By: Deepshikha Hooda
As China begrudgingly tries to deal with American pressure to curb North Korea’s nuclear program, it is also engaged in a serious dispute with another one of its neighbors— India—that could change strategic equations in the Asia-Pacific region.
The bone of contention is a decision by the Chinese Army to build a road in the Dokalam plateau, an area which lies on the tri-junction of the border between Bhutan, India and Tibet. To complicate the matter further, the area lies in Bhutan but it was Indian soldiers, not the Bhutan Army, who obstructed the Chinese. The standoff has now lasted for weeks with more than 3,000 Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in a tense showdown.
The news of the border spat broke as U.S. President Donald Trump was hosting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House on June 26. China has attempted to downplay growing strategic ties between the United States and India, and this was reflected in a Global Times opinion piece which defensively claimed that the so-called strategic support for India from the U.S. is superficial.
Standoffs along the undemarcated Line of Actual Control between India and China are not uncommon. Prolonged confrontations took place in 2013 and 2014 in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir. Both situations were diffused after quiet diplomacy between both sides. This time, however, Chinese state media has been openly hostile. Editorials in Global Times talk of teaching India a ‘’bitter lesson” and that the “Indian military can choose to return to its territory with dignity, or be kicked out of the area by Chinese soldiers.” China’s Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui said, “The first priority is that the Indian troops unconditionally pull back to the Indian side of the boundary. That is the precondition for any meaningful dialogue between China and India.”
This media posturing is hardening positions on both sides and blocking any immediate solution. This is also a reflection of the growing strain in India-China ties as a result of differing positions on Pakistan, the Indian opposition to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and the refusal of India to participate in the One Belt, One Road initiative.
Bhutan does not have any diplomatic ties with Beijing. All its communication with the Asian giant is channeled through its consulate in New Delhi. India has also taken upon itself the responsibility for the protection and defense of Bhutan.
However, the current scenario which is playing out has geopolitical implications that go beyond the construction of a dirt road in a remote mountain region at a height of more than 10,000 feet. At the heart of the problem is the competition for preeminence in South Asia. China is the dominant Asian power and now seeking a greater global role. However, India is also growing Asian force and considers South Asia as its area of influence. In South Asia, China has a loyal supporter in Pakistan and has grown its influence in countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh through its economic largesse and deep pockets. These developments have raised concerns in India, which has seen its influence within South Asia diminish in recent years due to its lack of strategic vision and lethargy in addressing its neighbors’ concerns. This is now changing under the Modi government with the country becoming more engaged in its neighborhood and adopting a muscular stance vis-à-vis China.
Therefore, Bhutan has become a test case for geopolitical competition in South Asia. The Chinese have accused India of interfering in the affairs of Bhutan while the official Indian stance is that the construction of a road in Dokalam does not impact only on Bhutan but has strategic implications for India. The reality is that if India does not stand up in support of Bhutan, it will lose credibility in South Asia and will have totally ceded to Chinese superiority.
The United States is currently facing its own frustrations with China over North Korea's nuclear program and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Notwithstanding what can be openly stated, it is clear that differences between China and India will force the latter into seeking a stronger strategic alliance with the U.S. and make the American administration review its Asia rebalance. American support for India at a time like this will not only put pressure on China, but also strengthen India’s strategic posture in a region where it is constantly vying to counter a dominant neighbor.
How Trump responds to this could define the future course of events in the Asia-Pacific region.
Deepshikha Hooda is a former journalist from New Delhi who writes on defense and security. She is pursuing her masters at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Boston. Twitter: @hoodadee