Heading Off China at Doka La Pass

7 MINS READJul 28, 2017 | 15:41 GMT
Indian demonstrators gather near the Chinese Embassy in India's capital to protest China's activities in Bhutan.

While New Delhi has called for both sides to stand down in Bhutan, Beijing has reiterated that India must withdraw its troops from the Doklam Plateau before negotiations on China's road project in the area can begin. 

Forecast Highlights
  • India will back down from its standoff with China only if Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has room to portray the resolution as a diplomatic victory to his political constituents back home.
  • New Delhi won't have the means, however, to alter China's strategy in its periphery, even if it can temporarily halt construction on Beijing's road project in Bhutan.
  • To defend against China's encroachment, New Delhi will bolster its defensive and infrastructure capacity along its northeastern border.

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan serves a strategic function far greater than its small size would suggest. Situated between India and China, the country acts as a buffer separating the two powers. But mounting enmity between New Delhi and Beijing is threatening to breach that barrier.

For over a month now, Chinese and Indian troops have been locked in a standoff a few hundred feet apart near the mountain pass of Doka La along India's border with China and Bhutan. The confrontation began June 16 when Indian forces intervened to prevent Chinese soldiers and construction workers from extending a roadway through the area. Bhutan claims Doka La lies within its borders, because the pass is south of its internationally recognized boundary with India and China, known as the trijunction. China, on the other hand, asserts that the trijunction is a few miles south of Doka La at Gymachen and that the pass, consequently, falls within its territory. For New Delhi, however, recognizing Beijing's border at Gymachen would put Chinese roads — and, by extension, troops — too close for comfort to the Siliguri corridor, the narrow ribbon of territory linking mainland India with its far-flung northeastern wing. The road through Doka La would also afford China access to the Jampheri ridge, a critical high ground from which it could threaten India's supply lines.

Neither China nor India has shown any sign of budging since the faceoff near Doka La began. India, hoping to avoid a conflict, has called for both sides to back down. As the lesser power in the showdown, though, New Delhi will be hard-pressed to find a way to coerce Beijing into giving up its ambitions in Bhutan or, for that matter, its wider strategy in South Asia.

An Uneven Competition

Over the past year, diplomatic relations between New Delhi and Beijing have hit the rocks. Part of the problem is China's relationship with India's archrival, Pakistan. In deference to Islamabad, Beijing has repeatedly rebuffed New Delhi's requests to impose U.N. sanctions on Masood Azhar, a Kashmiri militant based in Pakistan who is accused of orchestrating attacks on India. China likewise has used its veto power to keep India from entering the Nuclear Suppliers Group partly out of consideration for Pakistan, whose reputation as a sponsor of terrorism has hobbled its own chances of joining the organization. In addition, Beijing has forged ahead with construction on the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) despite New Delhi's protests that the project undermines its territorial integrity by crossing through Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Beyond raising concerns over Kashmir, a region India claims in its entirety, the CPEC also represents the growing challenge that Beijing poses to New Delhi's dominance in South Asia. The joint venture with Pakistan is just one of a host of infrastructure projects China has launched in the region as part of its Belt and Road Intiative. But as much as Beijing's activities in New Delhi's traditional sphere of influence may gall it, India simply doesn't have the means to deter China from its pursuits.

Though the two countries are about evenly matched in terms of population size, China outstrips India politically, economically and militarily. New Delhi, moreover, has more pressing matters to worry about than Beijing, from its rivalry with Islamabad to the Maoist Naxalite insurgency. In light of its limitations relative to China, India eschewed the heavy costs of interfering in the CPEC's construction, notwithstanding its fulminations. (Even the United States, whose military power exceeds that of India and China, has opted not to intervene in China's infrastructure projects, such as its undertakings in the South China Sea.) And for much the same reason, it is working to prevent a conflict from erupting in Bhutan. Negotiating a diplomatic resolution to the issue, after all, would give Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a victory to use to his political advantage at home. By the same token, initiating hostilities ostensibly over a road could damage China's carefully crafted image as a benign hegemon trying to promote harmony through its Belt and Road endeavors.

Area of Standoff Between Chinese and Indian Troops in Bhutan

Checking the Borders

Even without the upper hand, India has managed to halt construction on the road near Doka La. But to fend off Beijing's encroachment elsewhere, New Delhi may have to get creative. India, for instance, could take to the seas to head off China's increasing influence. As Beijing's clout has steadily grown, New Delhi has come to view the Indian Ocean region as an even greater asset for its defense and has ramped up its naval activities accordingly. More recently, India has seized on the South China Sea as another strategic space in which to counteract Beijing. The South Asian country has joined the United States in calling for freedom of navigation in the contested waters over the past few years. The South China Sea has become a topic of regular discussion in India's summits with the United States, and the subject has come up in meetings with other countries, such as Australia, as well. India even staked its own claim in the South China Sea by securing exploratory rights for a block in a Vietnamese offshore oil field, a risky investment whose value lies in its location.

Apart from its maritime pursuits, New Delhi will probably focus on bolstering infrastructure along India's northeastern border with China. Poor regional connectivity would be a significant handicap for India in the event of a military confrontation with China (though, ironically, the dearth of transport infrastructure was historically intended to deprive invading Chinese forces of inroads into the country). And now that China is busy building its own roads near sensitive border areas — including a 500-kilometer (310-mile) road linking Lhasa to Yadong, a city near the trijunction — India is taking steps to improve its connectivity. Modi revived construction projects for 73 strategic regional roads that were first proposed about a decade ago, and as a result of his efforts, India inaugurated the longest bridge in the country in May. Furthermore, India recently announced plans to construct at least two tunnels to reduce travel time between Tezpur, where the army's 4 Corps is headquartered, and Tawang, a city in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims is part of Tibet.

Modi has also emphasized increasing military capacity near his country's border with China. On March 17, reports emerged that India had begun raising a second infantry division for its mountain strike corps, known as the 17 Corps, headquartered in West Bengal. Designed to focus on the expanse of India's northern border from Arunachal Pradesh to Ladakh, the 17 Corps reportedly is part of the Indian army's effort to shift from a threat-based force to a capability-based force. Although it will be at least two years before the new infantry is operational, the project nevertheless reflects India's push to move to an offensive-defensive approach in securing its borders.

Having fought a punishing territorial war with China in 1962, India has little interest in embarking on another armed conflict. And so, New Delhi will keep angling for a diplomatic solution to the standoff near Doka La as it tries to find a way to discourage China from following through with its roadway project there. Both sides have reason to avoid initiating hostilities, but until they arrive at a solution that will work in Modi's favor back home, China and India will likely stay at loggerheads. The dispute offers a glimpse into the difficulties New Delhi will face in the future as it tries to counter Beijing's advance into South Asia.

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