The Editorial Board
A three-month standoff between Chinese and Indian troops in a remote corner of the Himalayas ended this week with both sides agreeing to withdraw. Beijing is claiming victory, but this is face-saving bravado. New Delhi successfully repulsed a Chinese attempt to assert control over the disputed region.
In June China quietly began construction of a road across the Doklam Plateau, an area that Indian ally Bhutan also claims. The area overlooks the Siliguri Corridor, a stretch of territory 27 kilometers wide at its narrowest point that leads to the country’s landlocked northeastern states. The Indian government was understandably alarmed because the new road would allow the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to move tanks and artillery within striking range of the corridor, also known as the “Chicken’s Neck.”
Lightly armed Indian troops entered the disputed area in mid-June, bringing the Chinese road construction to a halt. Some 300 soldiers from each side camped about 100 meters from each other.
Beijing demanded that Indian forces withdraw unconditionally and kept up a barrage of threats and maneuvers. The Indian government remained largely silent, appealing for a diplomatic solution.
The PLA regularly crosses the Himalayan frontier to expand its area of control and poses as the victim when challenged. These tactics are similar to those used by the Chinese Navy in the South and East China Seas, where it seeks to intimidate other claimants to islands and waters.
In 1962 China and India fought a brief border war after Chinese forces built a road across the disputed area of Aksai Chin. The PLA routed the Indian Army in that conflict. Over the past few months, Chinese officials and state-run media promised to teach India another lesson if it didn’t withdraw from Doklam.
India is better equipped to resist Chinese pressure today because it is a nuclear power and has considerable conventional forces near Doklam. The strategic vulnerability of the Chicken’s Neck also stiffened its resolve.
But the key difference was India’s willingness to wait out China rather than moving more of its forces into disputed areas, as it did in 1962. Unable to blame India for a military clash, Beijing had little choice but to open talks.
On Monday India got the resolution it wanted, an agreement that both sides would withdraw and China would cease its road-building. The bulldozers left along with the PLA troops.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserves most of the credit for the positive outcome. It chose to make its stand on high ground morally and militarily. As a responsible great power, New Delhi refused to be drawn into escalation by Beijing’s bellicose rhetoric. India’s deft handling of the dispute shows that principled resistance can face down China’s creeping aggression.