Bhutan, the happiest country in the world, has become a flashpoint for two nuclear powers wrestling for dominance in the region. To give some background: Doklam (Donglang) is a small plateau in the tri-junction between China, Bhutan, and India. In mid-June, China had started construction in Doklam accompanied by troops. In response to this, Indian troops in the region had initially confronted China about this construction, which China claimed was happening in its own “sovereign territory”. As soon as this happened, the Bhutanese government sent a demarche or an official complaint to Beijing about Chinese intervention into Bhutanese territory.
With this premise, the standoff began. It was different from before because both countries had taken truly hard stances against each other in this instance. The spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that India had “illegally trespassed into Chinese territory”. And the Defence Ministry had also told India not to “push your luck”. These were some really harsh words, and China has since been threatening to escalate the standoff into a conflict if India does not move its troops back.
The international community is scratching its head over why India would take such a hard stance in a region with very little strategic importance. It is understood that there is a friendship treaty between India and Bhutan, but would India risk war with China over just the sanctity of this treaty? Unlikely. It is hard to pin-down why India has taken a hard stance, but it is clear that India did not expect a harder stance from China. India is openly ready to sort the issue diplomatically while China is bent on getting the Indian troops out of there and considers it the basic premise for any potential negotiations. India’s Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, has suggested that India and China both pull back troops from the region until diplomatic negotiations reach a conclusion, but China declined as it claims that India has troops in China’s territory.
There are several reasons as to why India strongly seeks to hold the region. It could be strategic or political. Firstly, pulling out of Doklam after the enormous media hype it has received would be a political endgame and a serious dent in the reputation of the Bharatiya Janta Party. But they know that actually confronting China might not have a favourable outcome for India. So it comes down to negotiations.
The second reason could be in relation to Chinese influence in India’s disputed region with Pakistan. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a part of the One Belt One Road initiative. India is worried that CPEC undermines its sovereignty because it passes through Gilgit-Baltistan (an area under Pakistani occupation). And it is also worried about the strategic implication of Chinese investment in a Pakistan occupied region. Moreover, these tools of ‘connectivity’ China is investing in could also be used for any future mobilization by Pakistan into the already sensitive region of Kashmir. But how does that relate to Doklam? Well, there is a possibility that India confronted China in Doklam to gain a leverage in negotiations. There is a lot of talk about war, but what we must remember is that negotiations are still underway, and if Indian troops are to pull out then there needs to be something India is getting in return. And India’s primary security concerns aren’t in Doklam, they are in Kashmir. So it is not impossible that India jumped at the chance to confront China in Doklam to negotiate about Kashmir. This could be India’s exit strategy.
However, China being India’s largest trading partner, it is understood by both sides that war would severely damage economic stability in the region. Funds would have to be directed towards the military instead of the many other things both these countries are in need of. Due to this understanding, it is likely that there will not be an all out war between India and China, but a violent military confrontation is becoming more likely as the days go by.