Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Game-changer: The China-India stand-off in the Himalayas

China and India have peacefully resolved similar incidents in the past. This time, however, the threat of war is being freely mentioned.

Photo: Flickr/MEAphotogallery
Photo: Flickr/MEAphotogallery
Published 7 Jul 2017 

In recent years, there have been periodic reports of incursions into Indian territory by Chinese soldiers that have led to stand-offs between the two militaries. The most recent such incident, which could be discussed at the G20 meeting this weekend, began on 16 June near the borders of India, China and Bhutan when a Chinese military construction team with earth-moving equipment entered a plateau near the junction of the three borders to start working on a new road. The area, known as Doklam in India and Donglang in China, is the subject of a territorial dispute between China and Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan kingdom that does not have diplomatic relations with China but maintains a special relationship with India. India is, in effect, responsible for Bhutan’s security.

The move onto the plateau by the Chinese military was resisted by the Bhutanese forces who asked the Chinese military to leave the area. When the Chinese troops refused, Indian soldiers in the area intervened and appeared to block the Chinese soldiers from moving forward. In retaliation, the Chinese troops destroyed two Indian military bunkers at the nearby Lalten checkpoint. Since this incident, both Chinese and Indian militaries have sent reinforcements to the area and the face-off between two of the region’s biggest armies continues.

While Chinese government sources accuse the Indian troops of obstructing 'normal activities' on their side of the border, the Indian government does not see anything normal about the China's attempt to build a road on a disputed area that is so close to the most vulnerable part of Indian frontier territory – the so-called Siliguri corridor or 'Chicken’s Neck', a 20-kilometre wide stretch of land that connects the rest of India to its north-eastern states.

India agrees with Bhutan that, in 1988 and again in 1998, China and Bhutan agreed to maintain the status quo in the area until a final boundary settlement is reached, an outcome for which 24 rounds of negotiations have been undertaken since 1984. India also argues that it had reached an agreement with China that the actual location of 'tri-junction' points along the borders of India, China and third countries would be decided through negotiations involving all three parties.

So what might be the motivation for China's latest activity? There seems to be a consensus among former Indian diplomats and scholars that the move by China is designed to change the status quo at the tri-junction point, giving China a significant strategic advantage. On 30 June, the Indian government issued a statement that warned China the road construction 'would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India'.

For its part, the Chinese government has issued statements, photographs and maps to back its claim that Indian forces have encroached on Chinese territory. It has demanded these forces withdraw unconditionally from the area before any negotiations can take place. Indian observers, however, say negotiations are already underway between China and India and Bhutan and China.

China and India have peacefully resolved similar incidents in the past through military-to-military dialogue and diplomatic negotiations. This time, however, while more restrained commentators want a resolution through negotiation, the threat of war is being freely mentioned in the media in both countries. China’s hyper-nationalist Global Times tabloid has called for China to 'teach New Delhi a bitter lesson' and stated that, if it did, India would 'suffer greater losses' than it incurred in the Sino-Indian war of 1962.

If China is being resolute in demanding an end to Indian 'obstruction' and 'trespass', the Indian government is also firm in its position that the proposed Chinese road poses a serious security threat to India.

India is not alone in attempting to prevent developments that endanger its security, even when they take place outside its borders. China does not stay silent about developments in its neighbourhood that it views as a threat.

A case in point is China’s opposition to the US deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea. China is concerned the deployment of THAAD and AN/TPY-2 radar in South Korea would give the US significant early warning advantage and enhance its ability to spy on China. The Chinese ambassador to South Korea said the deployment of the THAAD would destroy the Beijing-Seoul relationship 'in an instant'.

Beijing should, therefore, be more sensitive to the concerns of its neighbours when they feel Chinese actions could jeopardise their own security. India has in the past decade or so intensified efforts to build its border infrastructure in response to the massive build-up and sophistication of China’s roads and airfields along its disputed border with India. But the construction of a road near the Siliguri corridor could be a game changer, which India cannot and should not countenance.

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