Tensions between India and China are beginning to boil, as the two countries rattle sabers over disputed territory in Bhutan. In fact, the standoff in Doklam (called Donglong in China and Dokola in India) is a proxy for a larger confrontation over status in South Asia, and which behemoth will be the regional hegemon. Neither Beijing nor New Delhi is prepared to let the other assume that role. A modus vivendi must be found, and the diplomacy that allows both governments to save face as they defuse this situation could lay a foundation for a more extensive confidence-building process.
This crisis began in early June, when Chinese troops entered the plateau at the junction of the borders of Bhutan, China and India, to build a road in territory that is claimed by Bhutan. The Bhutanese government in Thimphu requested Indian military assistance and New Delhi obliged, concerned that China is altering the territorial and strategic status quo. India argues that the Chinese move violates a 2012 “understanding” between the two countries that any adjustment of the boundary in that area — which China and Bhutan have discussed for decades — would include consultations with India. It fears that Chinese influence in the area would give it control over the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow slice of land that links seven northeastern states to the rest of India.
China counters that the land is Chinese territory, accuses India of over-reacting and has demanded an immediate withdrawal of Indian troops. Chinese media has reported that the People’s Liberation Army held live-fire exercises in the area, ramping up tension further still and increasing the likelihood of an accidental conflict.
Neither side is signaling a readiness to back down. India insists that it is prepared to negotiate a deal but only after Chinese troops withdraw to their previous encampments. China counters that India has no stake in the dispute, and that it must “unconditionally pull back troops,” forgetting that New Delhi sent forces at the request of Bhutan, which is its sovereign right. Chinese media have insulted the Indian external affairs minister, saying that “she lied to Parliament,” and warned that India “will suffer greater losses than in 1962,” when the two countries went to war.
While both China and India recognize the strategic consequences of control of the disputed plateau, the real issue is status and influence in South Asia. Both countries believe that it is the region’s rightful leader and sees the other as a challenger or usurper.
India views China’s control of Tibet as Beijing’s preferred model for exercising influence, and blames Beijing for enabling Pakistani terrorism against India. New Delhi’s indictment includes China’s veto of United Nations sanctions against Pakistan-based terror groups, and the inclusion of Pakistan in the “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure investment initiative. That some of those projects run through the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir is especially infuriating. Beijing’s refusal to allow India to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group is adding insult to injury.
For its part, China is angered by India’s continuing support for the Dalai Lama and its growing security ties with the United States and Japan, which it considers part of a larger program to contain China. The three countries recently held trilateral military exercises and their increasing diplomatic coordination, along with other regional governments that Beijing considers unfriendly.
That distrust and the ensuing competition must be contained. The two countries have fought before, going to war over territory in 1962. Then, India was humiliated. Today, the Indian Army is a more formidable adversary. More worrisome is the fact that today both countries possess nuclear arsenals and there is always a danger that Pakistan may try to exploit Indian distractions to press its own grievances.
Fortunately, both countries have equally far-seeing and capable diplomatic services that can work to defuse the situation. In addition, China-India trade has reached $72 billion; China is India’s largest trading partner and one-sixth of Indian imports come from China.
For all the bluster, neither side wants a confrontation. Both countries confront daunting logistical hurdles to supply distant forces in the event of a conflict. New Delhi is courting war over a third party, over territory that the third party — Bhutan — does not effectively control. (Japan should appreciate well the importance of control given its territorial disputes and the commitments its ally has made to defend them.) New Delhi and Beijing should be looking for compromise that allows them to defuse the situation without losing face. We must hope that physics and diplomacy operate according to different principles: Water boils faster at high altitudes.