For 73 days last year, the world watched as Chinese and Indian forces faced off in a remote stretch of the Himalayas. The problem started in June when Chinese army engineers attempted to build a road through the Doklam plateau, claimed by both China and Bhutan. Following “coordination” with Bhutanese authorities, Indian soldiers based just across the border intervened and literally stopped the Chinese crews in their tracks. After weeks of negotiations, Delhi and Beijing agreed to withdraw their troops to their original positions; China “blinked” because it had to abandon the project. Since then, however, China has quietly deployed troops and built new infrastructure in the area, slowly but steadily gaining advantage in the contested region. As the first anniversary of the crisis approaches, neither India nor Bhutan have stepped in to block these activities.
Rather than offering lessons in deterrence, recent events in Doklam illustrate the complexities of convincing China to curb its territorial ambitions. In particular, India’s so-called “reset” with China in the months since the August 2017 settlement should raise doubts about its willingness to stand up to China and ability to be a net security provider as it faces increasing challenges to its role and influence in its Southern Asian neighborhood. India’s muted response also raises questions about the resolve of other major powers, including the United States, to intervene in a future Doklam-like situation in which their own sovereignty is not at stake.