NEW DELHI —
A tense standoff between India and China over a Chinese road-building project in the eastern Himalayas is ratcheting up tensions between the two Asian neighbors and is being described by analysts as their most serious border confrontation in recent decades.
Both sides are calling on each other to back down. China wants India to withdraw its troops from the plateau, which lies at the heart of the current dispute, while New Delhi has expressed deep concern that the road construction would significantly change the status quo with serious security implications for India.
The Doklam plateau on which the dispute erupted lies at a junction between the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim, Bhutan and China. It is claimed by both Beijing and Bhutan – a close ally of India.
Although not part of India, the plateau is of huge strategic importance to New Delhi as control over it would give Chinese troops easy access to a narrow strip of Indian territory known as "Chicken’s Neck," which connects India’s far northeast to the rest of the country.
Reports of what exactly happened in the high, remote Himalayan mountains differ. China has accused Indian troops of obstructing a road building project in the area. An Indian foreign ministry statement has said that Indian personnel "approached the Chinese construction party and urged them to desist from changing the status quo."
Bhutan has also asked China to stop the road building project, saying it violates agreements between the two sides. Bhutan, historically close to New Delhi, does not have diplomatic ties with Beijing.
With the face-off showing no signs of easing, India and China have reinforced troops in the region.
Warning that "there is no scope for a compromise," the Chinese envoy to New Delhi, Luo Zhaohui, has put the onus on India to resolve the situation. He told the Press Trust of India on Tuesday that Indian troops must pullback unconditionally. "The situation is grave and made me deeply worried."
“Both sides have hardened their positions," says Jayadeva Ranade, a former China specialist on the Indian government's National Security Advisory Board.
"As far as China is concerned, they are actually indicating that they are going to dig in where they are. India is not going to back off from supporting Bhutan."
Rhetoric over the dispute has become sharper in recent days. Calling the road’s construction an act of sovereignty in its own territory, the Chinese foreign ministry has said that it is "utterly unjustifiable" for the Indian side to interfere on territory over which it has no claim.
India said in a statement last week that the Chinese road building action was in violation of a 2012 agreement.
Skirmishes along the disputed border between India and China are not uncommon, but have been in the past been resolved diplomatically.
However this time, instead of visible efforts to defuse the situation, analysts say the tone of the rhetoric from the two sides is heating up.
After a Chinese military spokesman last week asked India to remember its defeat in a brief war the two countries fought in 1962, Indian Defense Minister Arun Jaitley said that the India of 2017 was not the India of 1962.
"The war of words is not stopping. It has its own momentum, it builds up. This kind of exchange has an in-built escalationary potential," says Alka Acharya, a professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
The flare-up comes in the wake of steadily deteriorating ties between the two countries. Earlier this year, China raised strident objections to a visit by Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama to the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. India has also irked China by refusing to join the ambitious Chinese Road and Belt project saying that it ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The dispute has flared ahead of the G 20 summit in Germany later this week where both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be present.