By Sanjay Pulipaka —
Since June 16, Indian and Chinese defense forces have been facing off on the Doklam Plateau, close to the meeting point of the India-Bhutan-China border, known as the tri-junction. India, which argues that China is building roads in Bhutan’s territory, has moved into the Doklam area in coordination with Bhutan and in keeping with the special relationship between the two countries. The Indian government has alleged that China’s unilateral actions violate the 2012 agreement which mandates that tri-junction boundary points should be “finalized in consultation with the concerned countries.” On the other hand, China claims that Doklam Plateau as its territory. It appears that this will be a prolonged stand-off between the two countries, as both parties may find it difficult to withdraw from their positions, creating necessary conditions for a limited confrontation.
Northeast India is connected to the rest of India through the 13-mile wide Siliguri corridor, 70 miles south of the tri-junction. The growing Chinese military presence on the Doklam plateau increases the vulnerability of the Siliguri corridor and raises the risk that Chinese forces could cutoff Northeast India from rest of the country. Therefore, the possibility of India unilaterally withdrawing from the stand-off seems to be very remote. For China, maintaining a presence on the Doklam plateau is not connected to a similar existential interest. China may be concerned, however, that its standing as a major power will take a beating on the global stage if it withdraws without pushing India any further.
China is not acting like a country that has inadvertently walked into a crisis. Chinese newspapers deployed bellicose rhetoric and called for kicking the Indian military out from the Doklam plateau. In an interesting tactic, the political counselor at the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi used YouTube to speak directly to the people of India. China issued a travel advisory asking Chinese citizens visiting India to be careful. There is a perception in India that the Chinese government has tight control on the flow of information, and thus every item in the Chinese media is perceived as a message from the Chinese government.
China has also engaged in military signaling. There were reports of increased Chinese military activity in Tibet as well as in the Indian Ocean. During the stand-off, China has reportedly tested a lightweight battle tank in Tibet, signaling its new capabilities on the Indian border and conducted live-fire drills. Simultaneously, Indian media has reported that the Indian Navy has observed at least 13 Chinese naval ships operating in the Indian Ocean in the past two months.
Overall, the regional dynamic seems to be loaded against India. Faced with sanctions by Western countries, Russia has scaled up its engagement with China and has signed on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The close relationship historically between Russia and India’s defense establishments is well-known. However, given the growing strategic convergence between Russia and China, it is unlikely that Russia will side with India in the case of a conflict with China. India has invested considerable energy in developing a strategic partnership with the United States, but concerns remain that President Donald Trump will view the crisis through the prism of his main priorities in the U.S.-China relationship. In his interactions with China, President Trump seems to be guided by two objectives: first, ending North Korea’s missile/nuclear program; and second, ensuring greater openness to American goods in Chinese markets. China may promise to deliver on at least one of these objectives, in return expecting the United States to remain silent on other strategic issues, such as a minor incursion to take control of a small portion of India’s territory. Doklam may be a precursor to such an exercise.
Controlling a few square kilometers of India’s territory may increase Chinese leverage in negotiations with India. China would likely seek to push India to open up its economy for Belt and Road initiatives, including projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China-Nepal-India corridor or the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor. Given the slowdown in a Chinese economy struggling with excess capacity, greater access to Indian markets would be a welcome relief for Chinese companies. Increased Chinese leverage would also give Pakistan greater strategic space to press forward on Kashmir without fear of an Indian retribution. Finally, a loss of even a few kilometers would severely dent the image of current Indian leadership in the run-up to 2019 elections, thereby muddying the politics of India.