Dolam Standoff: How India Played Chess With Chinese Checkers


India and China are the two giants claiming for the throne to lead Asia Pacific in The New Global Order. This is bound to create friction as the two countries try to expand their sphere of influence across the region and the world. The territorial dispute between India and China has been one of the longest running in history with cold peace prevailing since the 1962 War. The Indo-China border has been relatively quiet with just a few skirmishes and standoffs as compared to India’s western border with Pakistan. This tranquility was broken on June 2017, when the Chinese army, the PLA tried to construct a motorable road from Dokala in Dolam Plateau area towards the Bhutan Army camp at Zompelri. The Indian army mandated by the Friendship Treaty with Royal Kingdom of Bhutan in 2007 in consultation with Bhutanese leadership moved in the Dolam Plateau area and pushed the PLA’s soldiers back blocking the road construction in the Bhutanese territory.

Subsequently, the Bhutanese Ambassador in Delhi lodged a strong protest and issued a demarche on China calling the PLA to cease from any further road construction in the Dolam Plateau region. PLA’s land grab was swiftly repelled by the Indian military in consultation with Bhutan catching China off guard as it hadn’t anticipated such a strong response from India. True to China’s bullying nature, what followed was high decibel rhetoric with its foreign ministry as well as party mouthpieces such as Global Times, China Daily etc adopting hawkish tones and calling to teach India a lesson, reminding it about the 1962 war, mocking its growing relationship with US, calling for backing Secessionist movements in Sikkim and interfering in other parts of India like Arunachal and J&K.

The Chinese foreign ministry in response to India’s military moves and Bhutan’s protest brought up the 1890 historical treaty to cite that China had legitimate claims over the disputed Dolam area clearly ignoring the fact that the 1890 treaty was signed between Qing Dynasty in China and the British Empire in India and Bhutan was not a party to the agreement. Moreover, China has already signed written agreements with Bhutan in 1988 and 1998 to maintain status quo on border disputes pending final settlement. A similar understanding was also reached between India, Bhutan and China in 2012 clearly enunciating that all sides would stay clear of the disputed areas. Despite all this and further Chinese provocations like cancelling Mansarovar Yatra from the Nathu La pass, the Indian response has been steady and resolute while firmly holding its ground in Dolam Plateau much to the ire of the Chinese leadership.

A logical question would be what prompted this Chinese land grab in Bhutan and more importantly why now? The answer lies in a combination of many factors, the crux of it being India’s growing international profile and China’s foreign policy doctrine of intolerance of any other regional power per Sun Tzu’s Art of War that clearly says there can only be one hegemon and that must be China!

China and Bhutan share a 470 km border of which China wants it to cede a 268 square km in West Bhutan which remains disputed. Interestingly, China and Bhutan have no diplomatic relations despite China’s constant pushing for an embassy in Thimphu. India and Bhutan are very strong allies with Bhutan being the largest beneficiary of Indian foreign aid. Moreover, the Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty gives India the right to guide Bhutan’s foreign policy and adding salt to the wound, Bhutan has widened its foreign relations with Japan, another adversary of China! Bhutan has also refused to participate in OBOR and is the only country in the region apart from India which has not come on board further angering the Chinese. China has long desired a Bhutan away from the Indian influence which would eliminate another buffer for India, fulfill Chairman Mao’s dream and open up a potential front in the future for it to create trouble on India’s northeast border. Moreover, for China, control of Dolam would mean the advantage to cutoff the rest of India from its Northeast states as road construction in Dolam plateau and further into Chumbi Valley near the Tri Junction of Sikkim (India), Bhutan and China would directly overlook the narrow Silliguri corridor of West Bengal endangering India’s strategic interests in case of a potential conflict.

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While India and China’s relationship has become more complicated with the Modi Government asking China to take a clear stand on India’s NSG Membership and its support for Pakistani terror outfits like JeM; the trigger was India’s strong objection to Belt & Road Summit where it chose not to participate and called upon China instead to first address sovereignty and financial debt issues about its strategic projects. India refers to BRI as a neo colonial debt trap globally from Germany, Sri Lanka, Nepal etc and also got US President Trump to call out  OBOR as a Debt Trap and a violation of sovereignty. Adding to this were the Malabar Exercises in the Indian Ocean among India, USA and Japan; greater Indian engagement with Germany, France and Russia to counter the Eurasian pitch of OBOR, Japanese interest to develop Chabahar Port and North South Trade Corridor with India as a counter to OBOR,  the Indo-Afghanistan Direct Air Freight Corridor that finally took off in June 2017 along with Prime Minister Modi’s historic Israel visit that signalled that India was a player of significance in international affairs.

Let us also remember that China’s CPC Congress is due to sit in October this year something that President Xi has been postponing for a while to cement his position. Using the garb of corruption, President Xi who seeks to make his mark in history as China’s strongest leader after Mao, has been even going after the Shanghai Oligarchy and the senior most officials of the Standing Committee making many powerful enemies in the process. China needs the façade of Han nationalism and unity to survive as it is reeling with a massive credit bubble, ghost cities, ghost factories, oversupply, social and economic disparities of coastal and interior regions and Separatist Movements in occupied territories like Xinjiang and Tibet.

