Editor’s Note: This is the fifth installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a new series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competition — military, economic, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series.
Two nuclear-armed powers have stepped back from the brink — for now. Yesterday India and China announced they had agreed to end a two-month border confrontation, in which a few hundred troops had faced off in the Doklam area claimed by both China and Bhutan, and many thousands more had been placed on heightened alert. The immediate crisis seems to be over, but it offers tantalizing insights into Chinese coercive strategies and how they may be thwarted. This has implications not only for India in its own land border disputes, but also for several Southeast Asian nations and the United States, as they all confront China’s attempts to expand its control and influence.
Background: The Standoff at Doklam
China had every reason to believe that a short stretch of new road, high in the remote Himalayas, would reinforce its claims on the “tri-junction” where the borders of China, Bhutan, and India meet. In mid-June, Chinese military road crews began to extend a road in an area known as Doklam, disputed by China and Bhutan. The road had been built into the disputed territory as early as 2003, and PLA troops had often conducted foot patrols in the area of the proposed road extension. But China knew the area was disputed, and had acknowledged as much in agreements with Bhutan in 1988 and 1998, and with India in 2012. Extending the road would be a relatively cheap and clear way for Beijing to advance its claims in the dispute. (The details of the competing territorial claims have been ably covered, including here at War on the Rocks.)
Almost immediately after the road crews began their work, however, they were surprised by an Indian Army intervention. Indian troops entered the disputed territory, with at least the tacit consent of Bhutan, and physically impeded the construction of the road. India saw the Chinese encroachment as a threat to its security and its regional influence — it historically regarded Bhutan as a pliant buffer and remains its security guarantor today, even as their alignment has loosened in the past decade. New Delhi denounced the Chinese road building as an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in contravention of the 2012 agreement.
Monday’s agreement to end the standoff returns to the situation to the status quo ante, exactly as India and Bhutan demanded. Troops from both sides have disengaged, and China claims it will continue patrolling and asserting its sovereignty claims. The official statements are vague on some details, presumably to save face among their respective publics. Most importantly, the statements only imply — rather than saying outright — that China will abandon the road construction that triggered the crisis. Beijing seems to have blinked. What explains this setback for Chinese policy?
China’s Coercion Playbook
China used the same playbook in Doklam as it has in other territorial disputes, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. This playbook usually involves four elements. The first step is to develop a larger or more permanent physical presence in areas where China has already has a degree of de facto control — whether that means new islands in the South China Sea or roads in the Himalayas. Using its military to build infrastructure in the Doklam area was likely an attempt to consolidate China’s control along its southwestern border, including this disputed area where it has patrolled for some time.
This consolidation usually goes hand-in-hand with the second element, coercive diplomacy. Here, China couples its threats or limited military action with diplomatic efforts designed to persuade the target state to change its policies or behavior. The strategy is to put the onus on the other side, often in a weaker position militarily, to risk confrontation over these gradual changes to the status quo. The goal is to ensure the target country does not counter China’s consolidation attempts, and ideally to compel them to engage in bilateral negotiations. It is in such talks that China can then leverage its stronger physical position to secure a favorable settlement.
China has used this model of coercive diplomacy not only against weaker claimants in the South China Sea, but also against the United States. In the 2009 U.S. Naval Ship Impeccable incident, for example, it used coercive diplomacy and other elements of its playbook against U.S. maritime surveillance operations. The Doklam case carried the added enticing prospect of opening new channels of diplomatic communication — and influence — with Bhutan, with which China currently lacks formal diplomatic relations.
Third, China uses legal rhetoric and principles to present its position as legitimate and lawful, thereby staking a claim to a broader legitimizing principle in territorial disputes. In the case of Doklam, China portrayed the Indian response as a violation of Chinese sovereignty — it claimed Indian troops entered Chinese territory through the Sikkim sector of the Sino-Indian border and had been “obstructing Chinese border troop activities.” China declared its road construction was entirely lawful, designed to improve infrastructure for the local people and border patrols. China’s policy position was that the border was delimited in 1890, formally reaffirmed several times since, and reinforced by the routine presence of Chinese troops and herders. Its legal argument thus rested in part on the first element of the playbook: the physical presence that it sought to make permanent with the road at Doklam.
Lastly, China leverages its government-controlled media to highlight its narrative and issue threats. These tend to involve warnings about not underestimating Chinese resolve and the Chinese people’s determination to protect their sovereignty just because China has restrained itself so far. The Chinese media was replete with such articles, warning India, for example, not to “play with fire” lest it “get burned.” They cautioned the Indian government not to be driven by nationalism and arrogance, to avoid miscalculation and repeating the mistakes of the 1962 war. This is not just a war of words; research shows that escalating threats in the media can be a precursor to China’s use of force.
While other countries may also seek to impose a territorial fait accompli — such as Russia in Ukraine — China always follows its multi-pronged playbook. It consistently demonstrates a preference for ambiguity, risk manipulation and controlling the narrative to win without fighting. Any use of coercion — which involves threats and use of force — carries the risk of escalation to conflict, even if China has previously managed to resolve most of its disputes without war. How China advances its claims in South and East Asia will determine whether those regions remain peaceful and stable.
