A remote corner of the Himalayas has become the scene of a major power standoff between China and India. In June 2017, the Doklam plateau in the Himalayas, where the boundaries of China, India and Bhutan meet, made headlines when Indian and Chinese troops began a standoff over a road construction project. As of now, neither side is spoiling for a fight, nor are they ready to back down anytime soon considering the security concerns, domestic political pressures, and regional reputational stakes. A series of quiet diplomatic interactions has not restrained the brinkmanship or ultimatums and the risk of a major armed clash between two Asian heavyweights is becoming increasingly threatening to peace in this part of the world.
In the world so obsessed with North Korea’s nuclear capability, many have missed the fiery confrontation between Beijing and New Delhi in recent days, despite the fact that it is something that could spark a devastating nuclear war. Chinese and Indian soldiers have lined up “eyeball to eyeball” on the remote Doklam plateau – a disputed China-administered area – in an apparent readiness to respond to threats militarily. In the dispute, Chinese and Indian troops remain locked on the tri-junction with Bhutan, with many experts in China and India warning that chances of a military confrontation are higher than ever.
The standoff dates to mid-June, when Bhutan claimed that Chinese soldiers arrived on the plateau – a patch of land called Donglang by China and Doklam by India – to begin construction of a road. Beijing, on the other hand, claimed that the work was being carried out inside the Chinese territory. Since Bhutan has no formal diplomatic relations with China and relies on India on a number of issues: its security, as well as economic and military aid, and relations with China, Indian government, after the Bhutanese claim, dispatched soldiers to the plateau to stop the construction. The impasse has existed since and both sides have made threats while simultaneously calling for negotiations.
In a larger sense, however, today’s standoff is the latest flare-up dating from the ambiguity created by agreements made in the colonial era. A pact signed in 1890 by two former empires, the Qing dynasty in China, and British India, led to conflicting interpretations over who owns the plateau. Bhutan believes the agreement places the plateau under its jurisdiction. Later, in 1914, a convention between China, the UK and Tibet produced the McMahon Line, today’s eastern border between China and India. Beijing has consistently challenged its legal status.
India and China have a history of disputes along their border, a rugged 2,500-mile frontier extending from the Himalayas in the east to South and Central Asia to the west. In the far-west, both China and India claim Aksai Chin. In the eastern edges of the border, New Delhi claims the state of Arunachai Pradesh, while Beijing claims it as part of southern Tibet. A 1962 war between the two countries ended with China permanently occupying Aksai Chin.
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