Why Are China and India in a Border Standoff?

A ChinaFile Conversation

China and India are engaged in a new border standoff high in the Himalayas. Tensions between the world’s two most populous nations have been simmering for at least two years and began to roil after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first visit to India in September 2014 and soured further in June when Chinese moved into disputed territory. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi had no formal bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit in Germany in July. What’s behind this new border dispute involving a third country, Bhutan, and how can these two giants and little Bhutan start to talk about getting past this dangerous dispute? —The Editors


On June 16, China started building a road in the Doklam area in the Himalayas in territory claimed by China and Bhutan, near the border with India. Two days later, on Bhutan’s behalf, Indian troops crossed a settled boundary to stop China’s construction. Around 300 troops from India and China have been facing off since, in one of the most serious border standoffs between the two Asian powers in decades. China has demanded that Indian troops withdraw first, while India has called for simultaneous withdrawal. With their armies facing off, each country has unleashed diverging narratives about what is going on in Doklam.

The Chinese case is straightforward. From China’s perspective, Indian troops crossed an international border, confronted the Chinese without provocation, and are squatting on Chinese territory. Even if the territory is contested by Bhutan, Chinese officials and experts have argued vociferously that India has no right to be involved. Li Qingyan of CIIS put the Chinese position bluntly, stating, “the trespassing by the Indian troops . . . tramples on international laws and basic norms of international relations.”

India has justified its involvement by pointing out that the border delineation between Bhutan and China in the disputed area also would determine where the India-China-Bhutan tri-border point will lie. India has pointed to a private agreement with China in 2012, in which China agreed to consult India on any issues concerning the tri-border point. India supports Bhutan’s claim, which would put the tri-border point a few kilometers north of Doklam, away from a potentially vulnerable stretch of India, the narrow Siliguri Corridor, which connects India with it northeastern states. Indian officials have argued that through its activities in the disputed area, China was trying to unilaterally alter the status quo in the border region, which violated the 2012 agreement and raised a security concern for India. Secondly, as China was building assets on clearly disputed land, India has maintained that its troops came to Bhutan’s aid in preventing Chinese construction. In its only statement about the standoff, the Bhutanese government labeled Chinese construction activities “a direct violation” of past agreements between the two sides regarding the border.

Ultimately, which narrative wins out in the realm of international opinion will depend on Indian and Chinese diplomacy. However, Bhutan’s actions going forward will be critical as well. Interestingly, Bhutan did not mention India or the presence of Indian troops in the territory in its initial statement about the standoff. It has been very reticent about the Doklam crisis, likely because it is in a tough position between two large powers. While Thimphu has historically been very close to India and does not have diplomatic relations with China, Bhutan cannot afford to anger Beijing, with which it has other border disputes it cares more about. At the same time, Bhutan is extremely dependent on India and consults with Delhi on sensitive foreign policy matters. Still, India’s justification for its troop presence is based on Bhutan’s permission. And China’s border claim is countered by Bhutan’s own. Therefore, in the battle of narratives between Asia’s two giants, whether and how the tiny Buddhist kingdom puts its thumb on the scales might be the critical component.

In recent years, India and China have had two major standoffs. The first on the Depsang Plains in April 2013, where instead of patrolling a disputed area, the Chinese changed their behavior and established a camp at a key location that would have prevented Indian patrols from moving in the area. In 2014, the problem was in the Chumur area of Ladakh, and it occurred, significantly, during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to New Delhi. Both were terminated through diplomacy.

The current standoff has one unique feature. It is not taking place on Indian or Indian-claimed territory. It is happening 100 meters or so from an Indian post at Doklam, in an area disputed between Bhutan and China, where on June 18, Indian soldiers blocked a Chinese attempt to build a road towards a Royal Bhutan Army post located on the Zompelri (Jampheri) ridge that overlooks the strategic Siliguri corridor in India. Though there has been a deluge of words from Beijing, culminating in a 15-page summing up issued on August 2, New Delhi and Thimphu have issued one statement each. The essence of the Chinese statements is that India is violating a border established by the 1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention, one that it had acknowledged at various points in the last 60 years.

