Doklam Standoff

Doklam Standoff: From Clash to Disengagement

The bilateral relations between India and China, two powerful economies of Asia, have been on a continuous on and off stature. The Sino-Indian relations date back to the 1950s when India recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the legitimate government of Mainland China and started bilateral ties with it. Economically, China became the largest trading part of India in 2008 and there has been a substantial growth of economic influence between the two. However, diplomatic relations deteriorated due to border disputes, with the most recent being the Doklam standoff in Bhutan.

Image Source: World Atlas

The Standoff

The Doklam Standoff refers to a military border standoff between Indian soldiers and People’s Liberation Army soldiers of China. On June 16, a team of PLA soldiers crossed into Bhutanese territory in Doklam over the Zom Cheri ridge carrying construction equipment and tools. The PLA soldiers started building a road in the area by extending the already existing road in Doklam. Thereafter, on 18th June, a group of about 270 Indian soldiers entered Doklam with weapons and bulldozers to stop the PLA soldiers from further constructing the road. This led to a confrontation and a standoff between the two.  The standoff, which was the first time Indian troops stood up to protect the territory of Bhutan, didn’t include any firing of shots.

Allegation of Sorts

On 29th June, Bhutan released a statement protesting China over building a road in their disputed territory. According to Bhutan, China tried to extend a road southwards into Bhutan territory which would also extend towards the highly strategic Siliguri corridor or the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ of India. Beijing, on its part, alleged that border troops of India crossed the international boundary line in the Sikkim section of the India-China boundary and entered Chinese territory. Thereafter, the Ministry of External Affairs in India responded back with a statement on 30th June where it charged China with changing the status quo as violating the 2012 understanding between India and China regarding finalizing the boundary at the tri-junction and also of causing security implications for India.  India said it was open to a peaceful resolution through dialogue between the two countries. However, China stated the withdrawal of Indian troops from Doklam is a prerequisite for any dialogue.

Image Source: Global Risk Insights


During the course of the standoff, China also accused India of using Bhutan as a ‘pretext’ for interfering and impeding the boundary talks between China and Bhutan. Beijing also closed access for all Indian pilgrims proceeding through the Nathu La Pass to the Kailash Mansarovar pilgrimage.  China also put tremendous pressure on Bhutan to persuade India into ceding Doklam so that China can build a linking road from Lhasa to Nathu La Pass and also a railway line across it. A border personnel meeting (BPM) was held four days later in Nathu La and also diplomats from both Delhi and Beijing held meetings with the respective foreign ministries to defuse the crisis. It is, however, highly unlikely that the countries of India, China and Bhutan would hold a trilateral unless the tensions at Doklam are visibly reduced.

The Chinese Ministry of Defence in a statement during the standoff referred to the 1962 Sino-Indian war, stating that India should learn from all historical lessons’. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley responded back by saying the situation in Doklam at present is much different than in the 1962 Indo-Sino-war and India is also well prepared for retaliation now. He further added that India of 2017 is different from what India was in 1962. Beijing accused New Delhi of virtually manipulating Bhutan to distort facts regarding territory. It also stated that Indian troops have breached New Delhi’s well-recorded position of abiding by the 1980 British-era convention that defines the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet. In a response to remarks by Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that China is much different and would surely take all required measures to safeguard its territorial sovereignty.  China also accused India of falsely misleading the public by stating that the Chinese troops are constructing a road close to the Chicken’s Neck in Sikkim sector and endangering India’s access to all the north-eastern states.

Effects of the Standoff

The Doklam standoff caused tension between the bilateral relations between India and China to the point that it was highlighted in the meeting between PrimeMinister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi in Kazakhstan on 9th June. The warmth between the officials was missing and the relations between countries rapidly deteriorated during the Chinese President’s visit in 2014.

With the Doklam standoff as a backdrop, India began its first in-depth assessment of all Chinese investments in the neighbouring countries of India. The exercise was initiated by the Prime Minister’s Office and the National Security Adviser. The dynamic study would look into different trends and analyse the impact of all Chinese investments- also including the investments made as a part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

India, on its part, provided a steady supply of soldiers and stock in Doklam, indicating that the Indian Army is prepared for a long haul in the standoff. Trade talks between India and China remain suspended and deadlocked as neither side showed interest in offering concessions to end the impasse. Any bilateral talks on issues related to farm products failed to do any activity. China also deferred from taking a decision on granting market access to Indian rice, pomegranate, okra and bovine meat. Similarly, India also banned the imports of apple, pear, milk and milk products from China.  Sensing the escalated tense situation in the Doklam standoff, the Centre called for a meeting of the top opposition leaders in mid-July.

