China and India Face Off in the Himalayas

Standoff between regional rivals began when Beijing moved to extend a road in a disputed area

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, talked in October with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a summit in Goa, India.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, talked in October with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a summit in Goa, India. PHOTO:MANISH SWARUP/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Aug. 2, 2017 9:42 a.m. ET

NEW DELHI—China on Wednesday stepped up pressure on India to withdraw from a weekslong military standoff that shows how the countries’ contest for leadership in Asia is heightening the risk of conflict.

The dispute began in June when Beijing assembled workers and machines to extend a road in a remote Himalayan territory that is claimed by both China and Bhutan, a small, mountainous nation that is a close ally of India.

The road is located near an area known as the “tri-junction,” where China, India and Bhutan meet.

Bhutanese soldiers tried to stop the construction, according to India, which said it then dispatched its troops in coordination with Bhutan. Indian and Chinese soldiers have since planted themselves on the disputed land.

Beijing says India is trespassing and must fall back as a “precondition and basis for any meaningful dialogue.” New Delhi says road-building in the area hurts India’s security interests and Bhutan’s territorial claims. Bhutan has called China’s actions a “direct violation” of the countries’ understanding not to change the situation on the ground until their boundary dispute is resolved.

In a position paper released Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry accused India of “flagrantly” crossing over into Chinese territory. “India has invented various excuses to justify its illegal action, but its arguments have no factual or legal grounds at all and are simply untenable,” the ministry said in the paper.

“No country should ever underestimate the resolve of the Chinese government and people to defend China’s territorial sovereignty,” it added.

The standoff on the Dolam Plateau is sparking concerns of a prolonged period of strain between China and India, which are maneuvering for power and influence in a region being redefined by China’s rise.

“If India backed down, it would send a signal to the neighborhood that China is a better bet than India,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “This dispute is not just about a road. It’s a reflection of the changes and realignments that are taking place in Asia.”

Both countries are headed by nationalist leaders who have emphasized shows of strength. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to forestall a unipolar Asia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, is preparing for a pivotal Communist Party congress in the fall. Foreign diplomats say that Beijing wants to minimize geopolitical tensions that could upset preparations but doesn’t want to be seen as soft on boundary claims.

A Chinese soldier and an Indian soldier in 2008 at a border crossing between the two countries
A Chinese soldier and an Indian soldier in 2008 at a border crossing between the two countries PHOTO:DIPTENDU DUTTA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
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The two nuclear-armed nations face off from time to time along the long, undemarcated stretches of their border. India lost a war, fought over territorial issues, to China in 1962.

The current dispute stands out because India doesn’t claim the territory where its troops are positioned. Indian military strategists worry greater Chinese access to the area could leave India vulnerable at the “Chicken’s Neck,” a narrow sliver of territory near the tri-junction that connects the bulk of India with its northeast.

India’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval, was in Beijing late last week. Neither side would say if the dispute was discussed in his talks with Chinese officials.

Ties between the two countries, never close, have grown far knottier as China has pursued regional dominance. It has made inroads into India’s traditional sphere of influence, from Nepal to Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean. In response, India has forged closer relations with the U.S. and Japan, moves that have irked Beijing.

India has also watched warily as Beijing has tried to shift the balance of power in Asia by enforcing its territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea.

The rivalry has surfaced in different ways in recent months. China is blocking India’s membership to an international body that controls trade in nuclear technology, and has stymied India’s attempt to impose United Nations sanctions on the leader of a Pakistan-based terror group.

In April, India facilitated a visit by the Dalai Lama to sensitive parts of the country, despite repeated warnings from China, which considers the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism a separatist.

The following month, India declined to participate in the launch of the One Belt, One Road initiative, China’s expansive infrastructure plan that seeks to tie dozens of countries to its ambitions. China’s efforts to build an economic corridor through Pakistan-governed territory claimed by New Delhi has drawn sharp protests from India.

 

“India’s positions on issues that go to the core of China’s vision for a new global framework have upset the Chinese,” said Jayadeva Ranade, the president of the New Delhi-based Center for China Analysis and Strategy. “It sees India’s intervention [over the Himalayan road] as the next in a series of provocative steps.”

Since the start of the standoff, Beijing has kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism of India’s position, which has been echoed in Chinese media.

A commentary published by the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid, warned, “The public’s patience is running short” and “perhaps it is time that it be taught a second lesson,” a reference to the 1962 war.

Bhutan is caught in the geopolitical competition. India provides vital economic and military aid to Bhutan and exercises significant influence, but the Bhutanese shun the notion their country is a protectorate of India, as recent Chinese commentaries have asserted.

China, which doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Bhutan, would like to harness those sensitivities to diminish India’s hold and start building influence there, as it has done elsewhere in the region.

India and China both have incentives to maintain their position yet avoid escalation, adding to the difficulty of predicting how long the standoff will last or how it will end, said Antoine Levesques, a research associate for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

The two sides, he said, are searching for a way to “walk the tightrope of showing results and restraint—both of which are important to both of them.”

Write to Niharika Mandhana at niharika.mandhana@wsj.com and Chun Han Wong at chunhan.wong@wsj.com

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