At 14,000 feet above sea level and with a perpetually harsh climate, the Doklam Plateau is an enormously difficult place to defend. Meanwhile, those launching an attack face exponentially greater challenges—and that's before the Himalayan winter sets in. This helps explain why China and India last week ended a military standoff there that had been festering since June. Beyond the sheer misery of preparing to fight on such a forbidding battlefield, however, both nations had every reason to deescalate one of the most serious showdowns since their sole war in 1962. The status quo ante has been essentially restored, but the dispute raised important questions about the balance of power in Asia, China's grand strategy, and what Washington can learn from the episode.
China and India share a border over 2,500 miles long, with almost all of it based on colonial-era agreements and surveys, and much of it still disputed. China claims pieces of territory held by India, mostly in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, with smaller pieces claimed in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. India claims land held by China, most notably a piece of land called Aksai Chin through which Beijing built a road in the 1950s connecting Xinjiang to Tibet. Reflecting its unsettled nature, the portions of the border separating disputed territories are referred to as the Line of Actual Control. There are periodic skirmishes along the LAC, but both nations have carefully choreographed them to avoid escalation; as a result, there have been no casualties stemming from land disputes in half a century.
On June 8, a platoon-sized unit of Chinese border guards moved into territory claimed by both China and Bhutan, a client-state of India. They destroyed stone bunkers used sporadically by the Royal Bhutan Army, and shortly afterward a Chinese road construction crew arrived with excavators, bulldozers, and a larger military escort. On June 16, Indian troops arrived and blocked the road-building effort. The next two months saw periodic scuffles at Doklam, as well as a mass rock-fight (captured on video and posted to YouTube) by the disputed banks of the Pangong Lake 800 miles away. On August 28, both nations agreed to what India termed an “expeditious disengagement” of forces, and both declared this non-resolution a victory.
New Delhi's Security Concerns
India's motives in this conflict are relatively easy to unravel. As the patron and de facto security guarantor of Bhutan, New Delhi has an all-but-official obligation to defend that nation's territorial claims. Under the 1949 Treaty of Friendship, Bhutan's King Druk Gyalpo pledged “to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations.” The treaty was revised in 2007 (PDF) to commit both governments to “cooperate closely with each other on the issues relating to their national interests.” Beneath the diplomatic language, the intent remained the same: Bhutan would let India control its foreign policy, and India would protect Bhutan from external threat.
Moreover, a Chinese military presence at Doklam—particularly one with transportation infrastructure capable of supporting deeper incursions—would threaten a 17-mile-wide strip of land known as the Siliguri Corridor linking seven Northeastern Indian states to the rest of the country. The corridor is often referred to as India's “Chicken Neck”—and New Delhi had no intention of letting Beijing gain control of it. The 2007 treaty with Bhutan ominously notes (PDF) that “neither Government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.” Even if Bhutan were willing to let China take control of Doklam, India would likely have been unwilling (and, by treaty, unrequired) to stand aside.
China's motives are more opaque, more varied, and more important for the United States and the international community to understand. As such, they require a closer look.
Beijing's Regional Goals
China's initial move, even if it appeared to be the opening gambit in a geopolitical chess-game, was likely not intended as such. Beijing has been on a nationwide infrastructure building-spree since the 1990s, and sensitive border areas have not been left out of this program. To Indian eyes, the creation of a paved highway on highly strategic terrain looked like the laying of a foundation for a potential invasion; but to China, it may have been nothing more than the same sort of gravel-to-asphalt upgrade underway throughout the country.
In fact, Chinese and Indian troops frequently push one another's border positions a few hundred yards (or more) one way or another, depending on how much ground they can seize before higher authorities intervene. In April of 2013, for example, a Chinese platoon advanced 12 miles into Indian-held territory near Daulat Beg Oldi in Kashmir, but it withdrew about three weeks later, after intensive diplomatic wrangling. Another factor suggesting mishap rather than high-level premeditation is the tactical set-up: India commands the high ground, which means if the People's Liberation Army tried to push beyond Doklam toward the Siliguri Corridor it would be forced to attack largely uphill for about 90 miles.
Regardless of its origin, this unprecedented face-off—the first of this magnitude in 30 years—dragged from days to weeks to months. After the first week or so, it went from being a field-level initiative to a policy choice undertaken at the highest echelon of the Chinese government. Indeed, Beijing stoked nationalist sentiments among the Chinese public by running inflammatory (and in some cases baldly racist) stories in the state-controlled press and social media. The Chinese government arguably had four key objectives in the dispute, two directed squarely at India and two of with more direct implications for the U.S. and other nations around the world.
India's leaders increasingly describe Pakistan as their nation's rival of the past, and China as the rival of the future.
Beijing's first strictly regional goal may have been to keep India from thinking it was at parity with China. The 1962 war—in which China invaded India without great difficulty, and unilaterally withdrew a month later while retaining the only pieces of territory it wanted to keep—shattered any illusion that the two giant nations of Asia were either friends or peers. In subsequent decades, Indian leaders were generally wary of offending Beijing. Through the Mao Zedong years and after, the military and economic gap (especially from the 1990s onward) between the two nations seemed to grow ever wider. In the new century, however, India's confidence has steadily grown: leaders of both major political parties increasingly describe Pakistan as their nation's rival of the past, and China as the rival of the future. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this attitude has been matched by action. Modi has stepped up India's construction of military and dual-use infrastructure along the LAC, and increased security cooperation with its Pacific partners, including Australia, Japan, and Vietnam.
