In one of the most isolated spots on earth a border dispute is simmering in a region called the Doklam. The Doklam is where three international borders come together—India, China, and Bhutan. The dispute is between China and Bhutan with India supposedly acting on Bhutan’s behalf. Around 600 to 800 Indian and Chinese soldiers face off against each other with only yards separating them. There is nothing particularly special about the disputed area. It is extremely remote with little resources to exploit. Instead the standoff has taken characteristics of national pride with each side being led by extremely charismatic nationalist leaders—Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping.
The border dispute has its roots back to a nineteenth-century treaty with China wanting to extend a road to what it interprets as its border. The Indian military has blocked Chinese construction personnel from continuing the project which has set of this current standoff.
There is a bitterness between the two countries that dates back to a brief war they fought in 1962. It also was over a border dispute in the impossible terrain of the Himalayas. The war received little international coverage at the time because the world was transfixed on the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the month-long war the Indians experienced 1,383 killed, 1,047 wounded, 1,696 missing, and 3,968 captured. China experienced 722 killed, 1,697 wounded. The brief war did not end the border disputes along the more than 2000-mile shared border. India lost that encounter and it is a source of great national humiliation. Since then there have been repeated border incursions and standoffs with China being responsible for most of them. Doklam is just the latest potential conflagration point.
Despite the history of tensions over their shared border regions, China and India have a mostly stable relationship. The two often come together at bilateral and multilateral events, have many economic ties, and both countries demonstrate a desire for peace. However, the border areas remain a flashpoint and the relationship between Beijing and New Delhi can possibly deteriorate. The longer the Doklam standoff continues the more there is a chance of an accident or miscalculation that would bring on another calamity.
Tiny Bhutan may be able to wield some leverage over the two nuclear powers. It has more culturally in common with China than it does India, and it finds its relationship with India to be too cumbersome. There are politicians in the country that would like to see a more independent relationship with India than the current status quo. China would be keen to encourage that. However, India’s grip on Bhutan is strong. It is the largest aid provider to the tiny nation, and is the main buyer of its hydropower. Thus far Bhutan has made its views of the standoff a mystery. To date, it is unclear if Bhutan requested India’s current military presence in the Doklam.
Alas, at the moment, there are no outward signs of either side backing down from the standoff. Too much pride is involved between Modi and Xi to back down.