Sometimes countries do things that, at first, don’t seem to make much sense. Take the initially bewildering case of the Doklam standoff, for example. Since June 16, a few hundred troops from the world’s two largest countries, both of which are nuclear powers, have been engaged in a standoff, camping out just 100 meters apart on a remote mountainside in the heart of the Himalayas. Doklam is a tiny, mountainous area located near where the borders of Bhutan, China, and India come together. The area is generally considered to be a part of Bhutan, although China also claims it. The crisis began when the Chinese army started building a road through Doklam, and Indian troops, acting on Bhutan’s behalf, halted the construction of the road. Since then, the crisis has only escalated, and just yesterday India put an additional 50,000 troops on alert as a result of the standoff. So why do two of the world’s most powerful countries care so much about an insignificant piece of land?
The answer, of course, is that Doklam is not as insignificant as it seems. Not only is it the latest chapter in a long, historical dispute, but it is also representative of China’s foreign policy and strategically significant to India’s security. China and India have had tense relations throughout much of their modern history. Before 1950, there were no border disputes between China and India because they did not share a very long border. At that time, Tibet, a vast region north of the Himalayas, was an independent kingdom. It was not until 1950 that China annexed Tibet and gained its long Himalayan frontier with India. After China’s annexation of Tibet, the region’s religious and political leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India. India’s acceptance of the Dalai Lama constituted the first source of tension between China and India, and the diplomatic rift it caused has endured until today.
Besides India’s acceptance of the Dalai Lama, the poorly demarcated border between the two countries has sparked conflict between them. They both claim the region of Aksai Chin, a Chinese-administered part of what was once the Indian princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Furthermore, China claims an entire state of India, Arunachal Pradesh. These conflicts led to the Sino-Indian war in 1962, which, although not resulting in a change in territory, led to an Indian military defeat and an abandonment of Indian expansion. Another armed skirmish occurred in 1967, and the two countries nearly went to war once again in 1987. Since then, however, diplomatic tensions have never involved the military as much as they have in recent months. So what changed?
The current conflict is largely the result of an expansionist tendency that has defined China’s foreign policy in recent years. China has the world’s largest population, second largest economy, and largest standing army. It is becoming an increasingly influential global power, allowing it to pursue foreign policy objectives against smaller, less influential countries. It has attempted to project its power in the South China Sea and used its economic might to expand its influence in Africa. It has also attempted to intimidate one of its neighbors: Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom wedged between China and India. China has numerous border disputes with Bhutan, including a dispute over Doklam. Thus, when it began building a road through Doklam, China was essentially re-creating the strategy that it uses when it builds artificial islands in the South China Sea: using its economic advantage to legitimize its control over areas claimed by countries with considerably shallower pockets.
It is now clear why China is so invested in the Doklam dispute: in keeping with a recent trend in its foreign policy, it is attempting to project its relatively newfound global influence. Why, though, is India involved in a dispute over Bhutanese territory? India and Bhutan have long had a special relationship, with India largely responsible for Bhutan’s foreign policy and defense. The Doklam standoff perfectly illustrates Bhutan’s motives for entering into such a relationship: fear of Chinese expansionism. India’s motives are more geopolitical: Bhutan acts as a buffer between China and one of India’s most fragile strategic weaknesses.
After Bangladesh was separated from India during the partition, India was left with seven Northeastern states almost entirely cut off from the rest of the country. The only thing connecting those seven states to the rest of India is a narrow strip of land called the Siliguri Corridor. Bhutan lies very close to the Siliguri corridor, and the construction of a road in Doklam puts the Chinese military even closer to the strategic area. In the event of a war, China could march over the border and isolate the Northeast entirely. Thus India is fiercely protective of Bhutan and, by extension, Doklam; it must protect its territorial integrity.
With troops on high alert and fierce diplomatic rhetoric, a resolution to the Doklam standoff does not appear imminent. A remote plateau in Bhutan may seem trivial to observers, but, given the context of recent trends in China’s foreign policy and its strategic importance to India’s territorial integrity, it is extremely consequential to two of the world’s most powerful countries. As a result, while the chance of war between the two countries is extremely slim, they will likely expend a massive amount of resources maintaining the standoff and seeking to resolve it. Now, at least, it’s clear that those resources will not be wasted.