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Why Doklam wasn't just another China-India border spat

Two rising superpowers, two tough leaders, one recipe for conflict

A Chinese soldier, left, stands next to an Indian soldier at the Nathu La border crossing. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP)

NEW DELHI -- China and India this summer came closer to a military clash than at any point in the last half century.

Their troops were locked in a stare-down for two and a half months, creating a tinderbox situation that could have sparked a major conflict. And though both sides have pulled back, the fact remains: These are two emerging superpowers competing for regional hegemony, backed by growing economies and increasingly muscular militaries. They are also led by the strongest leaders they have had in recent memory -- Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi -- neither of whom wants to be seen making territorial concessions.

Put another way: The risk of a clash is still all too real.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands during the BRICS summit in Xiamen, China, on Sept. 4.   © Reuters

The detente

On Sept. 5, Xi extended his hand to Modi on a stage adorned with Chinese and Indian flags. The BRICS summit, in the southeastern Chinese city of Xiamen, was winding down, and the moment was ripe for a show of fence-mending. They looked slightly nervous at first, but they held the handshake for more than 10 seconds. Both were smiling as they left the stage.

It certainly looked like the military showdown in the Himalayas, nearly 3,000km away, was in the past.

Things had been a lot icier at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, in July, when Xi and Modi met for only five minutes. At the BRICS meeting two months later -- which also involved the leaders of Brazil, Russia and South Africa -- they held an hourlong dialogue.  

Xi told Modi that their countries should view each other as development opportunities rather than threats, according to the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece. "India and China should not see each other as rivals," Modi reportedly replied.

That was surely not the prevailing sentiment on the Doklam plateau in recent months. 

The area is claimed by Bhutan and China, and lies only several hundred meters away from the Indian state of Sikkim. The showdown began when Bhutan noticed on June 16 that the Chinese People's Liberation Army was building a road, and Indian troops crossed the border to halt the project. 

By early August, each side had more than 500 soldiers camped at close range. Less well-known is that a further 12,000 were behind them on the Indian side, while China had another 16,000 at the ready, according to an Indian government source.

The Indian contingent was bigger than that sent to the border in 1962, when the two countries exchanged fire for about a month. India was defeated in that confrontation, losing part of the northwestern region of Kashmir to China. Then-Indian Defense Minister Arun Jaitley alluded to this bitter memory in late June, when he said that the "India of 2017 is different from what it was in 1962."

The Global Times shot back in early July, writing, "India will suffer greater losses than in 1962 if it incites military conflicts."

Border standoffs between the neighbors have been fairly routine over the years. Some take place in Kashmir, others in India's easternmost state of Arunachal Pradesh. But these typically involve only small numbers of soldiers and usually end after several days.

"There have been similar standoffs in which our forces came face-to-face," said Ashok Kantha, director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, a Delhi think tank, who served as the Indian ambassador to China until last year. "But our diplomatic channel between Delhi and Beijing has solved them quickly." 

The distinction this time was that China sent troops to the point of dispute with Bhutan, not the actual border with India, and started building a road that would have changed the facts on the ground. Bhutan depends on India for its defense -- partly the legacy of a bilateral agreement that existed until a decade ago, which stated that Bhutan should consult with India on diplomacy and security.

Thus, the Indian military crossed the border to stop the road, irking China.

"The PLA has the confidence and capability to defeat all invading enemies and safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests," Xi said in a speech at a parade marking the Chinese military's 90th anniversary in late July.

The subtext

Of course, defending Bhutan was not the only reason India sent troops to Doklam. It sees the plateau as strategically important.

To the southwest of Doklam lies India's tiny Siliguri corridor. This territorial lifeline, often called the "chicken's neck," links Assam and six other northeastern states -- collectively known as the "seven sisters" -- with the rest of the country. If the PLA took control of Doklam and advanced south to cut off the corridor, India would risk losing the seven states, which account for 8% of its land.

Many of the seven, including Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, are home to descendants of those who lived in the mountains, and folklore has it that the Mizo people originally migrated from border areas between China and Myanmar centuries before. They are ethnically distinct from the majority groups in India, the Aryans and Dravidians. Many did not want to be part of India when the country became independent in 1947.

Today, almost none of them think of integration with China. But if India did lose the Siliguri corridor, it would also lose its military and psychological hold on the seven sisters.

A Chinese-language website charts out India's nightmare scenario. It features a map depicting how the PLA could take over Doklam, advance south and cut off Siliguri, before turning east toward the seven sisters -- an area it describes as an "isolated island."

Why is China eyeing northeastern India? "China's plan is to reach the Indian Ocean Rim through Myanmar and Bangladesh in the east, and Pakistan in the west," said Srikanth Kondapalli, professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. This has been "the grand plan since 1995, when the Yunnan provincial people's congress discussed this issue." 

Approaching Bhutan is seen as the first step. China, which does not have any official diplomatic relations with Bhutan, has offered the Himalayan nation a $10 billion financial package, consisting of grants, low-interest loans and direct investment, according to an Indian government source.

Bhutan, for its part, has toned down its criticism of China. When Bhutan's Foreign Minister Damcho Dorji met his Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj, on Aug. 11, he said only that his country hopes for a peaceful and amicable solution in Doklam.

Paramilitary soldiers attend a parade during Indian Independence Day celebrations in Agartala on Aug. 15. (Getty Images)

Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, while visiting New Delhi in August, also stressed his country's neutrality between China and India.

The big picture

This year's standoff was just a microcosm of the competition for regional clout.

China and India are the world's most and second-most populous nations. They are Asia's largest and third-largest economies. Their great game could tilt the geopolitical balance in the region for generations.

Beijing is actively reaching out to India's neighbors through its Belt and Road Initiative -- a drive to create a sphere of influence reaching Europe by land and Africa by sea. China has signed a 99-year lease contract for Sri Lanka's Hambantota Port, which it financed. A Chinese submarine made a port call there in 2014.

A general view of the port in Gwadar, Pakistan, before the inauguration of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor on Nov. 13, 2016.

The Belt and Road program also includes the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is being built in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. China is building a port at the corridor's southern end of Gwadar, and some suspect the facility could be used for military purposes.

India, meanwhile, is helping Myanmar expand the port of Sittwe and construct an inland port in Paletwa. It is also working to deepen economic interdependence with neighbors like Nepal and Sri Lanka, to keep them out of China's orbit.

India is beefing up its navy, too, to maintain control of the Indian Ocean.

Odds are, the power game will only escalate. 

Xi is all but certain to secure his second term at the Communist Party's twice-a-decade congress this year. He spent his first term establishing a stronger grip on power than any of his recent predecessors.

Modi is also on track to win a second term in the general election scheduled for 2019. Like Xi, he is his country's most powerful leader in decades.

This explains why, even though the two sides agreed on a simultaneous and gradual troop withdrawal from Doklam in July, they did not simply end the standoff. Both Xi and Modi appear loath to show weakness, which could cost them support.

Also worth noting is the similarity between global instability today and in 1962. At the time of that border clash, the U.S. and Europe were preoccupied with the Cuban missile crisis. Now, the world is focused on North Korea's missile and nuclear programs, and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is shaking Western alliances.

So, while China and India withdrew their troops from the standoff area of Doklam by the end of August, and their leaders shared an amicable handshake, it may not take much to bring the two Asian giants back on each other's throats. Indian government sources said each side only stepped back about 100 meters, and both still have forces of about 300 patrolling near the area.


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