Many have noted the current escalation of tensions on the tri-border linking India, China and Bhutan is different from other standoffs over the last few decades, which have been largely non-violent. Jeff M Smith writes this week on the high stakes of the current predicament.
Smith, who has written extensively on the border tensions, explains the location of this particular dispute is cause for concern about the current situation, especially for leaders in Delhi:
Only once since 1962 has a standoff turned bloody. That’s the good news. But there is also bad news: That fatal exchange, the Nathu La incident of 1967, unfolded near the site of the current crisis. […]
Delhi has kept a close watch and tight grip on the Sino-Bhutan border negotiations for the same reason it joined the fray at Doka La: Chinese control over the Doklam plateau would represent a grave strategic threat. The Chinese-controlled Chumbi valley bisecting Sikkim and Bhutan cuts toward the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow, strategically-vulnerable strip of territory connecting the main mass of the Indian subcontinent to its more remote northeastern provinces.
A Chinese offensive into this “Chicken’s Neck” could sever India’s connection to the northeast, where China still claims up to 90,000 square kilometers in Arunachal Pradesh. China’s Global Times seemed to acknowledge as much, and further stoke Indian anxieties by arguing “northeast India might take the opportunity to become independent” if Delhi’s fears were realized and China launched an operation to “quickly separate mainland India from the northeast.”
The topography of the region further elevates the strategic value of the Doklam plateau, and helps to explain how India bloodied China’s nose during the nearby skirmish at Nathu La in 1967. Whereas China holds a tactical advantage along the vast majority of the LAC, the Chumbi Valley is arguably the only position along the de facto border where China’s position is deeply compromised. As Indian analyst Nitin Gokhale observes:
Chinese forces in the narrow Chumbi Valley are currently in the line of sight and fire of Indian forces poised on the ridges along the Sikkim-Tibet border. Aware of this vulnerability, the Chinese have been eyeing the Doklam plateau since any troops stationed there will be away from visible observation and beyond artillery range of Indian forces either based in North or north-east Sikkim.
In other words, control over the Doklam plateau constitutes a “win-win” for the PLA; both a knife to India’s jugular and shield to blunt its sharpest spear. With existential stakes for Delhi, and Beijing posturing growing more uncompromising by the day, there’s no end in sight to the longest standoff at the China-India border in over three decades.