India and China in Doklam Plateau Conflict: Causes and Possible Consequences

A month-long Indian-Chinese war of words over the Doklam Plateau border conflict turned into a hot war in mid-July ,if we are to believe Pakistani media, which reported that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fired rockets at Indian army positions in Bhutan causing numerous casualties among servicemen. Short-lived though it was, this Pakistani media canard created a surge of panic. What aims are being pursued by the participants? How great is the risk of the conflict escalating into a real hot war? What role can information warfare by all sides play in this?

The recent turn of events in the conflict over the Doklam Plateau, to which Bhutan and China have a claim, began on June 16, when Chinese army engineers started building a motor road across the disputed territory. The Chinese claim that the Indian foreign ministry (Bhutan and the China do not maintain diplomatic relations) was notified of the project well in advance but chose to disregard the notice. On June 18, Indian border units crossed a demarcated section of the border in the Sikkim sector and pushed the Chinese out of the disputed area in the course of a brief unarmed incident (both sides used wrestling techniques). The project was suspended. On June 30, Chinese Foreign Ministry press secretary Geng Shuang went on record as saying that the site of the prospective road was controlled by the Chinese military and the construction had resumed. But judging by satellite photographs, there is no work in progress at the moment.

Each side called up a brigade-strength force to the disputed area and India redeployed additional units to the State of Sikkim. The crisis came to a head on July 17, when China launched full-scale military exercises in the disputed area. Previously regarded as a sufficiently reliable source, the Pakistani Dunya News agency reported that the PLA had fired rockets and artillery shells at military facilities in India, allegedly killing 158 Indian soldiers and injuring several more. The report was illustrated by photographs of burning Indian trucks and a dead soldier. A denial followed only half an hour later, when it was established that the photographs showed the effects of a Pakistani artillery attack on an Indian border post in Kashmir that killed two people, including one military officer. Chinese and Indian official refutations came in only several hours later. In all evidence, the sides needed this time to check out the report. After the incident, the rhetoric on both sides abruptly became more peaceful. Both sides rejected their opponent’s sovereignty over the disputed territory but emphasized that the conflict could not be settled by military means.

Let us analyze the aims and objectives of those involved in the conflict. Bhutan wants to impose full control over the Doklam Plateau but is unable to do so on its own. Because of the local natural and geographical conditions, it makes no sense to deploy a garrison. Doklam is an uninhabited area used mostly for seasonal cattle grazing. Surveillance posts as bases for regular patrols are the only possible form of military presence there. The Bhutanese authorities fear that the road will enable China not only to consolidate its sovereignty over the disputed area but also, if need be, to redeploy additional forces to Camp Jompkheri, the Bhutanese army base.

China regards the plateau as part of its national territory. Its first regular posts in Doklam were established in 2007, when the PLA pulled down two temporary surveillance posts of the Bhutanese army and built a permanent post of its own. China’s current tough stance is explained by the belief that the Indian force has deliberately violated a demarcated section of the China-Bhutan border, which in fact amounts to an invasion in Chinese territory. What remains unclear is the project notification that was purportedly delivered by the Chinese embassy in New Delhi two weeks before the construction began. If this really happened, Beijing could consider the Indian military intervention as an exceptionally hostile response to a goodwill gesture.

India actually maintains a patron-client relationship with Bhutan. Under their 1949 friendship treaty, New Delhi is in charge of the kingdom’s defense and foreign policies. In 2007, the treaty was revised, with Bhutan acquiring greater autonomy. Nevertheless, India retains its commitments to the kingdom. Any failure to live up to them would be a blow to New Delhi’s prestige and signal its renunciation of claims to regional leadership. Conversely, its firm stance in this matter and defense of Bhutanese interests by diplomatic and, if necessary, military means will strengthen India’s prestige and confidence in it on the part of Bangladesh, Nepal, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

But Bhutan is only part of the story. The road project will increase transport connectivity on the Chinese side of the border and provide the PLA with additional opportunities for redeployment towards Indian-owned Siliguri corridor also known as Chicken’s Throat or Chicken’s Neck, a critically important strip of land linking India’s main landmass with its eastern states. In a full-scale conflict, it will take Chinese forces a few hours to cut off this region from India.

Moreover, New Delhi regards the active Chinese moves as a breach of the status quo, which, given numerous territorial disputes between China and India, is a matter of grave concern for the Indian leadership. Finally, we should not ignore certain revanchist sentiments currently at work in the New Delhi military and political circles that would like to gloss over India’s defeat in the 1962 war.

Having a vested interest in maximally fanning the conflict between hostile India and allied China, Pakistan is conducting an information war of its own, of which the said Dunya News report is an example. This move owes much of its success to secrecy, in which both India and China shrouded the Doklam issue.

To be sure, Pakistan is not the only side to conduct information warfare. Since the start of the conflict, the Indian press, for example, has been actively discussing the likelihood and prospects of a war against China, with the majority of publications glowing with optimism and estimating the chances of a victory as high. In response, the Renmin Ribao website posted rare photographs of the 1962 war that culminated in defeat for the Indian forces. For their part, the Indian media played up the Cho La incident in 1967, when, according to the Indian statistics, 88 Indian and 340 Chinese soldiers died (the Chinese estimate the losses at 101 and 32, respectively).

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If India did not do anything, then the traditional allies of its sphere of influence might think that India is a weak country, unable to fulfill its obligations, and the host of the situation is now China.

So, how great are the chances that the conflict will further escalate and grow into a full-scale war?

Clearly, neither side originally saw the surge of tensions in the Doklam area as a serious conflict likely to lead to a large-scale war, as supported by the comparatively small number of troops redeployed to the locality in question and the lack of reports of additional reciprocal deployments on the disputed sections of the border (Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh). An indirect sign is the dramatic change in tone of both sides’ statements after the Dunya News incident.

It is also telling that at the height of the confrontation in late June, India was visited by a delegation of the Assembly of People’s Representatives of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and a delegation of the Guizhou Province led by Governor Sun Zhigang, which held talks with Indian politicians and entrepreneurs and signed a number of economic agreements. 

China is unlikely to disrupt the status quo any time soon. Indian and Bhutanese forces hold the dominant positions in Doklam and any attempt to dislodge them will inevitably lead to a bloody conflict that both sides, as mentioned above, are keen to avoid.

It should be expected that the likelihood of an armed conflict will be finally removed during the visit to Beijing by India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, which is scheduled for July 27−28. Doval will attend a meeting with his BRICS counterparts and might discuss crisis settlement with the Chinese authorities.

It is unlikely, however, that the Doklam issue will be settled in the foreseeable future. Neither Bhutan, nor China is going to renounce their claim to the plateau. Besides, India cannot allow the Chinese road project to continue, whereas China’s precondition for talks is Indian withdrawal from the plateau, which is unacceptable for New Delhi at this stage. 

Alexei Kupriyanov, PhD History, is research fellow, Sector of International Organizations and Global Political Regulation, Department of International Political Problems, Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences.             
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.