India, China Stare Each Other Down over Bhutan

The ongoing controversy since June between the Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in Doka La, near the strategic tri-junction of China, India and Bhutan has brought to a boil the geopolitical tensions between neighbors China and India.

The episode was triggered when China began building a road along the sensitive Doklam plateau on the Bhutan-Tibet border, which China claims as its own, without informing Thimphu. Delhi rushed troops to the sensitive spot to stall the PLA's road construction, inviting Beijing's ire.

The latter accused India of "interference" alleging that it was the Indian soldiers who crossed the boundary into China to interfere with their construction. Beijing also refused access to Indian pilgrims on their way to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet from the Nathu-la border. India said China had contravened a 2012 agreement which stated that "the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalized in consultation with the concerned countries."

The flare up worsened when China bulldozed an old Indian Army bunker army at the junction. The Indian army had refused to remove the structure after being asked to do so by China. The stand-off has triggered one of the worst crises in bilateral relations since a flare-up along the 4,057- km Line of Actual Control in 2013. The State-run Global Times has urged Beijing to “teach New Delhi a bitter lesson” stronger than the brief but bitter war of 1962, which India lost.

Referring to comments made by Indian Defence Minister Arun Jaitley that the India of 2017 was not the India of 1962, the editorial said: “If New Delhi believes that its military might can be used as leverage in the Donglang area [Doklam], and it’s ready for a 2½ front war, we have to tell India that the Chinese look down on their military power.” It went on to add: “Jaitley is right that the India of 2017 is different from that of 1962 – India will suffer greater losses than in 1962 if it incites conflict.”

Defense analysts say the Chinese publication's stridency in criticizing India as a “third party” that is interfering and “disrespecting the sovereignty of Bhutan” demonstrates Beijing's pique at New Delhi’s show of spine to defend the rights of its small, lightly-armed neighbour, sandwiched between China and India.

It also demonstrates Beijing's belief in the divide and rule principle. "China's aim is to create a wedge between India and Bhutan. In 1966, in similar circumstances, for the same disputed place, the Dokham plateau, the Chinese government attempted to convince Delhi that Bhutan did not require India’s support as it was an `independent' country," said a senior foreign ministry bureaucrat.

The current flashpoint also calls attention to face-offs between India and China on the international stage. Beijing blocked New Delhi’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and by supporting Pakistan has pre-empted UN sanctions on jihadists based in Pakistan. China has also been dismissive of India’s repeated protestations that the China Pakistan Economic Corridor from the Arabian Sea to Xinjiang violates its sovereignty as it runs through a part of Kashmir claimed by India. New Delhi retaliated by boycotting the OBOR summit in Beijing in May.

There are several messages coming through the current standoff, analysts say. They feel Beijing's open hostility is premised on New Delhi's greater strategic and economic engagement with the US as a bulwark against a rising and assertive China. The Chinese office bristled at Modi striking new defense deals with the US on his recent visit to the country. The agreement for India to acquire 22 aerial surveillance Guardian drones worth US$2 billion from the US is aimed at improving India’s naval monitoring capabilities in the Indian Ocean and beyond where the PLA Navy has been parading its submarines and aircraft carriers.

China is also unhappy about India's moves to build relations with Russia, Japan, Germany, France, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Israel. These growing synergies and alliances – while increasing Delhi's heft at the geopolitical high table – also effectively neutralize China and Pakistan's Machiavellian game plan to keep India tied down at the border and with internal problems.

What is also bruising the Chinese ego is that the Indian economy is powering ahead of its own. According to latest research by Harvard University’s Center for International, India has emerged as the economic pole of global growth, surpassing China, and is expected to maintain its lead over the coming decade. The report predicts that India will feature on top of the list of the fastest growing economies till 2025 with an average annual growth of 7.7 percent.

“The economic pole of global growth has moved over the past few years from China to neighbouring India, where it is likely to stay over the coming decade,” the center’s report said.

Over the past few years, and especially since India started a nationalist prime minister came to power in 2014, there has been a corresponding escalation in the number of Chinese troop incursions along the Line of Actual Control, spiralling up from 228 in 2010 to 334 by August 2014.

"This pattern fits in with China’s increased assertiveness in Asia since the late 2000s. The country has abandoned its “peaceful rise” approach and adopted one that serves its own interests never mind if it alienates neighbours," explains a senior analyst from a Delhi-based think tank.

By deliberately introducing the risk of military conflict into its relations with Asian countries, China is achieving a three-pronged aim. "It is able to extract actual territorial or strategic concessions, as was evident in the demand in 2013—that India dismantle its bunkers in Chumar in exchange for China withdrawing its troops following an incursion in Depsang," elaborates the analyst. "The strategy also makes any Asian country hesitate to seek US help in a crisis with China for fear of military escalation. And thirdly it intimidates any potential challengers."

Be that as it may, India would do well to create the necessary mechanisms of commitment to deter Chinese adventurism in the region, according to Rohan Mukherjee, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale-NUS College, in the Business Standard. "Upgrading the 2007 India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty to an alliance with a clear and automatic commitment to Bhutan’s defence would serve this purpose. Just as American troops in Western Europe served as a trip-wire for US commitment to the region’s defence during the Cold War, more Indian troops in Bhutan—perhaps even an airbase—would act as both commitment device and means for securing the Chumbi Valley."

Focusing on China's greatest vulnerability: the sea lanes south of the Andaman Islands, can help – albeit only to some degree – to keep the dragon in check. Ultimately, India will need to be devise creative strategic solutions to deter China. "Without its own strategy of active defence in the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean, Delhi will continue to lack the instruments of coercive diplomacy necessary to protect its interests in the face of a rising China," Mukherjee warned.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor & journalist and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel