chin.
Bhutan said the road China has been building would run from the town of Dokola to the Bhutanese army camp at Zompelri.
Bhutan’s Foreign Ministry called it a “direct violation” of agreements reached in 1988 and 1998 to maintain peace and refrain from unilateral action in the area pending a final border settlement. “Bhutan hopes that the status quo in the Doklam area will be maintained,” it said in a June 29 statement.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said last week that India’s border guards, in responding to Bhutan’s call for help, had “illegally trespassed the boundary into Chinese territory” when they confronted the Chinese army construction team.
A strategic area
For India, securing the Doklam Plateau is seen as essential to maintaining its control over a land corridor that connects to its remote northeastern States.
India has said the Chinese road project threatens its access to the corridor, while China has questioned why India should even have a say in a matter that concerns only Beijing and Bhutan.
India’s Army chief warned earlier this month that India’s army was capable of fighting “2 and a 1/2 wars” if needed to secure its borders.
Indian analysts said China appeared to be trying to pre-empt settlement negotiations by establishing a Chinese presence in Doklam.
“China has been trying for a long time to gain a tactical advantage in this sector,” having already established dominance along the Indian borders at Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, said security expert Uday Bhaskar, a retired Indian navy officer. “The Chinese did not expect this resolute Indian response, and that’s why the standoff has continued.”
The dispute was discussed briefly without resolution by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G-20 summit earlier this month in Hamburg, Germany. It is expected to be taken up again when National Security Adviser Ajit Doval visits Beijing for another security forum on Thursday and Friday.
The Doklam standoff is just the latest of many irritants dogging relations between the world’s two most populous nations.
For years, China has vigorously wooed Bhutan and other, smaller countries in India’s traditional sphere of influence, including Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
“This is not the first time that we have a standoff with China,” said foreign affairs analyst and retired Indian diplomat G. Parthasarathy, predicting a period of stalemate followed by a political compromise if the tensions follow past patterns.
“China is in an ultra-nationalist mood of establishing a hegemony power in Asia,” he said. “The best thing for China is to sit down and talk.”
China, meanwhile, has been frustrated with India’s refusal to sign onto a massive effort to build railways, ports and roads reaching from Asia to Europe and the Middle East. The project includes a China-Pakistan economic development programme aimed at absorbing as much as $46 billion in investment, most of it from Chinese banks.
China also has complained bitterly for decades over India’s accepting the Dalai Lama as a refugee in 1959. The Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader has kept his headquarters in northern India since fleeing Chinese-ruled Tibet.
Despite their disagreements, India and China entered a trade agreement in 1985 and have stepped up cooperation in agriculture, science and cultural exchange. But a $46.6-billion trade deficit favouring China has irked Indian members of parliament, who call regularly for more balance.