Doklam, One Year Later: China’s Long Game in the Himalayas
Editor’s Note: This is the 21st installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a 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.
For 73 days last year, the world watched as Chinese and Indian forces faced off in a remote stretch of the Himalayas. The problem started in June when Chinese army engineers attempted to build a road through the Doklam plateau, claimed by both China and Bhutan. Following “coordination” with Bhutanese authorities, Indian soldiers based just across the border intervened and literally stopped the Chinese crews in their tracks. After weeks of negotiations, Delhi and Beijing agreed to withdraw their troops to their original positions; China “blinked” because it had to abandon the project. Since then, however, China has quietly deployed troops and built new infrastructure in the area, slowly but steadily gaining advantage in the contested region. As the first anniversary of the crisis approaches, neither India nor Bhutan have stepped in to block these activities.
Rather than offering lessons in deterrence, recent events in Doklam illustrate the complexities of convincing China to curb its territorial ambitions. In particular, India’s so-called “reset” with China in the months since the August 2017 settlement should raise doubts about its willingness to stand up to China and ability to be a net security provider as it faces increasing challenges to its role and influence in its Southern Asian neighborhood. India’s muted response also raises questions about the resolve of other major powers, including the United States, to intervene in a future Doklam-like situation in which their own sovereignty is not at stake.
For China, building roads through the rugged 14,000-foot Doklam plateau serves two major strategic purposes. First, a road network would support a more entrenched Chinese presence in the region. This would allow China to hand Bhutan a fait accompli in the territorial dispute, ending years of inconclusive border talks. Second, new infrastructure would allow Chinese troops to access a key ridge overlooking the Siliguri corridor. Also known as the “Chicken’s Neck,” the corridor is a narrow stretch of land that connects India’s northeastern states with the rest of the country. Chinese forces could use their positions on higher ground to collect intelligence on Indian military positions and, in a conflict, even threaten Indian supply routes.
China may have backed down last year because local PLA units were caught off guard by India’s rapid response and because Xi Jinping did not wish to face a diplomatic fiasco months before his leadership tenure was to be renewed at the 19th Party Congress. Nevertheless, since the crisis ended, China has quietly maintained, and in some ways deepened, its presence in and around Doklam. In late August, just after the standoff was resolved, a Chinese defense ministry spokesman stated that the PLA would increase patrols in Doklam to “resolutely safeguard” the country’s sovereignty claims. In December, Indian media reported that China had continued to deploy roughly 1600 troops, about the size of an army regiment, in the contested area. These were reportedly supplemented by an increase in the number of advanced PLA fixed-wing and rotary aircraft based across the border in Tibet. In January, India’s Army Chief General Bipin Rawat confirmed that the PLA had remained over the winter and “carried out some infrastructure development,” though Delhi rejected the assertions of some hawkish Indian analysts that China had undertaken a more significant military buildup. In March, Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman noted that PLA forces had built “sentry posts, trenches, and helipads” designed to facilitate year-round deployments. In short, China’s tactical withdrawal during the crisis did not imply abandonment of its larger objectives to resolve the dispute on favorable terms and gain military advantage vis-à-vis India.
India’s Mixed Motives and Responses
China can pursue its “long game” in the Himalayas because India, for both military and diplomatic reasons, hasn’t pushed back hard. Militarily, Indian officials are generally wary about recent developments but do not perceive an imminent threat. While the road under construction last summer came within around 60 meters of India’s outpost at Doka La, China’s more recent construction has taken place farther away and on lower ground. This is both of lesser tactical concern for the Indian military and would pose greater difficulties for a potential Chinese intervention as Indian troops would have to operate farther from their fortified positions and across difficult terrain. India has also increased deployments of advanced fighter jets at air bases in and around the Siliguri corridor. This is part of its broader capacity-building efforts not related to the Doklam issue, but the jets could be used to defend Indian territory if PLA units threatened to seize and occupy higher ground. Exuding confidence in the Indian Army’s ability to counter Chinese threats, Rawat stated in February that the situation is “absolutely fine. There is nothing to worry.”
Diplomatically, Delhi has sought stability in relations with Beijing since last year’s crisis. This has resulted in a number of high level visits, culminating in April with the Modi-Xi “Informal Summit” which stressed, in addition to traditional bilateral issues, “wider and overlapping regional and global interests.” Delhi has also taken steps to defuse potential crises such as a late 2017 incident involving an Indian unmanned aerial vehicle straying across the Line of Actual Control, and has been sensitive to Beijing’s concerns on Tibet.
India’s focus on stability reflects a number of interrelated calculations. First, India’s primary priority vis-à-vis China both before and after the crisis has been to prevent differences from becoming disputes. India’s overriding concern is to address the whopping trade deficit with China, which was approximately $51 billion in 2017. It is no coincidence that the top-ranking Chinese official to visit India in recent months was the Commerce Minister. Second, India’s next national elections are scheduled for 2019. Prime Minister Narendra Modi likely sees more political benefit in being seen as a global statesman leading a country in high demand and dealing with both the U.S. and Chinese presidents on India’s terms — as he laid out in the keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this week, — than in fomenting conflict with China.
