Chinese and Indian troops face off in Bhutan border dispute

Regional rivalry escalates as forces mobilise near borderland that China claims but India says is in Bhutan.

China has demanded the withdrawal of Indian troops from a scrap of disputed territory to end an escalating border row between the two Asian powers that has drawn in tiny Bhutan.

Beijing claims the Indian troops are occupying its soil, but both Bhutan and India maintain the area in question is Bhutanese territory.

Analysts maintain that armed conflict between the two Asian powers is unlikely, but say the harsh language and scale of the mobilisation in the remote but strategically important area, where the borders of China, India and Bhutan intersect, is unprecedented in recent years.

One former Indian foreign secretary said the impasse, now in its third week, also marked the first time India and China had squared off on the soil of a third country, an overt display of the escalating regional rivalry between the pair.

The current standoff began on 16 June when a column of Chinese troops accompanied by construction vehicles and road-building equipment began moving south into what Bhutan considers its territory.

Bhutan, a small Himalayan kingdom with close military and economic ties to India, requested assistance from Delhi, which sent forces to resist the Chinese advance.

To avoid escalation, frontline troops in the area do not generally carry weapons, and the Chinese and Indian troops reportedly clashed by “jostling”: bumping chests, without punching or kicking, in order to force the other side backwards.

At the heart of the dispute are different interpretations of where the “trijunction” – the point where the three countries’ borders meet – precisely lies. China argues its territory extends south to an area called Gamochen, while India says Chinese control ends at Batanga La, further to the north.

Around 3,000 troops from both countries are reportedly stationed near Doklam, an area said to be around 15km north of Gamochen.

In support of its claim, China points to an 1890 treaty signed with the British Raj, and seemingly endorsed by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in a letter to his Chinese counterpart. India says the letter does not accurately capture Nehru’s position and that China cannot unilaterally alter the territorial status quo.

It is the longest standoff between the two armies since 1962, when tensions over Tibet and elsewhere along the border sparked a brief war from which China emerged victorious.

China still claims a section of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and was angered in April when the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing regards as an “anti-China separatist”, conducted a tour of the state.

Though India says its troops in Bhutan are in “non-combative mode”, the rhetoric on both sides is growing increasingly pugilistic. India’s army chief, Bipin Rawat, has said that India is ready to fight a “two and half front war” – referring to Pakistan, China and against the country’s various internal insurgencies.

On Tuesday, an editorial in the Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper, called for Delhi to be taught “a bitter lesson”, warning in a second conflict it would suffer greater losses than in 1962.

Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, said he believed the standoff would “die down in a little while”, arguing neither country wanted to fight a full-blown war.

“No one is willing to rock the boat, despite all that we have seen,” he said. Rather, as it does in the south China sea, he said Beijing was employing a “salami-slicing” strategy, patiently absorbing small swaths of territory it considers to be its own.

Global attention is usually focused on China’s expansion into east Asia, but the burgeoning superpower is increasingly also muscling into south Asia, forging links with countries India considers to be firmly within its sphere of influence.

“For the past six years China has been attempting to hem India in and take away its strategic space in South Asia,” said Ashok Malik, a fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.

India was especially sensitive to China’s encroachment near its Bhutanese border, he said, because it brought Chinese troops uncomfortably close to a section of Indian territory called the “chicken’s neck”, a thin corridor which, if broached, could cut Delhi off from its northeastern states.

“This is in fact a provocative gesture which makes the defence of Doklam virtually the defence of India,” Malik said. “I don’t expect a conflict, but I expect both sides to stay put as long as Chinese supply and logistical lines will allow.”