Sino-India dispute: Troops face off in Bhutan as world powers face off

China and India’s latest dispute in the North-East border region have drawn in Bhutan, and shows signs of escalating. China has demanded the withdrawal of Indian troops from a scrap of disputed territory and has alluded to historical disputes involving the Indian state of Sikkim in attempts to get India to back down.

Beijing claims the Indian troops are occupying its soil, but both Bhutan and India maintain the area in question is Bhutanese territory. With the G20 summit approaching, China has ruled out any possibility of a bilateral meeting between Premier Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to resolve the situation.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) with China Premier Xi Jinping. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) with China Premier Xi Jinping. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia

One former Indian foreign secretary said the impasse, now in its third week, also marked the first time India and China had squared off on the soil of a third country, an overt display of the escalating regional rivalry between the pair.

The current standoff began last month when a column of Chinese troops accompanied by construction vehicles and road-building equipment began moving south into what Bhutan considers its territory. Bhutan requested assistance from longtime ally India, who also sent forces into the disputed region, which were involved in a series of minor incidents with Chinese troops.

At the heart of the dispute are different interpretations of where the “trijunction” – the point where the three countries’ borders meet – precisely lies. Around 3,000 troops from both countries are reportedly stationed near Doklam, an area said to be around 15km north of Gamochen.

It is the longest standoff between the two armies since 1962, when tensions over Tibet and the McMahon Border sparked a brief attack by China.

On Tuesday, an editorial in the Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper, called for Delhi to be taught “a bitter lesson”, warning in a second conflict it would suffer greater losses than in 1962.

China accused India of “misleading the public” by saying that Chinese troops are building a road close to the Chicken’s Neck in the Sikkim sector which could endanger India’s access to the north-eastern states.

“In disregard of the 1890 Sino-Britain convention, the Indian side said that Doklam is located within the tri-junction of the three countries, that is misleading the public,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Gen Shuang told reporters.

A border outpost.
A border outpost. Photo Courtesy: Indian govt

India has expressed concern over the road building, apprehending that it may allow Chinese troops to cut India’s access to its northeastern states. The dispute comes a few months after India’s refusal to join China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative and specific objection to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through parts of the Indian state of Kashmir under Pakistani and Chinese occupation.