At a crossroads in the Himalayas

The Doklam border stand-off poses big questions for India, China and Bhutan

Namrata Goswami

International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, South Asia

25 August 2017

The current border stand-off has serious implications for the future of Sino-Indian relations. Yet in considering how this dispute will play out, potential changes in Bhutan’s strategic outlook should not be ignored, Namrata Goswami writes.

In June, People’s Liberation Army engineers started constructing a road in the Doklam region of the Himalayas, in the tri-junction where the borders of China, India and Bhutan meet. China and Bhutan dispute the delineation of the border around Doklam, and differences in perceptions are animating the current border standoff.

China argues that its claim to the territory on which it is building the road is an “indisputable fact,” that the demarcation of the border is a matter for “peaceful negotiations” between China and Bhutan, and that India “does not have the right to interfere.”

Bhutan refutes China’s claims. In an official press release issued on 29 June, Bhutan called upon China to refrain from an attempt to change the status quo. Citing bilateral agreements from 1988 and 1998, Bhutan urged China to stand by its commitment to maintain peace and tranquillity at the border. Bhutan asserted that “the agreements also state that the two sides will refrain from taking unilateral action, or use of force, to change the status quo of the boundary.” China however now states that the Doklam area was never a part of those agreements, and has always belonged to China.

India, with its long-term “special relationship” with Bhutan, sent in soldiers to halt Chinese road-building activities. While China accuses India of violating international law and crossing international boundaries into Chinese territory, India has a different story to tell.

The Indian Government said on 30 June that “In coordination with the RGOB [Royal Government of Bhutan], Indian personnel, who were present at general area Doka La [Doklam], approached the Chinese construction party and urged them to desist from changing the status quo. These efforts continue.” India views Doklam as Bhutanese sovereign territory while interpreting China’s activities as having direct security implications for its Siliguri Corridor. India is calling on China to remain committed to a 2012 agreement in which the two countries pledged not to change anything in the trilateral junction without consultation with all three countries.

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Both the Indian and Chinese media have been shrill in their commentary on Doklam. Chinese defence officials have likewise warned India of dire consequences if it does not pull back. A Chinese defence ministry spokesperson argued that “India should not leave things to luck and not harbour any unrealistic illusions,” and claimed that China has strengthened its military capabilities and will deploy more forces to the area to engage in drills.

While these are deliberate statements aimed at changing an adversary’s behaviour — and China is known for its histrionics — it is not clear how this will all play out. Three potential scenarios come to mind.

The most worrying scenario involves China staging a limited incursion into Sikkim.

China could potentially airlift special mountain forces into the region, taking advantage of China’s heavy-lift helicopter, the AC313. Utilising precise GPS mapping, these PLA Special Forces, with the support of the People’s Armed Police, could penetrate the Doklam area under the cover of darkness. With the help of indigenously developed stealth technology developed at its Aviation Industry Corp of China, Chinese stealth helicopters might airlift Special Forces across the border, escaping Indian radar.

Their sudden appearance in Sikkim would spread panic amongst locals. Before India could effectively respond, the Chinese forces would unilaterally withdraw, but not before they had created a psychological advantage and achieved their goal of showcasing their ability to cross the border without being detected.

Another scenario would see India stand its ground. This is not 1962, where the Indian army was caught unprepared by the Chinese attack. The Indian military has gone through vast improvements in technology, and have developed skills in mountain warfare supported by reliable supply chains that support the Indian troop presence in Doklam.

In November 2016, the Indian Air force successfully landed the C-17 Globemaster in Mechuka, Arunachal Pradesh — this airlift capability augments the faster deployment of Indian troops to the border during conflict. Consequently, India should be able to rapidly send troops to Sikkim and maintain a reliable supply chain to the 350 Indian armed personnel stationed at Doklam. China, realising that India is unswervingly committed to the pre-June status quo in Doklam, might agree to meet Indian senior officials to defuse the crisis, without pre-conditions.

The third option sees Bhutan seeking to distance itself from India. Hoping to resolve its boundary dispute with China after 24 rounds of talks, Bhutan is clearly unhappy with what appears to be an escalating crisis between China and India over territory it claims.

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The official Bhutanese posture is to ask China to maintain the pre-June 2017 status quo and there are Bhutanese voices expressing fear that the cities of Thimphu and Paro will be within Chinese artillery range if Doklam is occupied by China. Yet Bhutanese writers like Wangcha Sangey argue that India should withdraw from Bhutan and let Bhutanese troops replace the Indians at Doklam. Sangey claims that India’s aim is to maintain Bhutan as a pro-India buffer while contending that times have changed and that Bhutan should be allowed its own independent voice based on its own national interest.

All three scenarios are plausible. The unfolding of the first scenario would mean that India would seek US help by way of defence transfer and intelligence sharing to limit such an occurrence in the future. This would not be in China’s favour, as it would strengthen US-India strategic alignment in regards to China.

The second scenario would mean that for the first time since the 1969 border crisis with the Soviet Union, China is seriously faced with the prospect of war with another great power. Consequently, China might opt for de-escalation when met with steadfastness on India’s part.

The third scenario is interesting for several reasons.

While some Bhutanese voices wish to downplay India’s presence within its borders, the Indian Military Training Team in Bhutan is responsible for the training of Bhutanese forces. Bhutan has held a special relationship with India since 1949, yet in this crisis, with Bhutan having shifted from absolute monarchy to democratic rule in 2008, public opinion about India’s role is important.

The mixed reactions indicate a strategic dilemma for Bhutan. Many want to maintain the special relationship with India, yet there are calls within Bhutan for a more independent foreign policy, and a greater say regarding its border dispute with China. Some would like to see Bhutan forge a stronger economic relationship with China, with the potential growth in tourism a major economic motivator. Unlike Indian tourists, who do not require a visa, Chinese tourists pay US$250 a day to visit Bhutan — a potentially large source of revenue.

Indeed, with its actions at Doklam, China may be compelling Bhutan to think seriously about what it wants for its future.

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