Date first published: 11/07/2017

Key sectors: all

Key risks: PV, war

Independent India has fought five wars. Four were with Pakistan, and ended in India’s favour. In contrast, the 1962 Sino-India war, fought in harsh mountainous conditions, was a resounding defeat for Delhi and resulted in the Aksai Chin region coming under Beijing’s control. Land disputes persist along the countries’ borders, but these have traditionally been managed if not settled. However, a dispute between China and Bhutan over a remote plateau near the border with India has led to a rapid deterioration of relations between Delhi and Beijing.

Rapid deterioration of Delhi – Beijing relations

In early June, Chinese workers are believed to have started construction of a road linking Yadong in Tibet with the Doklam Plateau (Donglang), which both China and Bhutan claim. Reports suggest that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) demanded India remove the two bunkers set up in 2012 at Lalten in Doklam, and destroyed the bunkers on 6 June. India, the de facto guarantor of Bhutan’s security, sent in troops to halt further Chinese activity in the region. Beijing has also sent troops into the area, with reports of thousands standing off on each side. There are no reports of clashes in Doklam, although the rhetoric on both sides is intensifying. The PLA warned that India should ‘remember 1962’, while Indian Defence Minister Arun Jaitley responded that the India of today is very different than 55 years ago.

Battle for primacy in the region

For India, Chinese’s control over the Doklam Plateau would constitute a serious threat to its security. While Beijing has the tactical advantage across most of the 4,000km border, India is currently in a strong position in the east. Both the 1967 and 1986 border skirmishes in the east showed that the Indian military has the advantage. But if China were to control the Doklam Plateau it would be able to neuter Indian defences in the Chumbi Valley, and could potentially threaten the vital 27-km-long Siliguri Corridor that links India’s northeastern states to the rest of the country. Furthermore, if Delhi were to back down it would look like an unreliable partner for Bhutan, and damage Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambition to cement Indian primacy in the region. For Beijing – given the deterioration in bilateral relations, particularly over India’s opposition to increased Chinese investment in Pakistan, and Delhi’s continued support for the Dali Llama – it is important to strengthen its eastern strategic position vis-à-vis India.

If China’s actions were an attempt to change the situation on the ground, based on an assumption of a pliant India, they miscalculated. Given the geography, and military realities, China would be at a disadvantage if violence broke out. There are likely sufficient channels of communication to prevent an unplanned escalation, and Delhi will not want to engage Chinese troops. However, the security and domestic political stakes are too high for the Indian government to back down. There is the potential for a compromise that would restore the status quo, but that would be an effective defeat for Beijing. Regardless, the stand-off highlights the precarious state of Chinese-Indian relations. There is unlikely to be a significant deepening of relations, and Delhi will likely move closer to the US and Japan. And until and unless the two sides settle their border dispute, there is a risk of similar dangerous stand-offs in the future.