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Conflict Between Giants: The Doklam Incident

In a war between China and India, students of international relations would likely argue Beijing’s victory. China’s economic and military power greatly outweighs India’s. Nonetheless, with the mutual disengagement concluding the Doklam Incident, India has gained a victory over its northern rival. Repercussions could potentially ripple outward impacting other territorial disputes in China’s periphery, much to Beijing’s chagrin.

In mid-June, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sent troops, bulldozers, and materials into the Doklam region, a disputed territory between China and Bhutan. They immediately razed several unoccupied Royal Bhutan Army bunkers and began constructing a road through the area. India, guaranteed to defend Bhutan by the 1949 and 2007 Treaties of Friendship, mobilized local forces to repulse the PLA troops. Over the next two-and-a-half months tensions flared; stone-throwing melees broke out; and the Chinese and Indian diplomatic corps strove tirelessly to end the dispute favorably for their nations. Luckily, on August 28th both sides agreed to disengage from the conflict and return to pre-dispute borders. Within a day all personnel and equipment were gone, silencing fears of escalation between the two nuclear powers.

Mutual disengagement in the Doklam Incident heavily favors India. The loss of Bhutanese or Indian territory around the area is particularly pernicious for India, given the Doklam’s proximity to the 27-kilometer wide Siliguri Corridor which is the sole connection from mainland India to the heavily populated northeast. That corridor leads to the northeastern Arunachal Pradesh province, which contains almost 100,000 square kilometers disputed between New Delhi and Beijing.

Additionally, the PLA is considerably stronger and more capable than the Indian Armed Forces (IAF). As the Chinese economy continues to outpace India’s, this military capability gap will likely widen due to latent military power directly connecting to economic development. The geography around Doklam inhibits the deployment of considerable military force and deters a PLA offensive, but India remains on the defensive. Chinese foreign policy actors would factor the continued dominance into the Sino-Indian military equation.

Furthermore, many of India’s neighbors, such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Nepal, favor China. New Delhi resides in a hostile neighborhood. This is driven in part by the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative whereby China is investing billions of dollars in South Asia infrastructure. India’s economy is not positioned to buy friends in comparison. The Indo-Bhutanese alliance may not be the most profitable venture for New Delhi, but in a region where Chinese interests are encircling South Asia, any pro-Indian partnership appears valuable. Even if Bhutan fails to offer India much in return, it is one less state in China’s orbit.

These factors support the success of Chinese belligerence in the region. Nevertheless, both sides disengaged—given New Delhi’s position of weakness, the IDF and Indian diplomats showed strength and tenacity, gaining a victory out of the tumultuous event. Both states’ media, however, are illustrating the conflict resolution as domestic victories. Particularly, Chinese state media firm Xinhua promoted views of Indian bellicosity and righteous Chinese response in the region arguing that under no circumstances should the PLA back down.

Some Western scholars have also rallied against the idea of Indian victory in the Doklam Incident. Taylor Fravel of MIT argues India was not successful because IDF troops disengaged first and without any Chinese concessions. More so, China held ulterior reasons to deescalate, such as the early-September BRICS summit and the upcoming Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress. Chinese President Xi Jinping is hoping to solidify power at the Party Congress and needs to avoid any hiccups, such as a prolonged, unsuccessful foray into Bhutanese territory.

If China wanted to deescalate the incident in preparation for these hallmark events, why engage Doklam in the first place? Why not postpone activity until after? Beijing likely believed New Delhi would largely ignore the issue given Chinese strength. This would have given China leverage in negotiations at the BRICS summit and made Xi appear even more powerful at the Party Congress. Unexpectedly, India offered stiff resistance and prevented Chinese territorial expansion. India did not need concessions. Frustrating Xi’s game plan was sufficient and will make China think twice before another territorial incursion.

India won. This is particularly jarring for a Chinese nation used to territorial victories. In the South China Sea, the PLA navy exerts strength and continues island building while its peripheral states fail to prevent these realities from crystallizing. The China-Pakistan economic corridor cuts through the disputed Kashmir territory between India and Pakistan; there is little New Delhi has been able to do in response. Therefore, any chance India has at stalling Chinese grand ambitions is a victory for New Delhi. The Doklam Incident will likely have longstanding impacts on future Chinese initiatives and rival responses.


David Stoffey

David is a foreign policy research analyst and M.A. candidate currently living in Washington, DC. He focuses on East Asian and European international relations with a particular interest in military history. David holds a B.A. in economics and political science from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
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