The Bhutanese note of June 29 calls on China to observe the terms of a 1998 agreement to maintain status quo on the border till the disputes are resolved. The Indian press release says it acted “in coordination” with the Royal Government of Bhutan and adds that the road construction has “serious security implications for India.”

We can speculate on why this has happened. One explanation, which is as good as any, is that both in the case of India and Bhutan, the parallel processes of negotiating a settlement of their border with China has come to a dead end. Bhutan is not inclined to complete its negotiation in a manner that will affect Indian security, and Beijing and New Delhi appear to be attempting to sit each other out in resolving their border issue. While India and China have strong military positions along the border, Bhutan’s military capacity is trivial; it even lacks the ability to effectively police its border.

In understanding the causes of the India-China standoff at the Doklam plateau, it may be helpful to divide the crisis into two phases: its origins, and its escalation.

The first question is why China decided to extend a longstanding road through the Doklam plateau in mid-June, towards the important Jampheri ridge. This is both a legal and political question. China claims the area under an 1890 Anglo-Chinese treaty that defines the tri-junction point of India, China, and Bhutan. India accepts the treaty, but interprets it differently. Both sides have a reasonable case, but India also points out that China agreed in 2012 to finalize the tri-junction through consultation—rather than unilateral action.

These disagreements explain why China felt it had the right to extend the road, and why India disagreed. But why did China choose to take this step at this time? Many Indian observers have argued that China’s decision should be understood as a form of expansionist salami-slicing, motivated by a broader hostility towards India, and intended to drive a drive a wedge between India and Bhutan. However, we should be alive to the possibility that China simply miscalculated. Bhutan appears not to have objected to the existing road through Doklam, and had previously been tempted by a Chinese offer to swap the plateau for other disputed territory in the north. Moreover, Beijing may not have realized that a Chinese presence on the Jampheri ridge was a red line for India. After all, India has never confronted China in a third country before. In recent days, China has also claimed that it notified India of its intention to extend the road on May 18 and June 8, over a week before construction began.

The second question is, once Indian troops crossed into Doklam and blocked Chinese construction, what explains the unusual severity of China’s response and India’s refusal to back down? While sovereignty (for China) and security (for India) are important drivers, wider factors are also likely to be at work.

Even before the crisis, India-China relations were at their lowest ebb in a decade. India was aggrieved and threatened by Beijing’s growing support for Pakistan, the sweeping Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), obstruction of India’s efforts to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). For its part, China is disturbed by India’s growing relationship with the United States and Japan, as well as other Asian powers, and slighted by India’s public denunciation of BRI in May.

While such geopolitical factors may not necessarily have underlain China’s original road construction, they are likely to have contributed to both sides’ subsequent intransigence in the crisis that has followed. In particular, China seems eager to peel Bhutan away from India, by emphasizing Bhutan’s pointed silence on the question of whether India was asked to intervene. India, in turn, is eager to stand against what it sees as a region-wide Chinese effort to undermine India’s dominant position in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.

Indian and Chinese soldiers are once again in a border face-off, this time along the Doklam plateau where India, China, and Bhutan meet. Unusually, this crisis has dragged on, with no sign of a solution, since mid-June, and has dragged in several thousand soldiers. There has been much stronger language by Chinese officialdom than normal, matched by near silence from the Indian authorities. The most obvious shift has been that India has intervened in a territorial dispute that is actually between China and Bhutan—the first time the fight is on a third country’s behalf.

Sino-Indian border standoffs are almost a weekly event along the entire stretch of the disputed Himalayan border. In almost every previous case, they are resolved by local military commanders on the basis of four bilateral border management agreements. The agreements are still holding: none of the soldiers are carrying weapons and, in fact, have had no physical contact.

There is no evidence this will escalate. Neither side has ordered a broader mobilization. Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping met informally and cordially at the G-20 summit in Hamburg in the midst of the crisis and are scheduled to meet again at the BRICS summit in Xiamen next month. The Indian NSA, Ajit Doval, also visited China and came back without ringing any alarm bells.

Nonetheless, there is a background to Doklam. India and China have increasingly been finding new sources of friction over the past few years. These include differences over India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, questions about the Dalai Lama’s succession, and New Delhi’s open criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative. Bilateral economic relations have flourished and the two sides cooperate at the WTO and other such fora. But relations are increasingly adversarial though not anywhere near the tipping point when serious conflict is in the interest of either government.

