Doklam Stand-off : Dragon vs Elephant

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Doklam stand-off is the latest crisis between the two giants in the Asian continent. However, this dispute is different from other disputes occurred on the boundary in the recent years. India has been facing long and contentious border dispute with China along its 4000 km length border. The disputed boundary area is divided between Eastern Sector( Arunachal Pradesh), Western Sector( Aksai Chin ) and the Middle Sector (Sikkim). This time, the dispute was unique in the sense that it involves a third country Bhutan and happening in the middle sector, which was generally considered as settled and peaceful. It is a matter of concern for India because of its strategic location in Chumbi valley from where the Siliguri corridor( chicken neck) is very near. In fact, there are various unknowns in the recent disputes. Why China has taken a belligerent attitude against a small country like Bhutan?  What is the game plan for China? Is it the idea of the Middle Kingdom forcing China to claim territories of other countries. Is the hyper-nationalism in China after the election of Xi Xinping creating pressure to extend its territorial claims? or China is emerging as the next hegemonic power which will trample the region for its advantage.

In this blog, I will try to analyze the emergence of China as an assertive power which is using proper strategy to put forward contested sovereignty claims on various territories to extend its influence and power and trying to put pressure on other countries in the Indo-Pacific region to follow its diktats.

How this dispute started?

Doklam area is disputed between China and Bhutan. China has started building roads in the disputed area and started claiming its sovereignty on it. India has sent its troops to help Bhutan due to its special and privileged partnership as well as treaty obligations under the Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty 2007. Therefore, this dispute is related between three countries and it is happening at tri-junction of these three countries.


First and foremost cause, China is guided by the idea of Tianxia and consider itself as the Middle Kingdom and South Asian countries as its periphery. This is the motive behind all territorial and sea claims made by China either in South Asia or the South China Sea or the East China Sea. The South China Sea has become the flashpoint between China and South East Asian countries in the recent years. China has claimed almost whole of the South China Sea on the basis of the historical nine-dash line which was refuted by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Similarly, China has started building a road on the disputed doklam plateau to claim territory. Bhutan claims that doklam plateau belongs to it and China has violated the agreement between the two countries by building the road on its territory. As India Army Chief said, ” China is flexing its muscle and using ” the salami slicing” tactic to take over territory in a very gradual manner”.

Second and the likely cause is the series of setbacks and irritants between India and China in the recent years. Both countries have their own list of grievances and complain to make against each other. India has consistently criticised the China’s double attitude against terrorism in the UNSC. China has blocked India’s bid to ban Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist Masood Azhar in UNSC. China also created hurdles in India’s membership to the coveted Nuclear Supplier Group. Most importantly, Sino-Pak all-weather friendship is the most critical issue between the Sino-Indian relationship. India’s opposition of CPEC(China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) because of its violation of India’s sovereignty in Pok(Pakistan occupied Kashmir). India and Bhutan did not attend the OBOR(One Belt, One Road) summit in May 2017. OBOR is the brain-child of Chinese President Xi Xinping. It is the most ambitious infrastructure development initiative taken by any country in the world. China is also irritated because of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang in April 2017 which was fiercely opposed by China. China claims Arunachal Pradesh as its territory.

Thirdly, China is flexing its muscle in the world because of its economic heft and newfound status in the world. China has emerged as the second largest economy in the world. It has trade and economic linkages with every country of the world and it is totally impossible to live isolated in this globalized world. However, as Rakesh Sood says that China has got more confidence and space to assert itself at global level after the election of Trump as the USA president where Trump wants to focus on domestic issues rather creating peace in the world.

Fourthly, China is also worried because of India’s emerging status in recent years and its relations with the other countries like Japan and the USA. China was feeling wary about the recent Malabar Exercises conducted among India, the USA, and Japan navies. Indo-Japan bonhomie in terms of Civil Nuclear Agreement signed in 2016, development of Bullet train with technology transfer and especially the ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’ between these two countries in Africa in terms of “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor” and focus on security cooperation is also creating irritation in the eyes of China’s diplomatic circle.  USA’s recognition of India as ‘major defense partner’ and agreeing to India’s accession to various technology regimes has added fire to the “security dilemma” of China.

Why this dispute is called a “new normal” between China and India?

This time India did not buzz despite repeated threats by Chinese officials, abuses by Chinese Media and consistently took a stand against China’s belligerent attitude in the region. India and Bhutan consistently questioned the new normal of China. In fact, various think-tanks warned India that this kind of dispute will be the new normal because of China’s larger pattern in claiming contested territories.  China is trying to bully its small neighbors and claim the disputed territories inch by inch.

What needs to be done?

The Doklam crisis was finally defused after 73 days and forces from both sides withdrew from the tri-junction just a few weeks before when Prime Minister Modi had to travel to Xiamen for BRICS summit. It was found that China has agreed to various proposals of India in the recent summit by not mentioning anything about Belt and Road Initiative and putting a ban of Laskar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. It was a welcome development. However, Indo-China relationship is very complex and India needs to take multi-prong strategy to deal with China. India should never forget that China is its neighbor and it is emerging as the next superpower of the world. BRICS platform has emerged as the best platform where India and China not only resolve their bilateral disturbances but also move shoulder to shoulder to solve the pressing challenges of the world. India recently became the member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization(SCO). This group can also help in dealing with various extremist challenges in the region. In fact, China and India need to cooperate to solve the crisis in Afghanistan. I will end with the thought of the writer of the book ” Does the Elephant Dance?”  David Malone that these countries will have to rise along with respecting each other ‘s sensitivities and they need to understand domestic compulsions and cultures to create new paths for cooperation in the future.

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