- Tensions between China and India have heated up over a remote frontier region in the Himalayas
- The region is of strategic importance, and neighbouring Bhutan is now caught between
- The ongoing standoff suggests tensions between the two powers could continue to grow in the coming years
While everyone’s been watching the chaos spilling out of the White House, a border standoff between two nuclear powers has been festering for two months.
China and India have rubbed up against each other in the Doklam territory — called Donglang in Chinese — a remote frontier region located at a convergence point of India, India’s ally Bhutan, and China.
The extended standoff appears to be one of the more significant in recent years, and comes at a time of weakening relations between the two powers. Analysts at BMI Research said the standoff suggests strains between China and India could continue in the coming years.
What happened in the Doklam territory?
In mid-June, Bhutan found Chinese troops attempting to extend a road through a plateau in the Doklam territory. The region is claimed by both Bhutan and China due to contradictory phrases in an 1890 border agreement between Great Britain and China’s Qing dynasty, according to the New York Times.
India, which has no claim to the territory but supports Bhutan’s claim, sent troops to stop the construction.
China has since accused India of “trespassing” and said that India has interfered with “normal activities” on its side of the border. India responded by saying it got involved in order to help its ally, Bhutan.
Tensions have continued to simmer over the past several weeks, with both sides putting more troops on the border.
That same week, state-run Chinese media Xinhua News published a propaganda video called the “7 Sins of India,” which took inflammatory jabs at Indians, and specifically at the minority Sikh community. Both Indian and international news outlets, including the BBC and the Washington Post, slammed the video as being racist.
Bhutan, which doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with China, issued a formal statement accusing Beijing of building the road inside its territory and violating a 1998 agreement.
Why do India and China care so much about a remote strip in the Himalayas?
India has maintained that it is acting on behalf of Bhutan since the two have long maintained close relations.
But New Delhi is also seeking to protect its sphere of influence, BMI Research says.
The Doklam plateau is “vital” to India’s security interests because of its proximity to a key stretch of land called the Siliguri Corridor, the BMI analysts said.
If Beijing had a presence on the strip, it could theoretically cut off the northeastern states from the rest of India during a future conflict. It might also be able to exert more influence on Bhutan.
Council of Foreign Relations senior fellow Ely Ratner told CNN the dispute also reflects the challenges Beijing will face in its pursuit of regional and global leadership.
Bhutan is caught between nuclear powers
Bhutan provides a strategic buffer for India. The two countries have cooperated closely in foreign policy since signing a treaty in 1949, and India has continued to pay and train Bhutan’s troops.
In 2007, they signed a revised friendship treaty, which gave Bhutan greater freedom in foreign policy and military purchases.
Bhutan has reportedly more recently been looking to China, in part because of the appeal of its tourism money. The New York Times reports that while Indian tourists don’t need visas to enter Bhutan, Chinese tourists have to pay $US250 per day in advance for vacation packages — which is no small sum for a country whose GDP per capita was $US2,751 in 2016.
Many Bhutanese interviewed by the NYT seemed more concerned about India than China. “Some note that one effect of India’s move — intended or not — has been to undermine border negotiations with China that could have cleared the way for closer economic ties,” Steven Lee Myers reported.
Not the first border tensions between India and China
China and India have seen border tensions flare up from time to time in recent decades.
Fast forward to 2014: Narendra Modi was seen as the most pro-China Indian prime minister since 1962, and he reportedly came into office with “high hopes of building Sino-Indian relations.”
But the two countries have irked each other with various diplomatic moves, as the Washington Post reported.
Among other things, India refused to join China’s “One Belt, One Road” project, which plans to create a better connection between China and Pakistan, while China poured billions of dollars in investment into Sri Lanka and Nepal, which India considers to be its allies.
Neither country wants to show weakness by withdrawing. As the analysts at BMI Research explained in a note to clients two weeks ago:
“The Communist Party of China (CPC) cannot afford to show signs of weakness while preparing for the 19th National Party Congress in late 2017, especially since the public is aware that India sent its troops to the border before making any diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute. The Modi administration will also be unwilling to back off as it presents itself as an advocate of a strong India, and a sudden withdrawal of its troops may be harmful to its public image. Moreover, India could use this incident to sign more weapons deals with the US, which would help it to secure its eastern flank against China in the future.”
The analysts argue that the standoff could continue into the winter, after which both sides might have to withdraw because of the weather. After that, they continued, it would be “possible” for diplomatic negotiations to begin.
“Given the dangers of this escalating rivalry, we believe that India and China will seek to obtain a mutually beneficial way to end the standoff and could use the onset of colder temperatures as a plausible excuse,” the analysts said.
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