Sino-Indian relations have been governed by a set of protocols, and underpinned by a number of crises, going back to the 1980s and repeatedly updated since then. The border has been at the heart of these agreements.

However, the capacities and interests of both countries have expanded exponentially in the past several years. For example, they are more likely to run into each other in third countries than before. If India is today prepared to see Bhutan’s positions as its own, China sees no reason why it should not expand its military footprint in the Indian Ocean.

A new set of understandings will need to be worked out in the coming decades. Unfortunately, as has happened in the past, it will take a number of crises at a number of flashpoints to occur before New Delhi and Beijing accept the goalposts have shifted and the playbook needs to be updated. It is this transition period during which miscalculations are most likely to happen and that is what both governments should watch out for.

Doklam is turning out to be a classic game of shadows, making it often difficult to tell apart the symbolic from the substantive. This has made for a highly surreal debate with India and China mistaking Doklam to be yet another episode in their geopolitical contest. It has left lurking in the shadows the larger normative contest between India and China for regional leadership. What lends it a touch of drama is that it is a contest between an increasingly impatient China that wants to get on with the job and a reluctant India which would much rather get out of the way.

Part of the reason it has ended up with a bad bargain with China is that India’s crisis diplomacy has often worked without a credible notion of what the endgame is. This could well be a problem of not knowing what the problem is. For instance, the confidence-building measures India has negotiated with China have by and large aimed at conflict prevention, content with only “managing” differences. This explains why the 1993 and 1996 agreements and confidence-building measures have not segued into a higher order goal of conflict transformation. By setting the bar of peace low by design, is it any wonder that India has ended up hitting lower?

Doklam could just be what Indian diplomacy needs to step out of the shadows and begin to reset the terms of its engagement with China as well as the large regional order. And while it is at it, could India turn this crisis into an opportunity for leverage? The answer to that will depend on what sort of a bargainer India is likely to be. If its pre-bargaining communication skills are anything to go by, the record is not a very promising one. But with a little more political imagination than it has displayed so far, India could strike some very interesting bargains and gain a measure of normative advantage in the process. As a possible exit strategy from the stand-off, could India signal some sort of a qualified engagement in the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative? This is neither a far-fetched nor implausible notion given that India is already a participant in the Bangladesh China India Myanmar Economic Corridor and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, two initiatives that are closely associated with the OBOR. This could be an attractive incentive, given that it is impossible to overestimate the stakes China has in a climate of regional peace and stability. It could also be a credible threat for the same reasons, since continued escalation of tensions by China could potentially close the diplomatic window in India for such a trade-off. At the end of the day, the game of shadows is a leveler of sorts, distributing both risks and opportunities in equal measure to its players.

The standoff between Chinese and Indian forces near the trijunction with Bhutan is a live, and sensitive, issue for all three countries. It has also given rise to considerable misinformation. The facts of the matter are that on June 16, Chinese forces attempted to extend a road southwards in territory that China disputes with Bhutan, immediately adjacent to India. This extension traversed a narrow gap between an Indian military outpost in Sikkim and a steep gorge in the disputed territory. Confronted by a Royal Bhutan Army patrol, the Chinese construction party attempted to push forward, involving Indian forces stationed only a few hundred meters away. On June 20, Bhutan protested officially to the Chinese government. An unarmed military standoff between Chinese and Indian forces has since continued.

The legal and diplomatic basis for China’s actions is flimsy. It rests on Beijing’s claim that the China-Bhutan boundary lies about two kilometers south of the site of the stand-off. As supporting documentation, China cites the 1890 Tibet-Sikkim Convention between the British and Qing Empires. But Beijing conveniently overlooks the fact that the same document states that the boundary “shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its affluents from the waters flowing into the Thibetan Machu and northwards” or about four kilometers north of the stand-off’s location. Second, Beijing ignores the fact that Bhutan was not party to the 1890 arrangement. Third, China has violated written agreements with Bhutan from 1988 and 1998 to “maintain status quo on the boundary as before March 1959,” and “refrain from taking unilateral action, or use of force, to change the status quo on the boundary.” Fourth, China has also violated an agreement with India from 2012 that “tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalized in consultation with the concerned countries.” Fifth, Indian forces have not crossed a settled international boundary, as has been widely reported. In fact, both sides in 2012 agreed only on the “basis of alignment” and China had also previously indicated that the boundary with Sikkim was not entirely settled. Finally, China ignores India’s longstanding defense arrangements with Bhutan, including the two countries’ 2007 treaty. The last three facts mean that, far from being solely a bilateral China-Bhutan issue, India very much has a stake in the matter.

