The first anniversary of the Doklam standoff calls for reflection on China’s strategy of territorial revisionism and India’s response. The Doklam Plateau, like the South China Sea, illustrates how China operates in the threshold between peace and war. Just as China has made creeping but transformative encroachments in the South China Sea without firing a single shot, it has incrementally but fundamentally changed the status quo in Doklam in its favour since ending the 73-day troop standoff with India.
Doklam exemplifies China’s broader recidivism in the Himalayas. China is still working to redraw Himalayan boundaries nearly seven decades after it gobbled up Tibet, an action that led to its occupation of the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin plateau. Aksai Chin fell to what has since become Beijing’s favoured frontier-expansion strategy — “salami slicing”. This involves a steady progression of actions short of war that camouflage offense as defence and help change facts on the ground.
The latest victim of China’s “salami slicing” is one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, which has just 7,500 military personnel. In the past nine months, China — by steadily expanding its troop deployments through new permanent military structures — has gained effective control of much of Doklam, which Bhutan regards as its own territory. Previously, there were no permanent military structures or force deployments on this uninhabited but disputed plateau, which was visited by nomadic shepherds and Bhutanese and Chinese mobile patrols other than in the harsh winter.
Satellite images since last autumn show how rapidly China has expanded its military footprint in Doklam, wreaking environmental degradation in a once-unspoiled place. China’s new control there precludes India intervening again at Bhutan’s behest.
So, just as “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the US”, to quote the admiral in charge of America’s Indo-Pacific naval forces, Beijing today is in a position to call the shots across the Doklam Plateau other than the site where the standoff with India occurred. But right next to the standoff site, located at the plateau’s southwestern corner, China has built military fortifications and facilities overlooking Indian positions.