India-China Standoff: Could It Lead to War?

Indian troops have intervened on Bhutan’s behalf to block the Chinese military building an all-weather road on the Doklam Plateau. (Image: Wikipedia Commons)
Indian troops have intervened on Bhutan’s behalf to block the Chinese military building an all-weather road on the Doklam Plateau. (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

The armies of India and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been in a standoff on Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau since mid-June after Indian troops stopped the Chinese military building a highway there.

According to analysts, China has had its eye on the territory for some time.

“China has engaged in incremental nibbling advances in this area, with Bhutanese protests followed by solemn commitments not to disturb the status quo. The intrusions continued,” wrote Shyam Saran, who served as India’s foreign secretary in an article on YaleGlobal Online.

“This time, the Chinese signaled intention to establish a permanent presence, expecting the Bhutanese to acquiesce while underestimating India’s response,” stated Saran.

Chinese activity at Doklam, he said, is being done to weaken India’s close and privileged relationship with Bhutan and opening the door to China’s entry.

Chinese officials are blaming India for the standoff, and state-run media have warned of war if India does no pull back and give in to Beijing’s demands.

Meanwhile, the Indian government has indicated it will block Chinese forces as long as required.

For India, the area — near where all three nation’s borders meet — has immense strategic importance related to the protection of the northeast of their country.

“There is no way that India can back down. This is a core interest. The Chinese will have to understand this,” Major General GD Bakshi (retired) said on NDTV.

A close ally with India, the small Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan has no diplomatic ties with China, which currently claims Doklam as its sovereign territory.

“Doklam has been a part of China since ancient times. It does not belong to Bhutan, still less India,” said China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang at a press conference on June 28.

Such claims have been made despite a 2012 agreement between India and China that said the area’s status would only be agreed upon through mutual consultation.

Bhutan’s Foreign Ministry likewise says Chinese actions are a “direct violation” of two other agreements made earlier.

Nationalistic India has a habit of not kowtowing to Beijing, which has long been upset by India’s offering refuge to Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. More recently, New Delhi refused to be a part of Beijing’s One Belt, One Road economic project.

Meanwhile, India’s Delhi has been unimpressed with China’s heavy investments in arch-rival Pakistan, especially in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Beijing wants to prove something this time, according to some analysts.

Mohan Malik, professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, said even a partial conflict would be costly for India’s rise.

“A limited conflict could set India’s economic development back by a decade or two, and further widen power asymmetry between the two countries,” said Malik in a Forbes report. In such a scenario, he added: “Beijing will have then achieved its objective of neutralizing any challenge to Chinese supremacy in Asia.”

Shashank Joshi, an analyst at the Lowy Institute, believes that the Doklam crisis will develop into a long-term standoff, but it will not lead to war.

“China has a long record of using public threats to coerce adversaries, but the consequences of a war with China would be far out of proportion with the issue at stake,” wrote Joshi in an essay.

“However, a quick solution (either unilateral or mutually agreed) is also unlikely. As the crisis stretches on, China is likely to seek ways to pressure India, both on the border and elsewhere, and this will compound the cycle of competition that is already well underway,” he said.

Former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh believes the standoff will likely continue until the Chinese Communist Party holds its 19th National Congress

“I think China will keep talking tough till the Congress. “[President] Xi Jinping would not want to be seen as weak,” Mansingh told the Straits Times. “When winter comes, the heights are automatically off limits to armed forces as the place is covered with snow. They [both sides] will automatically withdraw,” he said.

Jeff M. Smith, an academic at the American Foreign Policy Council, told The New York Times that a negotiated settlement was the probable outcome to the current standoff. But when questioned whether he believed the situation could spiral into war, Smith said, “Yes I do — and I don’t say that lightly.”

Both sides have taken hard-line positions that make it difficult to back down. “The messaging is eerily similar,” Smith said, referencing what occurred when both nations fought in 1962 over disputed border territory with China coming out the winner. Five years later, a smaller conflict occurred that left 70 Indian and 400 Chinese soldiers dead.

To see how Indian media is covering the crisis, watch this India Today video:

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