Two nuclear-armed powers have stepped back from the brink — for now. Yesterday India and China announced they had agreed to end a two-month border confrontation, in which a few hundred troops had faced off in the Doklam area claimed by both China and Bhutan, and many thousands more had been placed on heightened alert. The immediate crisis seems to be over, but it offers tantalizing insights into Chinese coercive strategies and how they may be thwarted. This has implications not only for India in its own land border disputes, but also for several Southeast Asian nations and the United States, as they all confront China’s attempts to expand its control and influence.
Background: The Standoff at Doklam
China had every reason to believe that a short stretch of new road, high in the remote Himalayas, would reinforce its claims on the “tri-junction” where the borders of China, Bhutan, and India meet. In mid-June, Chinese military road crews began to extend a road in an area known as Doklam, disputed by China and Bhutan. The road had been built into the disputed territory as early as 2003, and PLA troops had often conducted foot patrols in the area of the proposed road extension. But China knew the area was disputed, and had acknowledged as much in agreements with Bhutan in 1988 and 1998, and with India in 2012. Extending the road would be a relatively cheap and clear way for Beijing to advance its claims in the dispute. (The details of the competing territorial claims have been ably covered, including here at War on the Rocks.)
Almost immediately after the road crews began their work, however, they were surprised by an Indian Army intervention. Indian troops entered the disputed territory, with at least the tacit consent of Bhutan, and physically impeded the construction of the road. India saw the Chinese encroachment as a threat to its security and its regional influence — it historically regarded Bhutan as a pliant buffer and remains its security guarantor today, even as their alignment has loosened in the past decade. New Delhi denounced the Chinese road building as an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in contravention of the 2012 agreement.