Border Control in the Himalayas

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The current standoff between Indian and Chinese troops on a remote plateau in the Himalayas is placing renewed attention on the long-running history of border disputes between the two nuclear-armed Asian rivals. The stalemate is taking place on a small patch of land in Bhutan, and is the first time soldiers from China and India have confronted each other in a third country.

Actual fighting between Chinese and Indian troops has not broken out, but there has been jostling, even wrestling between the soldiers. Leaked video footage has shown soldiers from both sides awkwardly shoving their bodies against each other on a grassy field, underscoring what is being called the worst armed dispute in decades between the two countries. The standoff shows the growing ambitions of both countries and also is a reminder of South Asia’s potential for volatility, observers say.

“A Chinese presence in Bhutan actually changes the equation” of India’s relations with China and its other border neighbors, says Nirupama Rao, former foreign secretary for India and a former ambassador to the U.S. for that country.

Adds Michael Kugelman, Asia program deputy director at the Wilson Center, in a note of understatement: “The situation is worrisome and complicated.”

The plateau is in a strategically sensitive area at the junction of the borders of Bhutan, China and India. It overlooks the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow band of Indian territory that Indians refer to as the “Chicken’s Neck.” The corridor is a source of anxiety for New Delhi: A conflict that seizes control of the corridor could cut off 45 million Indians from the rest of the country.

The standoff dates to mid-June, when Bhutan said Chinese soldiers had arrived on the plateau – a patch of land called Donglang by China and Doklam by India – to begin building a road. Beijing has stated that the road work is being carried out on Chinese territory. Bhutan has no formal diplomatic relations with China and relies on India on a number of issues: its security, as well as economic and military aid, and relations with China. Bhutan’s government said Chinese troops were on the kingdom’s territory and soon after, India dispatched soldiers to the plateau to stop the construction. The impasse has existed since.

In a larger sense, however, today’s standoff is the latest flare-up dating from the ambiguity created by agreements made in the colonial era. A pact signed in 1890 by two former empires, the Qing dynasty in China, and British India, led to conflicting interpretations over who owns the plateau. Bhutan believes the agreement places the plateau under its jurisdiction – a stance India supports. Beijing says the agreement locates the land in China. Later, in 1914, a convention between China, the U.K. and Tibet produced the so-called McMahon Line, today’s eastern border between China and India. Beijing has consistently challenged its legal status.