Earlier this month, Indian troops intervened to block the path of Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers engaged in building road-works on the Doklam plateau, a strategically vital 269 square kilometre patch of Bhutan’s territory that Beijing laid claim to in the 1980s. Though no shots were fired, this was the first time that India used troops to protect Bhutan’s territorial interests. Furious, Beijing responded by closing access to Indian pilgrims seeking to proceed through the Nathu La pass on to Kailash-Mansarovar. This is unlikely to be the end of the matter.
Ever since Chinese and Indian troops faced off on the Depsang Plains in 2013, New Delhi has steadily hardened its military posture along the Line of Actual Control. In response, China appears to have escalated its pressure on Bhutan, seeking to persuade the kingdom that New Delhi’s long-standing security guarantees are not credible. The aim of the pressure is well known: To persuade Bhutan to cede Doklam, through which China has built a road linking Lhasa to the Nathu-La pass and is in the process of driving a railway line, for two other disputed enclaves.
The stakes, for both countries, are huge: Since 1967, when clashes in the Sikkim sector claimed dozens of lives on both sides, a tenuous peace has held, which has come under growing strain in recent years. India’s military presence in Doklam gives it the ability to snap vital road — and in the near future, rail — links between Lhasa and the Nathu-La region in the event of war. For a China wary of India’s growing military infrastructure on the LAC, this is a substantial concern; Sikkim is the only part of the 3,500 km frontier where India has a tactical advantage.
Equally, New Delhi has reasons to assert a muscular presence, as it seeks to reassure the kingdom that it will not allow Chinese encroachment. This local conflict is fed by wider geostrategic issues. China’s obstruction of India’s nuclear ambitions, and its support of Pakistan, have led New Delhi to retaliate by giving Tibetan secessionism greater visibility. It is also working with Japan, South Korea and the US to contain China’s power in the Indian Ocean, provoking warnings from China’s Foreign Ministry.
These problems are mainly of Beijing’s making: Increasingly driven by hyper-nationalism, its foreign policy has excelled in the art of alienating potential friends. Yet, New Delhi must tread cautiously. There is little to gain from escalation, and much to lose.