‘Explaining the India-China Standoff at Doklam: Causes and Implications’, Aakrosh, Vol. 20, No. 77, October 2017, pp. 60-76.
In mid-June 2017, India and China began a long standoff in the Doklam area of Bhutan that came to an end only in late August. The crisis originated when a Chinese road-building party moved into an area that was part of a dispute with Bhutan, an activity that the Indian side deemed was an attempt to change the status quo in an area uncomfortably close to the sensitive ‘Chicken’s neck’ corridor connecting mainland India with Northeast India. As long as the area – part of the trilateral meeting point of the borders between Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan – only saw grazers or the occasional patrol party from China and Bhutan visiting, there really was no major cause for concern. But the Indians refused to countenance permanent Chinese construction in the area and on apparent request from their Bhutanese counterparts moved to physcially block the Chinese from continuing with their activity. The Chinese were clearly surprised, not expecting the Indians to intervene so decisively on the side of the Bhutanese in territory that after all did not belong to India and was the subject of another bilateral dispute altogether. The Chinese reactions in turn were a cause of much surprise for the Indians – the Chinese Foreign Ministry and state-run media began a campaign of vociferous protests and open threats quite unlike usual Chinese practice of either ignoring Indian reports of Chinese transgressions or of giving pro forma responses. In the Doklam case however, there were repeated Chinese calls to India to ‘immediately pull back’ Indian troops to their side of the boundary. The Chinese kept stressing for a long time that this was ‘the precondition for any meaningful talks between the two sides aiming at resolving the issue’. Chinese rhetoric constantly suggested that India not doubt China’s demand for Indian troop withdrawal or that it would do what it took to have India out of ‘Chinese territory’, even suggesting ‘a military response may become inevitable’. The Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was, for instance, targeted by name in several Global Times editorials or op-eds. In the end, the Indians stood their ground and the Chinese had to climb down but there are important considerations for India from the entire episode and the way the vehement Chinese criticism of India through the incident and after.