President Xi is quite aware that this aggression will enhance his image domestically as a strong leader as a retreat would not be required as once the winter sets in both sides will automatically be forced to retreat. Moreover, China will suffer from an ageing population and heavy social service costs in a decade while India’s star is on the rise and Beijing is fully aware it needs to nip this in the bud now lest the cost of containment rises exponentially in the future. That also explains its investment in Indian arch rival Pakistan where it fully well knows it cannot recover its investment.  To end the duality of Indo-China tensions the amid Dolam standoff, China’s all weather friend, partner in crime and rent-a-terror-group state Pakistan entered the fray by massive ceasefire violations on J&K border and Line of Control as well as abetting terror attacks on Amarnath Yatra. The Sino-Pak duo aims to entangle India by keeping it tied down domestically while China engages in stealthy land grabs across the region.

It is ironical to see China quote international treaties and norms and throw them into dustbin when inconvenient like Sino-British treaty on the transfer of Hong Kong. In June 2017, China laughably refused to comply with the terms of Hong Kong handover treaty on the 20th anniversary of the handover stating “it is not of practical significance” while quoting the other British treaty of 1890 to grab land in the kingdom of Bhutan. The Chinese hypocrisy on paper promises is legendary just like it quoted Panchsheel to India while violating it in 1962 to grab Aksai Chin. A similar creeping takeover has been seen in South China Sea where it is bullying the smaller neighbors like Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia into submission. Just last year the Chinese refused to accept the Hague Tribunal verdict on South China Sea while quoting the same rules when it came to Japan, India or US in Asia Pacific.

Perception is everything in China and a weak leader means a weak country. The Chinese do not understand the concept of stalemate or withdrawal as their foreign policy completely revolves around force to push its adversaries into a corner by deploying various weapons like charm offensive, Trade Surplus and Propaganda to claim a psychological victory over the enemy even before a single bullet is fired. The Chinese psychology cannot gulp down the duality of Indo-China relations in the Asia Pacific region as India’s rise would make the wary Chinese neighbours pivot around India as a pole in region opposite China. It would also expose OBOR as a graveyard and not glory for the host country. This can be clearly seen as India has invited 10 ASEAN Nations to its 2018 Republic Day hosting an Indo-ASEAN summit on the sidelines while Vietnam has agreed to renew South China Sea Oil drilling lease with India.

There is where the game has changed this time as India unlike the previous occasions has taken a stern stand of not only pushing back PLA but also breaking the myth that it wasn’t capable of defending itself leave aside its neighbors and other regional allies. This narrative which has been forwarded by the Chinese since 1962 finally broke when India took a principled stand of protecting the territory of neighboring Bhutan.

By standing up to China in the Dolam standoff, India has ably signaled to its regional allies that it is more than ready and a willing partner to other nations in standing up to expansionist regimes with neocolonial designs in mind which can huge ramifications bilaterally, regionally and globally.  India has rightly called the Chinese bluff making it not only look foolish but also setting an example for other nations against China’s incessant bullying. India has also rejected China’s condition of a unilateral withdrawal by India to impose diplomacy and asserted that both sides should pull back troops for talks. India has rightly communicated to Beijing that it must respect sovereign boundaries and seek to resolve the issue diplomatically rather than further escalate tensions from a position of strength by capitalizing on the strategic standoff.

Going ahead, the psychological upper hand which India has achieved over China breaking its aura of invincibility in the region will invite further meddling from the dragon in encircling and entangling India in internal turmoil which it must be ready to deal with firmly and resolutely. India holding its advantage should seek to further expand on it by deepening military and strategic cooperation with United States, Japan, Australia and ASEAN countries like Indonesia and Vietnam playing the hand of Rajmandala of Kautilya to counter China’s ‘Art of War’. In furtherance of the above strategic moves, India must seek to strengthen the concept of Freedom Corridor with Japan to counter China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) project in Asia and Africa. India must also take advantage of the local resentment against the Chinese in Africa and other geographies where the locals are unhappy with their strong arming tactics. India has a large trade deficit with China amounting to nearly $51 Bn in 2016-17 which is an issue that the Indian leadership must address going forward if it wants to break the Chinese encirclement as Trade forms an essential part of the Chinese strategy. India could also make a beginning on an “integrated theatre command in the Andaman as developments in the South China Sea presage a bigger role for it” as suggested by Lt. Gen (retd) DB Shekatkar, former Director General of Perspective Planning, Indian Army.

India could deploy various cards against Beijing in case it resorts to mischief in Sikkim, North East India or J&K, by lending support to Xinjiang and Tibet movements against Chinese occupation and start a dialogue and interactions with Taiwanese leadership. Tacit support to Falun Gong can also be considered. The Chinese Dragon should be mighty careful before it embarks on expansionist missions given the vulnerabilities it has within. India should also seek to increase co-operation with African Union and Central Asia by using its soft power and billion plus economy for these resource rich nations. India should promote the narrative that it is a power which seeks to build a global network of relationship based on mutual interests of convergence than simply exploiting and devouring nations in a neo colonial manner.

China would love to remind India about the bloody nose it received in the 1962 War. However, it would behoove India and all the scaremongers in the country to also remember the 1967 Nathu La standoff and  1986-87 Operation Falcon which lasted for almost 6 years when the Chinese received a great drubbing at the hands of the Indian Army and experienced casualties almost 4 times more than that of the Indian side. Moreover, from a military standpoint, the current standoff if converted into a conflict (the chances of which are very insignificant) cannot be won by China as the current standoff location gives a tactical advantage to India.

Hence, the dragon must equally be careful before embarking on any destabilizing moves as it has its own weaknesses and many powerful enemies who would be more than happy to explore China’s Faultlines once it is proven that China is vulnerable and can be countered. India’s strategic play Dolam standoff has been a master stroke on the chessboard of Geo Politics in the region but the game has just begun with India playing Chess with Chinese Checkers.

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