We should by now be accustomed to Sino-Indian summits occurring with the backdrop of border trouble, and Friday’s G20 meeting between a smiling Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a less enthused Chinese President Xi Jinping was no exception. But the Doka La stand-off , at the southern tip of the Chumbi Valley where India, Bhutan, and China meet, is perhaps the most significant of all the border confrontations that have roiled the India-China relationship in recent years. This is not because of its size, dwarfed by the Sumdorong Chu crisis of 1986-87, or duration, still only a few days longer than the Daulat Beg Oldi stand-off of 2013 . Rather, the importance of the incident is threefold.
What it implies
One factor is the unique position of the Chumbi Valley, which is at once a dangerous conduit into the slender Siliguri Corridor and a dangerous choke point, exposed on both sides, for Chinese forces. A second factor is that this tussle is formally over the interests and rights of a third country, Bhutan, echoing the wider competition for influence in smaller countries — Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and elsewhere — across the Indo-Pacific region. Third, the stand-off comes in a period when it is clear that the wheels are coming off the India-China wagon, with Indian trust in Chinese intentions collapsing steadily and Beijing taking an ever-more strident tone.
At the military level, India has good reason to prevent Chinese road building near Doka La. Chinese activity has steadily increased in the area beneath Bhutan’s claim-line, pushing the area under its de facto control about 5 km southwards, towards a crucial ridge-line. This has a number of implications. It would widen the area of Chinese control in an otherwise very narrow valley, from around 8-9 km (Batang La to the Amo Chu river) to 12-13 km (Gamochen to the river), thereby easing the logistics of moving large numbers of troops. Control of the dominating ridgeline would also give China a strong position, by some accounts even domination, over Indian posts to the west, and Bhutanese ones to the south and east.
India is still well short of matching the impressive infrastructure development in Tibet over the past decade, with two-thirds of sanctioned roads on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) still un-built. But Chinese forces moving through the Chumbi Valley — 90 km from top to bottom — would have long, exposed flanks. India has a formidable set of forces arrayed to the west, with mountain divisions in Gangtok (17th), Kalimpong (27th), and Binaguri (20th) further to the south, all of which are part of the Siliguri-based 33 Corps. Furthermore, the 59th division of 17 Corps, India’s first mountain strike corps, raised for the purpose of offensive operations into Tibet, is headquartered in Panagarh and will reportedly be operational this year. It’s worth noting that former National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon has argued, in his 2016 book Choices , that Beijing backed down in the 2013 Depsang incident “to a great extent because of India’s improved capabilities, which left the Chinese in no doubt that India could embarrass them”.
The Bhutan advantage
Another of India’s military advantages is its privileged relationship with Bhutan. This allows it to bring to bear large forces from the east. A sizeable Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) is permanently based in western Bhutan, while other units regularly cooperate with the Royal Bhutan Army. Bhutan’s involvement highlights the way in which Sino-Indian competition is increasingly channelled through third countries, as China relentlessly expands into India’s periphery through strategic investments, trading relationships and arms sales. India’s willingness to intervene forcefully in a bilateral Bhutan-China dispute is a reflection both of India’s own vital interests in the Chumbi Valley and of its commanding position in Bhutan, which might otherwise have ceded the Doklam plateau to China in a territorial swap many years ago. The India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, though revised in 2007 to give Thimpu more autonomy, still notes that the two countries “shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests”. In this sense, Bhutan is a special case . But in stepping across an international border and defying Chinese expectations, India has also signalled a degree of confidence that will resonate more widely. This in part explains the especially vituperative rhetoric that has seeped out of hyper-nationalist outlets like the Global Times in recent days, such as lurid promises to “liberate” Sikkim and Bhutan, as well as subtler steps such as this week’s travel advisory for Chinese citizens in India.
There is a reasonable chance that this stand-off will end within weeks, with China quietly halting road construction and Indian troops returning westward to their posts. The risk of escalation appears low. More broadly, the thicket of border agreements accumulated over the past 30 years — in 1988, 1993, 1996, 2003, and 2013 — serve as an important cushion whose value is still not fully appreciated.
But the wider context is one of relentlessly hardening attitudes, on both sides. Beijing is aggrieved by the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang in April, India’s aggressive repudiation of the Belt and Road Initiative in May, and India’s forward-leaning posture in the South China Sea — the latter underscored by Vietnam’s two-year extension of a 2006 oil concession to ONGC Videsh last week. India’s complaints are too numerous and familiar to elaborate, but they span international institutions (membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group), terrorism (Masood Azhar), sovereignty (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and, in a more inchoate way, questions of the basic security order in Asia.
Relationship in a flux
“India-China relations are undergoing a change,” wrote former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran on July 3. “China believes that India should acknowledge the power disparity between the two sides and show appropriate deference to China.” India has always repudiated this idea. But it is likely to become bolder in doing so. This is evident in last month’s U.S.-India joint statement, where China was unmentioned but all pervasive in areas from North Korea, to trade, to freedom of navigation. It is on display in the Bay of Bengal, where one of the largest-ever iterations of the Malabar exercise series is getting underway with aircraft carriers/helicopter carrier from India, the U.S., and Japan. We see it also in this weekend’s news, reported in this newspaper, that the government is conducting a national security review of Chinese investment in South Asia. Perhaps, in the coming weeks, 17 Corps will suddenly find that the purse strings have become looser too.
Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London