Tensions are heating up along the Sino-Indian border in Sikkim this week, with Chinese troops bulldozing an Indian Army bunker and sparring with Indian troops. As Financial Express wrote on Monday:
China has once again needled India. In yet another transgression, Chinese troops entered India in the Sikkim sector and jostled with Indian Army personnel guarding the Sino-India frontier. During the incursion, they destroyed two bunkers, news agency PTI reported. The face-off has been going on in Doka La general area in Sikkim for the past 10 days. Meanwhile, Chinese troops have also stopped a batch of Indian pilgrims proceeding on the Kailash Mansovar yatra, PTI reported quoting official sources.
Early reports about trouble in Sikkim—a northeastern Indian state sandwiched between Bhutan to the east, Nepal to the west, and China to the north—have been inflamed by a widely-circulating video that shows the troops aggressively jostling along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) separating Chinese and Indian-held territory:
The source of the dispute is the Chinese construction of a road near the narrow trijunction where Sikkim, Bhutan, and China meet. Indian Army troops moved to block China’s construction there, claiming the Chinese were operating within India’s territory; China, meanwhile, disputes that characterization. On Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry blamed India for instigating the standoff, claiming that “Indian border guards … crossed the border into the territory of China [and] obstructed the Chinese border troops in the Donglong area from conducting normal activities. China has taken corresponding measures.” Among those measures was the closing of the cross-border Nathu La mountain pass, which China and India re-opened in 2006. China is now insisting that the passage will remain closed until India withdraws its troops.
As of today, China is doubling down on its sovereignty claims, citing the 1890 Sino-British Treaty to argue that its road construction project is “undoubtedly” located on the Chinese side of the border. Meanwhile, Bhutan has joined the fray, issuing a demarche to China to immediately halt its road construction and restore the status quo.
Why is China stirring up so much trouble with India at this particular moment? In part, this seems to be a carefully timed political power play, since the dispute escalated just ahead of Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with President Trump in Washington. These border flare-ups often occur during crucial bilateral visits, functioning as a kind of muscle-flexing show of intimidation on China’s part. And turning up the heat along the border is a particularly fitting way for Beijing to express displeasure with Modi after he loudly opposed China’s One Belt, One Road infrastructure agenda on the grounds that China’s construction efforts were impeding on India’s sovereignty.
But this may not just be about sending a message to India. China’s sudden, defiant insistence on its right to build the road near Sikkim suggests the high strategic value it places on that effort—and with good reason. The road is being built just 30km from India’s most vulnerable geographic choke point, as Swarajya Magazine explains:
The road will give China unhindered access to India’s strategically important Siliguri Corridor, the chicken neck that links the northeastern region to the rest of the country. Since the 1962 war with China, Indian strategists have envisioned a scenario where the Chinese may bring in forces to choke the vulnerable Siliguri Corridor and cut off the northeast region.
In other words, China’s road-building here could be part of a long-term strategic contingency plan that would help Beijing cut off India’s northeast regions in a combat scenario. Understandably, India is sensitive about that prospect, and reacting assertively to prevent it. We’ll be watching to see who back down first in this dispute, but for now this is another example of rising tensions as China tries to make inroads into India’s neighborhood.