Thwarting Coercion With Denial
China’s playbook, however, did not go according to plan this time, because it did not account for India’s unexpectedly swift and assertive response to its road-building. India did not simply voice displeasure or threaten to punish China if it continued to pursue its territorial claims as the United States and Southeast Asian countries have done in the South China Sea. In those cases, China used its coercive playbook effectively, forcing its adversaries to either back down or raise the ante. And as China’s uncontested gains have shown, its adversaries have generally lacked the capabilities, and especially the political resolve, to escalate crises.
But in this situation, India thwarted China’s coercion through denial — blocking China’s attempt to seize physical control of the disputed territory. By physically denying China’s bid to change the status quo, India created a stalemate, which suited its strategic policy. It did not acquiesce to a Chinese fait accompli, and it did not have to summon the capabilities or resolve to reverse China’s position, which would have risked a general war. India was able to do this because of a local military advantage and its broader policy of standing up to China. As a result, China did not have the option of proceeding under the guise of peaceful legitimate development, per its playbook; pressing its claims on Doklam would have required it to ratchet up military pressure. The stalemate thwarted Chinese coercion — but as long as it lasted, it was pregnant with risks of escalation and conflict.
Disengagement, But Dangers Persist
The immediate risks of conflict have receded, but the border dispute remains unresolved, and the broader Sino-Indian relationship remains fraught. First, on Doklam, while China has backed down for now, its statement that “China will continue fulfilling its sovereign rights to safeguard territorial sovereignty in compliance with the stipulations of the border-related historical treaty” suggests it has not changed its position on the border tri-junction. Indeed, during the standoff, China reportedly offered financial inducements to cleave Bhutan away from its traditional relationship with India — it has other ways, and continued ambitions, to press its claims.
Second, the India-China relationship remains tense, and prone to military risk, especially if China seeks to reassert itself after a perceived slight at Doklam. This could include an incursion somewhere along the India-China Line of Actual Control — indeed, such actions have already been reported. Or China might pursue a “cross-domain” response, for example with punitive cyber attacks or threatening activity in the Indian Ocean.
Third, over the longer term, India should be wary of learning the wrong lessons from the crisis. As one of us has recently written, India has long been preoccupied with the threat of Chinese (and Pakistani) aggression on their common land border. The Doklam standoff may be remembered as even more reason for India to pour more resources into defending its land borders, at the expense of building capabilities and influence in the wider Indian Ocean region. That would only play into China’s hands. Renewed Indian concerns about its land borders will only retard its emergence as an assertive and influential regional power.
The Lessons of Doklam
With the crisis only just being de-escalated, it is too early to derive definitive lessons from Doklam. However, a few policy implications are already apparent. First, Chinese behavior in territorial disputes is more likely to be deterred by denial than by threats of punishment. China will continue the combination of consolidating its physical presence and engaging in coercive diplomacy, lawfare, and media campaigns unless it is stopped directly. This is what India did at Doklam — it directly blocked Chinese efforts to change the status quo. Denial in other areas would require different military tasks — for example, in the Indian Ocean, it may involve anti-submarine warfare and maritime domain awareness.
Second, denial strategies may be effective, but they have their limitations. Denial is inherently risky. Countering China’s playbook involves risks of escalation — which most smaller adversaries, and at times even the United States, are unwilling to accept. Moreover, denial strategies can only serve to halt adversary action, not to reverse what the adversary has already done. As Doklam shows, India could convince China not to proceed with its road-building — but China did not relinquish its claims or its established pattern of presence in the area. Denial by itself offers no pathway to politically resolving the crisis.
Third, the agreement to disengage suggests that Beijing’s position in crises can be flexible, and perhaps responsive to assertive counter-coercion. Domestic audiences, even those in autocracies, often prefer sound judgment to recklessly staying the course. If the Doklam standoff had escalated to a shooting war, anything short of a decisive victory might have put Xi Jinping in an unfavorable position at the 19th Party Congress and hurt the PLA’s image with the Chinese people. But short of that, the Chinese government was always in the position to sell Doklam as a non-event, something the decreasing domestic media coverage suggests it was preparing to do. Beijing will frame the disengagement agreement as further proof of Chinese strength, especially relative to India. As the stronger power, China could magnanimously agree to a mutual disengagement for now while reserving the right to move forward when it sees fit.
Finally, the Doklam agreement, even if it is temporary, tells us that when China confronts a significantly weaker target, such as Bhutan, it will only be deterred by the actions of a stronger third party — in this case, India. Had India not acted, China would likely have been successful in consolidating its control and extracting territorial concessions from Bhutan. Third-party involvement may not be as easy in other cases — India had a privileged position in Bhutan. Such a strategy may also have significant second-order effects. In the near term, it is potentially escalatory — China argued that India has no basis for interfering in this bilateral dispute, and had many options for escalating the crisis at a time and place of its choosing. More broadly, such third-party involvement could intensify geopolitical competition between China and other powers such as the U.S. or India, if they intercede in other countries’ disputes with China. The lesson of Doklam for the United States is that arming small states and imposing incremental costs may not be enough. Washington may have to accept the greater risks associated with intervening more directly if it hopes to counter Chinese expansion in East Asia.
Oriana Skylar Mastro is an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University. She can be contacted through her website: www.orianaskylarmastro.com. Arzan Tarapore is an adjunct researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, and a PhD candidate at King’s College London.
Image: Abhimanyu Arora, CC