5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

Hostilities in the Himalayas? Assessing the India-China Border Standoff

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Webcast Recap

India and China are embroiled in a tense border standoff in a highly strategic area of the Himalayas known as Doklam in India and Donglong in China. India and its close ally, Bhutan, view this land as Bhutanese territory, while China claims it as its own. The dispute began when Chinese forces attempted to extend a border road, prompting Indian troops to enter the area. While India-China border disputes have occurred frequently in the past, many analysts contend the current standoff is particularly serious. This event assessed the dispute in the broader context of India-China border tensions and bilateral relations, while also considering what the future may hold. Additionally, the event looked at possible implications for Washington and its interests in Asia.

Key Quotes

 

Michael Kugelman

“These border standoffs again are nothing new, but I think there’s reason to fear this one could be a lot more serious than any of previous ones for several reasons. First, overall bilateral relations between India and China are quite tense at the moment. Second, this dispute involves a third country, Bhutan. Third, this plateau is highly strategic real estate to say the least. It leads to the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow area of land that connect North Eastern India to the rest of the country. Fourth, the rhetoric on both side, and notably from the Chinese media, has been noticeably sharp and strident. And fifth, perhaps most importantly, this dispute has set a potentially destabilizing new precedent… This is the first time that Indian troops have engaged China on the soil of a third country.”

Nirupama Rao

“[On Sino-Indian relations]: This was a relationship created in heaven but constructed on Earth. And I am at the moment constrained to say that it’s being deconstructed on the Doklam Plateau.”

“So in many ways I think the history of those troubled decades, the 50s and the 60s, have not been, I think, really rationally understood, properly understood, or profoundly understood in either country. So it’s not just territory that is contested between the two countries, but the histories are also contested.”

“[The Doklam Plateau and Chumbi Valley] is a crucial kind of abutment into Bhutan and Sikkim – Sikkim and Bhutan are at the fringes. And then it looks down southward to what we call the Siliguri Corridor, which Michael also referred to, which we sometimes call the Chicken Neck. And at its shortest, the Siliguri Corridor is even shorter than the distance of a marathon - it’s about 14 miles. And that’s the width of territory that links what some may call “mainland India” to North East India… So you can see the strategic significance of that particular area and that section of territory."

"If China were to consolidate its presence of Doklam and not move out of there, essentially what you have is the pushing southward of the border line between Bhutan and China in that section, and a certain strategic advantage being offered thereby to the Chinese in terms of their ability to overlook the south Siliguri Corridor, with obvious strategic implications for India.”

Robert Daly

“It’s very hard to get reliable information day to day from the area. You will see reports that there are scores of soldiers on each side. You will see reports that there are thousands. You will see numbers in between . . . Nor do we know quite exactly where the road – which I’ll come to soon – that China was probably extending, where exactly the road lies in relation to these borders and what the road is going to be used for and where it is headed."

"We don’t know, as much as some of us would like, about how Bhutan truly sees its equities and goals. And the history, as Ambassador Rao and Michael has said, is extremely fraught. It forces us to deal with the legacy of British colonialism in South Asia, we have to consider China’s current and historic attitudes towards Tibet and the Greater Himalayan region, which for some observers is a form of Chinese imperialism – so do we have competing Chinese imperialisms? We have to look not only at Sino-Indian geostrategic competition, but I would also argue Sino-American broader looming competition in the regions.”

“China’s goal, I think, is most likely simply to consolidate its control over what it sees as its sovereign territories, during what it calls the period of strategic opportunity – when time remains on its side." 

Jeff Smith

“It’s not helpful to demonize China’s position in this situation. This is not the Nine Dash Line. This is not a territorial claim that was fabricated and has no basis in international law, not just some map that we’ve drawn on. It’s clear where China’s claim derives from and why they claim that territory, why they believe the 1890 convention grants that territory to China. But, China’s the one taking the inflexible position."

"You have to ask what are the stakes. To me, the stakes for India are quite clear and very high. Chinese control over this territory would not only nullify the one place over the line of control where it has a significant tactical advantage, but it would position Chinese forces near its very vulnerable Chicken’s neck. And, in the eyes of India’s military planners, present an existential threat. What are the stakes for China? It’s a road to nowhere essentially.”

“I asked rhetorically ‘What is China hoping to achieve?’. The most likely explanation, since there aren’t many other good ones, is that it’s hoping to pressure Bhutan into a border settlement, in which Bhutan cedes the Doklam plateau to China.”

“We don’t believe that this is going to lead to a major conflict or escalation at the border, but is it possible that tensions heat up in other arenas? And I do think that’s possible, and in many ways, the China-India rivalry, elements of the rivalry have been accelerating in recent years. Things have not gone particularly well in the Modi-Xi era.”

                                                                                                                       

Speakers

Moderator

Panelists

  • Nirupama Rao

    Global Fellow
    Former Indian Foreign Secretary; Former Indian Ambassador to Washington and Beijing; Former Public Policy Fellow
  • Robert Daly

    Director, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States
  • Jeff M. Smith

    Director of Asian Security Programs, Kraemer Strategy Fellow, American Foreign Policy Council