Bhutanese Territorial Dispute Highlights Underlying Tensions Between India and China

While India and China have consistently fought for regional supremacy in Asia after emerging as international powers, the latest territorial dispute over the Doklam region in Bhutan highlights a dangerous escalation of tensions. In mid-June, the Chinese military moved construction crews and road-building equipment into Doklam, which Bhutan considers to be within its borders. India became involved after its Bhutanese allies requested assistance, and there are currently approximately 3,000 troops from the three nations currently stationed in the area.

India’s involvement is unsurprising, considering the Ministry of External Affairs’ unofficial policy that, “any attack on Bhutanese sovereignty will be considered as an attack on India.” However, the situation is complex, because the two sides have varying interpretations on where the three-way border lies. The Chinese foreign ministry argued that Doklam was indisputably Chinese, and that “the area where the construction activities are underway is totally under the jurisdiction of China because it is completely located on the Chinese side of the China-Bhutan traditional customary line.” However, both the Bhutanese and Indian governments released official statements claiming that the territory unquestionably belonged to Bhutan, and that China was aggressively attempting to change the status quo of the borders between the countries.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that Doklam is a highly important strategic area for both China and India. As Ajai Shukla noted, potential Chinese control of Doklam might leave the Siliguri corridor – the narrow “chicken neck” of land connecting India’s seven northeastern states to the rest of the country – highly vulnerable to potential attack. Such a situation is unacceptable for the Indian government, as it could not risk being cut off from Sikkim and other valuable states. Similarly, China believes its Chumbi Valley territory is vulnerable to a hypothetical attack by India, and that by advancing further south toward Mount Gipmochi, it could augment its defensive position. Therefore, the Bhutan issue is a proxy dispute for both India and China to enhance their own security.

Interestingly, both India and China make reasonable arguments regarding where they believe Doklam belongs to justify their strategic interests in the area. In 2012, Chinese and Indian officials reached an agreement that meetings over any tri-junction border dispute between them and a third party must include representatives from all three states. Under this interpretation, China’s incursion into Doklam is invalid, because it was a unilateral action that did not take India or Bhutan into account.

The Chinese argument takes on a more historic tone, claiming that Doklam is a Chinese pastoral homeland, and belongs to China based on the borders drawn by the 1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention Relating to Sikkim and Tibet. In fact, in a 1959 letter to Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, Indian national hero Jawaharlal Nehru seemingly agreed with Chinese claims, and referenced the 1890 agreement as the rightful border between the three countries. In the past, China implemented similar historically based arguments when justifying its claims on the Tawang region in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, stating the area had unbreakable bonds with Tibet. While China’s argument is weaker due to arcane nature of the century-old agreement, dubiousness of its historic claims, and 2012 reaffirmation of the existing borders, the plausibility of both arguments has stoked tensions on both sides.

Rhetoric from both Chinese and Indian officials has been divisive, as both sides appear unwilling to concede any ground on the issue. Indian army chief Bipin Rawat stated that, “the Indian Army is completely read for a two-and-a-half front war” – all but saying India was prepared for war with China. On the other side, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang not so subtly called out India, saying, “any third party must not and does not have the right to interfere [in Doklam].” In fact, Chinese officials responded directly to Rawat’s aggressive comment, taunting Indian officials to remember the “lessons of history,” referring to the 1962 border war in which China occupied significant swathes of Indian land before retreating. While the odds of direct conflict in Doklam are low, such charged rhetoric from both sides is clearly very concerning.

As stated earlier, the Bhutanese border conflict is emblematic of a larger Chinese pattern of provoking territorial and regional disputes on its path to become a hegemonic power in Asia. Indian officials have been skeptical of Chinese regional connectivity initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), believing they are geopolitical moves designed to constrict India. Such opposition was evident this May, when India boycotted the Belt and Road Forum on the grounds that CPEC’s path through Kashmir threatened Indian sovereignty. Additionally, international observers have expressed concern regarding Chinese provocations in the South China Sea, which have sought to assert Chinese sovereignty over the area and its 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Faced with so many examples of aggressive Chinese foreign policy, India must act decisively in assuring that the Bhutanese regional dispute is solved quickly and peacefully. Indian officials are well aware of the fact that conceding Doklam would be viewed as a sign of weakness, and further encourage China to provoke more territorial disputes in the region. While it is unlikely that the dispute in Doklam will escalate into violent conflict, demonstrating resolve is instrumental in signaling to China that India cannot be pushed around in the region. Therefore, India must remain steadfast in its support of its Bhutanese neighbors, and do everything in its power to make sure that the Doklam situation is settled swiftly in favor of Bhutan.