NEW DELHI Thousands of Chinese and Indian troops have been engaged in a standoff at a border area between Bhutan and China for the last month. Tough talk has been exchanged, but so far no bullets have. Questions have arisen in India about who in China decided to break the status quo in the tri-junction area -- and why.
The site of the standoff is the Doklam Plateau in western Bhutan, an area claimed by Bhutan, and India is supporting Bhutan's claim. China also claims the area, but China and Bhutan confirmed the status quo in written agreements in 1988 and 1998, and the Doklam plateau has been de facto Bhutanese territory ever since.
In a statement on June 29, the Bhutanese foreign ministry said: "On 16th June 2017, the Chinese army started constructing a motorable road from Dokola in the Doklam area towards the Bhutan army camp at Zompelri." According to India, China's People's Liberation Army has continued the construction despite the Bhutanese attempts to stop it. Indian army units stationed in the area under defense cooperation with Bhutan also asked the PLA to cease the construction and leave the country. The road-building stopped but the PLA remained, and the standoff began.
Four weeks later, according to a person on the Indian side who is familiar with the matter, the Indian army has 1,000-1,500 soldiers stationed in Bhutan, and in the adjacent area in northeastern India about 12,000 soldiers are ready for military action. Meanwhile, the PLA is believed to have about 5,000 soldiers in the vicinity of the plateau. Indian troops reportedly had set up a camp 120 meters from the PLA base.
There are two reasons for the sense of crisis that is rising in India. One is that China's actions resemble closely its behavior in the South China Sea, where it has built runways on man-made islands, a strategy of controlling a place via a fait accompli. Another reason is the risk that a serious Achilles' heel in Indian national defense could be severed. If China takes control of the Doklam Plateau, narrow land routes that connect seven states in northeastern India near the border with Myanmar and the rest of India could easily be disrupted.
ANOTHER VIEW China has a different view of the ongoing standoff. On July 5, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, "The area has always been under China's effective jurisdiction," maintaining that India illegally entered the Chinese side from Sikkim state. Speaking in Singapore on July 11, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, an Indian foreign secretary said: "India and China must not allow differences to become disputes," calling for a solution through negotiations. But on July 12, Geng demanded that "the Indian side immediately pull the Indian border troops back."
Ashok Kantha, director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, a Delhi-based think tank, who served as the Indian ambassador to China until last year, said, "There have been similar standoffs in which our forces [of India and China] came face-to-face."
When Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India in September 2014, the PLA entered Chumar and Demchok in northern India. The PLA tried to build a road there, but the conflict was solved through negotiation. "But this time their language is very heated, which wasn't case at that time. And other differences are ... they set preconditions [of Indian troops' withdrawal] before we started talks," said Kantha.
DIFFERENT THIS TIME What is the difference between the cases in the past and the latest one? Himendra Mohan Kumar, a Delhi-based strategic affairs expert, took note of the timing that Xi is close to finish his first term and aiming at his second term. He said, "If the PLA withdraws without firing a bullet, Xi will lose his grip on power, on the PLA and on the Communist Party before his second term." In contrast, if the PLA starts a fight, "within 10 days, the international community will intervene, and there may be economic sanctions from countries like the U.S., Japan and others. That will hurt the Chinese economy and Xi's leadership."
It has been one year since the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled last July that China did not have territorial rights over nearly the entire South China Sea as it claimed, but China has continued to stay on the man-made islands it built. The PLA's entry into Bhutan may well be part of China's hegemony and expansion policy.
However, given the similar strengths of the Chinese and Indian armies in and around the Doklam plateau, it is not possible to proceed with military action or withdraw from the area, in view of the two countries' politics. If what Bhutan and India say is true and the PLA crossed the border with Bhutan, who in China gave the army the order to go there and build a road, and for what purpose? It would be difficult to come up with a reasonable explanation for such an action, analysts said. Kumar speculated, "Probably, the PLA started the road construction at Doklam without seeking the approval of top officials in the Chinese government."