NEW DELHI -- The latest armed border standoff between India and China, now entering its second month, traces its roots to tensions over the latter's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
Starting in mid-June, both sides have deployed troops on the Doklam plateau -- an ill-defined region in western Bhutan, which relies on India for military support. The tiny mountain kingdom and China signed a series of agreements to maintain peace in the disputed area, but the border issue remains unresolved. Tensions began rising June 16 when China started building a road in Doklam that can be used by military vehicles, according to Bhutan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
India's Ministry of External Affairs says the activity amounts to China unilaterally defining border points in the region, violating a 2012 bilateral agreement. Should China take control of Doklam, India risks losing terrestrially contiguous access to seven northeast states bordering Myanmar and Bangladesh.
New Delhi's troops illegally crossed into Chinese territory, a spokesperson for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said last month at a news conference where he held up photographic evidence.
Ripe for a flare-up
Although Beijing has apparently halted road construction, the two sides remain eyeball to eyeball. India now has 1,000 to 1,500 military personnel stationed in Bhutan and has deployed over 12,000 more to the Indian northeast, according to an Indian source close to the matter.
China has sent an estimated 5,000 or so People's Liberation Army members to the Doklam area, with an unknown number of support personnel further back, the source said.
Indian ground troops reportedly set up a camp just 120 meters from one of the PLA's.
Rocky roads and troubled waters
Beijing escalated the row after New Delhi refused to send delegates to China's Belt and Road conference this May, outraged by the inclusion of Kashmir in the grand infrastructure development plans promoted by Chinese President Xi Jinping. This is unacceptable to an India with competing territorial claims over the region against Pakistan. And China saw India's snub as an affront to Xi.
New Delhi and Beijing have locked horns over Chinese incursions into Kashimir and other areas that India considers its territory before. But the Chinese response to the current row over the Doklam region is entirely without precedent, said Ashok Kantha, a former Indian ambassador to China.
The Chinese are not offering any opportunity to resolve the conflict through diplomatic channels, refusing to talk to India unless the South Asian nation withdraws troops from Doklam. Ashok likened China's road-building in the disputed territory to the country's construction of a runway on an artificial island it built in disputed waters in the South China Sea, which cemented Beijing's de facto control of the waters.
Belt and Road also envisions routes by sea. The Chinese navy has moved to set up an overseas military base in the African nation of Djibouti. China is overseeing port construction in Myanmar and Bangladesh and is aiding another port project in Pakistan -- moves seen as efforts by Beijing to secure a sea lane leading to Africa.
Meanwhile, India joined the U.S. and Japan in one of the largest naval exercises in the Indian Ocean, running eight days to this past Monday. The training had no particular target country in mind, according to the trio. But an Indian vice admiral made clear that the exercise demonstrates their firm ties and response capabilities.
Oki Nagai in Beijing and Akira Hayakawa in Mumbai contributed to this report.