What Were China's Objectives in the Doklam Dispute?

Takeaways for Washington

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, September 2014.  Ahmad Masood / REUTERS

At 14,000 feet above sea level and with a perpetually harsh climate, the Doklam Plateau is an enormously difficult place to defend. Meanwhile, those launching an attack face exponentially greater challenges—and that’s before the Himalayan winter sets in. This helps explain why China and India last week ended a military standoff there that had been festering since June. Beyond the sheer misery of preparing to fight on such a forbidding battlefield, however, both nations had every reason to deescalate one of the most serious showdowns since their sole war in 1962. The status quo ante has been essentially restored, but the dispute raised important questions about the balance of power in Asia, China’s grand strategy, and what Washington can learn from the episode.

China and India share a border over 2,500 miles long, with almost all of it based on colonial-era agreements and surveys, and much of it still disputed. China claims pieces of territory held by India, mostly in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, with smaller pieces claimed in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. India claims land held by China, most notably a piece of land called Aksai Chin through which Beijing built a road in the 1950s connecting Xinjiang to Tibet. Reflecting its unsettled nature, the portions of the border separating disputed territories are referred to as the Line of Actual Control. There are periodic skirmishes along the LAC, but both nations have carefully choreographed them to avoid escalation; as a result, there have been no casualties stemming from land disputes in half a century.

On June 8, a platoon-sized unit of Chinese border guards moved into territory claimed by both China and Bhutan, a client-state of India. They destroyed stone bunkers used sporadically by the Royal Bhutan Army, and shortly afterward a Chinese road construction crew arrived with excavators, bulldozers, and a larger military escort. On June 16, Indian troops arrived and blocked the road-building effort. The next two months saw periodic scuffles at Doklam, as well

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