China-India Military Build Up Continues Along Doklam Plateau, Bhutan

Satellite imagery has indicated an increase in both Chinese and Indian ground and air capabilities within the disputed territory along the Tibetan-Bhutanese border. Doklam is an historical point of contention between China and Bhutan, with the latter supported by India, for which the region is of geostrategic importance. The military build-up indicates that the diplomatic resolution to the most recent bout of China-India tension last year did not establish meaningful agreement or resolution between the two states.

Satellite imagery analyst Vinayak Bhat published a graphic report in the Indian ThePrint, detailing the advanced deployment of People’s Liberation Army personnel and infrastructure, including trenches, aircraft access and watch towers, deeper into Bhutan. American geopolitical intelligence specialists Stratfor seconded Bhat’s account, as well as reported evidence of continued reinforcement at the Indian Siliguri Bagdogra and Hasimara airbases. According to Stratfor “the imagery confirms that both China and India are pursuing a wide-ranging strategic build-up that has only accelerated in the wake of the 27 August agreement.” (For a comprehensive analysis of Chinese and Indian deployment in the Doklam region see Jonathan Marcus’s BBC article). Thus far the Indian governments response to the situation has been dismissive, with Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat labeling the infrastructure developments as “mostly temporary in nature.”

The apparent failure of the August 2017 disengagement between China and India and evident military build-up along the Doklam plateau is unfavourable, as tension between the two nuclear powers is detrimental for local, regional and global stability. However, a distinction can be made between the actions of the respective states. Chinese incursions contravene the internationally recognized borders of Bhutan, whereas India is acting as an authorized proxy for the Himalayan Kingdom. Furthermore, the region is of heightened geostrategic significance for India as it borders the north-eastern state of Sikkim and is close-by to the Siliguri Corridor – a vulnerable geopolitical choke point. As such, China’s actions take on an air of aggression compared to those of India, which must maintain adequate national defense measures.

Confrontation between China and India over the shared border is nothing new, with war in 1962, armed clashes in 1967, and standoffs in 1986-1987 over the issue. The standoff at Doklam last year was provoked by Chinese construction of a road further into Bhutan, which changes the operational status quo of the area by aiding future deployment and development. Consequently, Indian troops entered Bhutan to halt construction, resulting in a period of jostling and a subsequent standoff between the opposing troops. The mutual disengagement that was announced in late August was limited in effect, ceasing little more than the immediate tension and back-and-forth rhetoric.

Even if a diplomatic solution is to be found regarding the increasing tension in Dolklam, the issue of fraught border relations between India and China will not subside. With both states undertaking processes of power projection, regionally and globally, it is imperative that India and China navigate a civil relationship and learn to coexist peacefully. Despite early failures, India should pursue diplomatic means to resolve border tensions with China, inclusive of direct bilateral dialogue, acknowledgement of the issue at the UNSC, as well as foster positive relations with buffering states Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. However, one cannot be naïve to the realities India faces particularly in light of joint China-Pakistan naval exercises in late 2017. As such, India should concurrently maintain defensive capabilities and seek clarity on the status of the US-India security relationship.