This increased desire for security cooperation extends straight across the ocean. During the four summit meetings over the past three years, Indian and U.S. leaders have pushed to advance security cooperation as speedily as possible. During Modi's visit to Washington in June 2017, for example, India announced that it would purchase 22 Guardian MQ-9B unmanned aerial vehicles from the United States for maritime surveillance. On July 10, the United States and India began the twenty-first edition of their annual Malabar naval exercise, which for the first time featured aircraft carriers from these two nations as well as Japan. In the past, India had generally shied away from multilateral exercises involving Washington, or from any actions which could be read by Beijing as a step toward a de facto U.S. alliance. China, understandably, would like to keep it that way.
Perhaps the most important Chinese concern in the Himalayas, however, deals with the future of the 82-year-old Dalai Lama. Indian leaders have given the Dalai Lama sanctuary in the town of Dharamsala for nearly six decades, but Modi has been more willing than any of his recent predecessors to press China's Tibetan sore spot. In 2014 he broke protocol by inviting Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, to his inauguration. In April 2017, six months after encouraging a similar tour by the U.S. ambassador, Modi permitted the Dalai Lama to visit Tibetan communities in the state of Arunchal Pradesh—territories claimed by China.
A high-profile scare on the Doklam Plateau may have been intended to send India a message: not to repeat its decision to shelter the Dalai Lama in 1959, a key cause of China's 1962 invasion.
Beijing has objected vociferously to each of these steps, with the Foreign Ministry noting in April, “China will firmly take necessary measures to defend its territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests.” China intends to select the Dalai Lama's successor—as it did in 1995 for Tibetan Buddhism's second-ranking cleric, the Panchen Lama. China's claim to the areas held by India (and Bhutan) flows from its claim to Tibet. If Tibet is an integral part of China, then all territories ever controlled (or claimed) by Tibet are also integral parts of China. A high-profile scare on the Doklam Plateau—inhabited only by seasonal Tibetan and Bhutanese yak-herders—may have been intended to send India an implicit message: namely, not to repeat its decision to shelter the Dalai Lama in 1959, a key cause of China's 1962 invasion.
Takeaways for U.S. Policy
The Doklam episode holds lessons for the United States and any other nation interested in Beijing's global strategic calculus. Although China claims more than 35,000 square miles of Indian-held land along the eastern portion of the LAC alone, it did not choose any part of this area as the site for an international incident. By focusing on Bhutan instead, China may have been trying to drive a wedge between India and its most vulnerable ally. New Delhi would defend its own sovereign territory, but Beijing may have wanted to see whether India would go to war against a much stronger adversary to defend someone else's real estate. Perhaps India would back down and compromise in some way: for example, permitting Bhutan to trade its claim on Doklam for China's dropping its quest for two other disputed areas held by the tiny kingdom. Several nations in South Asia (the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka) look to India for some degree of security protection, and several in Southeast Asia (including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam) have expressed interest in greater security engagement; a failure to fully protect its most direct client would have grave implications for India's credibility as a partner.
In addition, China's speedy movement of road-construction equipment into the disputed area suggests that Beijing could be replicating its approach in the South China Sea where it is building infrastructure to establish de facto ownership. China's strategy in the South China Sea has been unfolding in public view for years. Since December 2013, Beijing has reclaimed more than 2,900 acres, essentially building islands on top of barren reefs in the Paracel and Spratly chains. So far, this strategy has been successful. None of its rivals has accepted Beijing's claims—but none has taken a meaningful step to remove China's new array of landing strips, naval facilities, and surveillance stations.
But Doklam may not be the last such move outside of the maritime arena. China not only has unresolved land disputes with India, but it could also conceivably use a build-it-and-own-it approach to reopen long-dormant border disputes with Vietnam or Myanmar. It could even leverage its investment in infrastructure projects throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America to extract political concessions—a tactic that European imperialist powers employed for hundreds of years.
The crisis at Doklam is over for now, but the episode's true impact will only unfold in the weeks and months to come.
The crisis at Doklam is over for now, but the episode's true impact will only unfold in the weeks and months to come. From a U.S. perspective, the most important signs to look for are any concessions by the involved parties to China. This could involve Bhutan quietly acceding to Beijing's claims on the disputed Jakarlung and Pasamlung territories, which are less strategically threatening to India. New Delhi might subtly dial back its support for the Tibetan exile community. Or perhaps Vietnam will find India less responsive to future requests for economic or security engagement. Any such development might indicate that Beijing had not been stopped cold in the Himalayas, but had leveraged this conflict to its advantage.
If China regards Doklam as a success, it may be tempted to reuse the same template elsewhere, whether at an atoll in the Pacific or at a copper mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That is why Washington mustn't relax now. It should pay close attention to the aftermath of the dispute, which is the most serious Sino–Indian confrontation in a generation. Although troops are backing off their mountain-top positions, only time will tell whether their rumblings have actually subsided or rather, created the conditions for an avalanche.
Jonah Blank is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He is the author of Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracting the Ramayana Through India and Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam & Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras.
This commentary originally appeared in Foreign Affairs on September 7, 2017.