One month into the standoff, China conveyed to foreign diplomats in Beijing that PLA troops are waiting patiently on the Doklam plateau but won’t be doing so for an indefinite period. It stated that India needed to urgently withdraw troops from Doklam to end the standoff. China also accused India of trespassing and said that India shouldn’t trespass into the Doklam area as a ‘policy tool’ to fulfil its political targets. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj stated in Rajya Sabha that both Indian and Chinese soldiers should simultaneously withdraw from the Doklam plateau in the tri-junction. The demand has been effectively conveyed to China through diplomatic channels. China in another statement warned India that it would step up troop deployment and training at the Indo-China border if India doesn’t withdraw its troops immediately. Amidst the tensed standoff, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval held talks with the Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi which covered bilateral issues and major problems. The NSA also met Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Another Mini-Standoff

On 15th August, Indian and Chinese troops engaged in a melee in Pangong Lake in Indian-controlled territory in Ladakh. The soldiers of both sides were injured in the clash which broke out when a group of PLA soldiers were alleged to have attempted to infiltrate into the border near the lake. The standoff in Pangong Lake led to exchanging blows and jostling between the soldiers. On 16th August, Xinhua News Agency, the state-run news agency, released a video named ‘Seven Sins of India’ in a segment ‘The Spark’ wherein it racially attacked India and also mocked it in relation to the Doklam situation.  Post this, various bilateral meetings were held in both those countries and border meetings to discuss a solution to the standoff.

Prime Ministers of India and China
Image Source: Buddy Bits


After almost two and a half months into the standoff, India and China on August 28th decided to withdraw their troops from the standoff site in Doklam. The disengagement move was announced by the foreign ministers of both countries. About 350 Indian soldiers who had moved to the Doklam plateau on 18th June withdrew 150 km from the face-off site. Thereafter, the Chinese PLA soldiers moved back from the standoff site with their road building equipment and construction tools.

Bhutan welcomes the disengagement, saying it hoped that there would be peace and tranquillity with the status quo along the borders. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping held discussions on the sidelines of the BRICS summit and agreed to accept a forward-looking approach to maintaining good relations between the countries and also would make efforts that situations like the Doklam standoff don’t recur in future.

Recent Clashes

In a recent disagreement on June 15, 2020, Indian and Chinese troops got into a standoff again high in Galwan valley in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas. This standoff got worse after an agreement to deescalate troops from that region went wrong and led to clashes leaving the deaths of 20 army personnel. Reports state around 40 personnel from the Indian side lost their lives, though the Chinese media didn’t reveal their numbers. After the clash, both Indian and Chinese foreign ministers connected over the phone and decided to take proactive actions that would avoid such clashes in future.

History of the Conflict

The conflict between India and China over the border dates back to 1914, when the representatives from Britain, China and Tibet met in Simla to negotiate a treaty to decide the status of Tibet and also define the border between then British India and China.  China, then mentioning proposed terms that Tibet would remain under Chinese control, refused to sign the negotiable deal. However, Britain and Tibet then signed a treaty and defined the McMahon Line.  The McMahon line is a 550 mile frontier border that cuts through the Himalayas and is the legal border between China and India. However, China never accepted this border.

Two years later, after India’s Independence in 1947, Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China. Soon after, both countries found themselves amid clashes over the border. The tension over that same issue escalated in the 1950s. China, on its part, never agreed to Tibet being an independent entity and didn’t accept the deal. Both countries made several attempts at peaceful negotiations, but failed every time. China sought to take control over the critical roadways located near the western frontier in Xinjiang, while India saw this move as a tiny part of many plots to export Communism into India and the region.

Sino-Indian War
Image Source: The Print

1962 Sino-Indian War 

It was one of the devastating wars every fought. The Chinese troops crossed the legal border–McMahon Line-and held positions in the Indian Territory. This led to a war that lasted a month and resulted in the horrific deaths of more than 1,000 Indian soldiers. Also, more than 3,000 Indians were also taken as prisoners. China, on its part, suffered around 800 soldier deaths.  Later in November, Premier Zhou Enlai declared a cease-fire, unofficially remarking the border where the Chinese troops took territory and named it Line of Actual Control.

The tensions between the countries escalated again in 1967 along the mountain passes of Nathu La and Cho La. During that clash, a scuffle broke out when troops from the Indian side laid barbed wire along the territory they saw as the border. This led to the Chinese military firing artillery shells at the Indians and a conflict rose that left over 150 Indians and 340 Chinese dead.  However, India tasted victory by regaining the territory at Nathu La, destroying Chinese fortifications and pushing them back to their territory near Cho La.  The 1962 Sino-Indian war is considered as the biggest reference point in the history of the India-China military standoff.

India and China soldier
Image Source: Economic Times

After that, there were smaller conflicts that occurred between the countries in the territory. However, these were resolved and a crisis averted by the Doklam tension. Two giants, India and China, are regularly at loggerheads at the border and its demarcation. It’s been a long cat-mouse game between the countries where one works to bring down any attempts at the border, be it creating roads, construction of camps or any potential threat to the countries.

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