Finally, India’s political establishment is treading cautiously on China because it has no consensus on how to handle China and how close to be with America. Policymakers in Washington should not read India’s friendly gestures toward the United States as a necessarily hawkish stance toward China — thus far, Delhi has chosen to “tilt” towards Washington less out of a desire to counter Beijing than as part of a push for strategic autonomy. At Shangri-La, Modi reiterated “the need for a strong multipolar world” while pointedly discussing New Delhi’s relations with Russia, the United States, and China. India’s China concerns are real and justified, but it also has historically been adroit in using the “China card” in relations with the United States. For instance, Delhi cited Beijing as a main reason for its 1998 nuclear tests in a calculated and successful effort to blunt U.S. pressures. In a tense international environment in which its main partner had largely abandoned it, India still maintained its commitment to strategic autonomy. Today, India’s position in international affairs is far less vulnerable — and hence, its interest in multipolarity and strategic autonomy has increased. Indian doubts about American reliability and dependability, always lurking in the background, are on the upsurge again.
Even if India had the will to actively resist China’s latest incursions, it is not at all clear that Bhutan would have tolerated a return of Indian troops in Doklam. Although the small South Asian country remains largely within India’s strategic orbit, it has sought greater autonomy over its foreign and defense affairs in recent years, as codified in a revised 2007 treaty with India. Bhutan’s difficult position was on display during the crisis when it did not explicitly request Indian assistance and issued statements highlighting the bilateral nature of the dispute. (Some have argued that Bhutan actively sought India’s help, but there is no evidence of this, and the argument seems to be largely a rationalization for India’s military actions.) Bhutan’s calculus is further complicated by rising Chinese influence, which has grown through cultural exchanges and tourism. Many in Bhutan prefer to reach a territorial settlement to maintain cordial ties with China, with further talks scheduled for later this year.
Indian officials were under no illusions that intervention in last year’s crisis would permanently dissuade China from further adventurism. Nevertheless, for a brief period, some U.S. and other foreign observers were cautiously optimistic that the Doklam standoff could impart lessons on how to stall China’s territorial ambitions and assertive military actions. In the words of one analyst, “firmness on the ground,” combined with effective diplomacy, could offer a “new template for handling Chinese coercion.” Less capable countries, such as Bhutan, might coordinate with a major power to obstruct China’s infrastructure projects or military deployments. Perhaps the United States, for instance, could join forces with Vietnam or the Philippines to deny China the ability to expand its military outposts in the South China Sea.
Nevertheless, post-Doklam developments illustrate two key limits on these approaches. First, China has demonstrated its mastery in managing crises in a way that avoids stronger international backlashes. By contrast, Russia has been far more brazen in its territorial incursions in Crimea and Ukraine, demonstrating little concern for international opprobrium. Rather than escalating the Doklam dispute, which may have forced India to respond more aggressively and galvanized the United States or others to step up in support, China shrewdly backed off and resumed its activities only when the international media glare had subsided, and in a way that minimized India’s concern about losing the high ground. This fits China’s preferred mode of operations, marked by tactical flexibility and willingness to advance its goals on a piecemeal basis. China has used such “salami-slicing” tactics successfully in the South China Sea over the past five years. Events in Doklam show that these tactics can also be effective on land.
Second, Bhutan’s and India’s responses represent the complicated calculations of China’s neighbors. Smaller states may not only lack the capability to resist Chinese military incursions, but also be unwilling to sacrifice lucrative trade and investment relations. This is a reality faced by many Asian states — witness Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s subordination of his country’s territorial claims in the South China Sea to its cultivation of China as an economic partner. Heavy dependence on Chinese infrastructure funding — which has been in abundance as part of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative — may also force difficult choices on smaller nations balancing their development ambitions with the challenge of financing new infrastructure. A recent example is Sri Lanka’s decision to grant China a 99-year lease over a critical port following years of increasing and unserviceable debt.
The more surprising takeaway from recent events in Doklam, however, is the limited willingness of major countries to oppose Chinese adventurism. India might have undertaken a number of responses in the face of China’s creeping and persistent efforts to improve its position in the Doklam region. In addition to deploying troops into the contested region, it could have brought more public pressure to bear against ongoing Chinese activities by raising the issue in multilateral fora such as the recent Shangri-La Dialogue or by coordinating critical statements with the United States or other partners. Instead, Delhi has trumpeted its reset with Beijing — which is misnamed since it represents the default Indian approach of managing deep differences with China. India’s initial Doklam response was actually the true reset.
Other larger powers may also limit their responses to future Chinese “salami-slicing” moves — especially when their own sovereignty is not at stake. We’ve seen this dynamic before: the Obama administration in particular was faulted for carrying out a risk averse strategy in the South China Sea that did not deter China from unilaterally changing the territorial status quo. The Trump administration has outlined a more competitive strategy towards China and recently signaled its dissatisfaction with China’s militarization of South China Sea islands by disinviting the PLA navy from the upcoming multilateral Rim of the Pacific exercise. Still, it is far from clear that Trump, who has focused on domestic economic growth and wooed China’s cooperation on North Korea, would be willing to intervene in a case like Doklam. Without evidence of resolve by Delhi, Washington, and their partners to resist Beijing’s encroachments on land or at sea, the realization of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” will remain in doubt.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the amount of India’s trade deficit with China in 2017. The correct figure is $51 billion, not $84 billion.
Joel Wuthnow is a research fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University. Satu Limaye is director of the East-West Center in Washington. Nilanthi Samaranayake is a strategic studies analyst at CNA in Arlington, VA. They are co-authors of a forthcoming volume on hydropolitics in the Brahmaputra river basin between China, India, and Bangladesh (Marine Corps University Press). This piece reflects their own views and not those of their respective organizations, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.