To date, analysts can only speculate about the motives for China’s action and its subsequent response. But what is clear is that it sets a poor precedent for Chinese leadership. Not only is Beijing attempting to ride roughshod over prior written agreements with two neighbors, it has proceeded to heighten belligerent rhetoric rather than try to create space for a mutually acceptable diplomatic solution. A peaceful resolution could yet be found, but Beijing should not underestimate the extent to which this episode undermines its bona fides—certainly in India, but also elsewhere.

The current tensions between the Indian and Chinese militaries at Doklam are deeply troubling, and for a variety of reasons. First, the sheer complexity of the dispute in the trijunction area—with its origins in recondite late 19th century treaties—renders its parsing that much more difficult for foreign audiences. As Indian historian Srinath Raghavan has noted, Chinese officials have proven quite adept at navigating these tides of generalized confusion, and at propagating their own revisionist interpretation of the Qing-era Anglo-Chinese convention.

Second, the fact that a third country is involved—in the form of the minute Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan—adds another complicating dimension to the crisis. More than anything, it is India’s decision to deploy troops alongside those of a smaller regional state that has vexed Beijing. From an Indian perspective, however, this action is entirely consistent with Articles 2 and 4 of the India-Bhutan friendship treaty. On this particular issue, both India and China remain firmly convinced of the righteousness of their own cause—meaning that a rapid agreement on mutual withdrawal is likely to prove elusive. As Andrew Small recently noted, “China genuinely believes that India’s actions are of a qualitatively different nature to prior border incidents and necessitate a stronger pushback.” The real question, perhaps, is what the Bhutanese—who are literally wedged in the middle of this—think of this unfortunate situation. While Bhutanese elites may continue to view India as a largely benign external security guarantor, the memory of how Sikkim was absorbed into the Indian Union still lingers, serving as a cautionary tale. It will be interesting to see what lessons Thimphu draws from this crisis. A well-known Bhutanese journalist and strategic commentator recently provided an indication of his compatriots’ mindset, wryly commenting that Bhutan had “done well, so far, to avoid both the fire from the Dragon on our heads and also the Elephant’s tusks in our soft underbelly.”

Third, this standoff has already attained a certain distinctiveness, if only because of its longevity. Indeed, in recent years such incidents—such as the Chumar Valley showdown in 2014—lasted a few weeks, at most. The last time an LAC-related crisis dragged on for this long was in 1987, during the Sumdorong Chu crisis. Naturally, this is a very different situation—and analysts such as the Indian Express’ Sushant Singh are right to caution against drawing too many historic parallels. Nevertheless, the duration of the altercation is cause for concern. There may be a temptation, particularly on the Indian side, to let the crisis drag on until the early winter—whether for meteorological reasons (once the first snowstorms set in, it will be difficult for the Chinese to pursue their construction activities) or for political ones (there is a perception that President Xi Jinping may be more amenable to compromise following the conclusion of the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party). There could be certain risks, however, tied to letting such tensions simmer for months on end.

Last but not least, this confrontation differs from most of its recent predecessors by virtue of its location. As AFPC’s Jeff Smith pointed out in an excellent recent essay for War on the Rocks, most recent flare-ups have taken place in fiercely contested zones further to the Northeast, in Arunachal Pradesh, or far to the northwest, in the lunar landscapes of Ladakh. Sikkim and its surrounding areas had been deemed relatively tranquil for the past decade or so. Recent events constitute a depressing reminder that tensions can easily resurface along any portion of the LAC, and that—until a final resolution on the border is reached—Indian armed forces will need to continue to factor this reality into their contingency planning.