The Doklam Dispute in Context

China Is Drawing India's Neighbors Closer to Beijing

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Goa, India, October 2016. Danish Siddiqui / REUTERS

For over a month, Indian and Chinese troops have been facing off on the Doklam Plateau, a disputed patch of land in the Himalayas near the junction of Bhutan, Tibet, and the Indian state of Sikkim. The impasse began with China’s decision to build a road on territory also claimed by Bhutan. The Chinese construction project, which was discovered in June, led to Bhutanese protests. These drew in India, which decided to increase the number of its troops in the area. New Delhi backs Bhutan’s claim and is called on to help address the country’s security concerns by the terms of a bilateral treaty renewed in 2007.

As Chinese and Indian soldiers have stared each other down, China’s state media has steadily threatened New Delhi with dire consequences unless it withdraws its troops from the area. Some Indian observers have also urged their country to take an aggressive stance against China. 

The deeper reasons for China’s road building have often been lost in those exchanges. To be sure, some Indian analysts have noted that if China completes the road, it would be easier for Chinese forces to cut off the narrow strip of land that connects India’s heartland to its northeastern states in the event of a war. But there are strategic issues at stake beyond this tactical threat to India’s security.

From New Delhi’s perspective, China’s activities along the troubled border represent Beijing’s latest attempt to undermine India’s close ties with some of its neighbors. If China can intimidate India into abandoning one partner, it could set an important precedent, increasing the chances that other Asian nations will buckle before coming to the aid of neighbors facing Chinese pressure. At the same time, it could diminish India’s political influence over Bhutan, securing a commensurate growth in China’s influence there.

Gwadar Port, Pakistan, April 2017.
Gwadar Port, Pakistan, April 2017. Akhtar Soomro / REUTERS


For the past few decades, Chinese officials have looked

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