For a country familiar with the charged, often violent and frequently fatal Pakistan relationship, the standoff between India and China on Bhutan’s Doklam plateau is quite unusual. The troops are standing eye to eye and not across fences, there are no weapons involved and relatively speaking New Delhi has tried to stay away from mindless jingoism and rabble-rousing rhetoric. Still the actual incident itself is no trifling matter. Two large nuclear-armed neighbours have been stuck in a potentially volatile staring contest for nearly a month now.

Despite the stand-off having been in the news since late June, however, the situation seems hard to comprehend. This is in part because of the complex historical background involving colonial legacies and a small disputed patch of land that sits between India, China and Bhutan. Indian soldiers from Sikkim crossed over into territory that is claimed by both China and Bhutan on the Dokolam plateau, alleging that Beijing had been attempting to change the status quo by building a road on Bhutanese land. Every side has its own version of what happened and much of the dispute pivots on interpretations of borders delineated by colonial authorities more than a century ago.

This complex situation has inspired a tremendous amount of commentary. Much of this has simply covered the broad contours of the India-China relationship, reiterating cliches about the tiger or the elephant standing up to the dragon without examining the contours of why this incident is different from the others, both in the circumstances and also how the countries have reacted.

But some analysts have delved into the nuances of the situation, starting with not ignoring the fact that this is not just an India-China standoff – there is a third, sovereign nation with its own interests at hand here.

  • Manoj Joshi explains how India might claim that it is standing up for Bhutan’s interests, but this is really about New Delhi’s concerns.
  • Omair Ahmad offers a reminder for India not to forget that Bhutan is a sovereign nation with its own interests, not a vassal state.

To fully appreciate why this has turned into a conflict, it is important to understand how the trijunction border came to be delineated by colonial rulers in the late 19th and early 20th century.

  • Using a number of maps put forward by various sides, Manoj Joshi tries to make “cartographic sense of a a geopolitical nightmare.”
  • Ankit Panda also looks at maps and satellite photographs to explain the political geography that lies at the heart of this crisis.
  • HS Panag goes over the history of how India handled its northern frontier, often with little infrastructure or understanding of how to prepare for conflict.

There is a section of analysts who believe that India’s insecurities are preventing Bhutan from resolving its border dispute with China, and that New Delhi is to blame for Thimpu’s drift towards Beijing.

  • Nevile Maxwell characterises the crisis as India’s “China war, round two,” inspired by a desire to avenge ignominous defeat in the war of 1962.
  • Tsering Shakya argues that Bhutan can solve its border problem with China itself, if only India will let it.
  • P Stobdan insists that India has not done a good enough job backing up Bhutan, particularly in seeming to meddle with elections there in 2013.
  • Ajai Shukla pushes back against some of these characterisations, insisting that Maxwell is “lockstep with Chinese propaganda,” and that India is in fact living up to its obligations to protect Bhutan.

Others, however, point out that the fact that the crisis has lasted so long, despite some strident threats coming from the Chinese government and its media, suggests India’s approach may be working out – although this is always fraught with uncertainty.

  • Brahma Chellaney calls on New Delhi to play “psychological hardball” and make sure that it is prepared to give China a “bloody nose.”
  • Ankit Panda explains why India would take such an unprecedented step in having its soldiers defend the trijunction area from Bhutanese territory.
  • Ashok Kantha speaks to Saikat Datta about why he does not expect the standoff to end with an early settlement.
  • Ajai Shukla points to a softening of tone from the Chinese side and hears from military experts who insist that Beijing overplayed its hand and India has managed to call this bluff.