The Cable

Will China and India Go to War Over This Tiny 12-Mile Strip of Land?

India is trying to shield a narrow chokepoint from Chinese encroachment.

Siliguri

China and India share more than 2,000 miles of border, but it’s a slim corridor just 12 miles across at its narrowest point — and a nearby nugget of disputed territory — that has the nuclear-armed neighbors at each other’s throats.

On June 16, Chinese troops began extending a border road into the Doklam plateau, a tiny piece of land claimed by both China and Bhutan (but not India). Bhutan then called on India to intervene to block the road.

Beijing reacted with outrage when New Delhi sent in troops to stop the construction, and both countries unleashed a war of words in domestic media outlets. China held live fire drills along the border last week, where several thousand troops from both countries are stationed.

The saber-rattling has lasted for more than a month already and shows no signs of stopping. China’s Foreign Ministry railed against what it called India’s “irresponsibility and recklessness” on Aug. 3. A day later, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman General Wu Qian issued a warning to India in a press conference.

“Do not push your luck and cling to any fantasies,” Wu said. “China’s determination and resolve to safeguard national security and sovereignty is unshakable.”

India doesn’t claim Doklam. But the plateau lies along the slim Siliguri corridor, just 12 miles wide at its narrowest point, in Sikkim state that divides mainland India from its seven northeastern-most states. One of those states is Arunachal Pradesh, a swath of land the size of South Carolina currently administered by India, but which China claims almost in its entirety.

It’s a strategic vulnerability for India, and New Delhi fears Beijing’s encroachment there.

China and India fought a border war in 1962, but that didn’t resolve their territorial disputes. In addition to Arunachal Pradesh, regions such as Aksai China, Siachen Glacier, and the Depsang Plains remain potential flashpoints.

“I’m not sure how this situation de-escalates,” said Yvonne Chiu, a politics professor at Hong Kong University, in an interview with CNN, “not just because of the media hype on both sides, but also because China may not have an interest in de-escalating.”

Image credit: C.K. Hickey/Carto

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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