The standoff began on June 16, when Indian soldiers moved on to the Dolam plateau to prevent Chinese soldiers from constructing a road through the area. This area, adjacent to the trijunction of the borders of India, China and Bhutan, is strategically important for India. Over 300 Indian soldiers have pitched tents opposite the slightly smaller Chinese military unit, with some 100-150 metres separating the two armies. What does the future hold?
Scenario 1: India withdraws, China builds the road
This is what the Chinese have been demanding aggressively. Their argument is that Indian soldiers are in Chinese territory — the Indians contend that it is Bhutanese territory — and should withdraw from the area before any talks take place. But having spent almost four weeks in the area, and realising the threat the Chinese road will pose to the Jampheri Ridge, there is little chance that India will withdraw unilaterally. There are no problems of logistics, supply chains or turnover of soldiers for India, which can force it to back off. A unilateral withdrawal will also mean a loss of face for New Delhi.
Scenario 2: China withdraws unilaterally, India stays
This is the Indian demand — that China must stop building the road and withdraw from the area unilaterally. But the Chinese have turned up the rhetoric, and do not appear keen to walk away now. That they are only two kilometres short of Jampheri Ridge, and already south of the Batang La pass, which India claims is the trijunction of borders, seems to have emboldened them. In any case, if the Chinese were to withdraw unilaterally, there would no reason for India to stay on in Bhutanese territory. But then, a unilateral withdrawal would mean a loss of face for China now.
Scenario 3: Neither side withdraws, stalemate continues
Both armies could choose to stay on until something gives. This means status quo — with a prolonged stalemate of the kind that happened in 1987, when the two sides were face to face for several months in the Sumdorong Chu valley in Arunachal Pradesh. But the deployment then was over a large frontage — and India now has much better infrastructure and resources to sustain a small body of troops for a long time on Dolam plateau. The Chinese could do the same — and assuming Bhutan does not change its stance, the two sides could be in for a long haul.
Scenario 4: Diplomacy works, both sides withdraw
India and China haven’t fired a shot on their border for half a decade, and most standoffs have been resolved by diplomatic means. This is how the Chumar incursion was resolved in 2014, as was the Depsang incident in 2013. However, in neither of those cases had the two sides resorted to rhetoric of the kind that is being heard now — nor did the Chinese lay down preconditions for talks as they have now. While this does make it difficult for both sides to back off now, creative diplomacy can find answers to even the most vexed of problems.
Scenario 5: Escalation by China, a limited conflict
India’s limited aim is to prevent the Chinese from building the road to the Jampheri Ridge, and it has no reason to escalate the conflict. Even status quo achieves India’s goal; for China, however, the goal could be different. But an escalation by the Chinese on the Dolam plateau itself would be suicidal, as Indian forces dominate that area. It is for this reason that the Chinese forces have not even tried to resume road construction after the Indians stopped them. However, the Chinese could, in theory, escalate in some other area, i.e., initiate a limited conflict, perhaps in Ladakh or the Northeast. But as Defence Minister Arun Jaitley said, 2017 is not 1962. The Chinese know that as well.
Scenario 6: A full-fledged war
One thing: nuclear weapons.