Doklam Standoff – Prisoner’s Dilemma and Game of Chicken – Part 2 | Security Risks Asia Made with Humane Club

Doklam Standoff – Prisoner’s Dilemma and Game of Chicken – Part 2

Published May 22, 2020
Updated May 22, 2020


India, China and Bhutan are engaged in a standoff in the tri-junction area of the boundary of the three states in the Indian State of Sikkim known as Doklam or Donglong by the Chinese. The location of the Tri junction is disputed by both sides China is claiming the same to be much deeper than which is held at present at Doka La. China is also claiming a large tract of Bhutanese territory known as the Doklam Plateau.

China’s construction of a road in the Doklam Plateau was objected by Bhutan on 16 June. When the construction continued, Bhutan requested Indian intervention based on Article 2 of the Indo Bhutan Friendship Treaty. Indian troops physically prevented the Chinese from road construction. On both sides, the troops are in contact but are unarmed.

China has launched a diplomatic and media offensive asking India to pull back from Chinese territory (claimed).

India has adopted a measured approach attempting to resolve the issue diplomatically.

For More on the Stand Off Click to read the response from Indian Ministry of External Affairs.

Examining the confrontation from the perspective of Game Theory – Prisoner’s Dilemma and Game of Chicken, likely outcomes, advantages and disadvantages are discussed as per succeeding paragraphs.

 Prisoner’s  Dilemma

Cooperation – This would imply both sides choose to maintain the status quo at least temporarily and decide to resolve the issue through bilateral or trilateral (including Bhutan) talks. Goes against the theory of rational self-interest, this time elevated to rational national interest.

     Advantages. Cooperation will avoid a possible armed confrontation, denote maturity of Asia’s rising powers to resolve bilateral issues through engagement, create an environment of confidence and be of greater mutual economic benefit.

     Disadvantages. China is apparently at a more significant disadvantage to retract from road construction activity would show signs of weakness particularly having claims to greater legal propriety based on the Treaty of 1890. Willingness to discuss the issue based on subsequent interactions which are India’s position may also be seen as a failure though to a lesser extent. For China pulling back would also imply losing a strategic gambit to improve defensive positions astride the Chumbi Valley as well as losing face for the leadership both in the international community as well as at home with the 19th Congress in the offing.

     Outcome –   As China is at a greater disadvantage by cooperation, there is less willingness in Beijing to do so evident from the hard line stance adopted by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and state controlled media.

Collusion – Both sides maintain the existing positions on the Boundary Dispute based on rational self-interest –

     Advantages. India continues to deny China the strategic location obtained by extending the tri-junction to Mount Gyamochen. China continues to sustain the firm legal basis for extending the road network through physical presence and maintain claims.

     Disadvantages. The possibility of armed confrontation. A major setback bilaterally as well as internationally having political, diplomatic and economic for both sides.

     Outcome – As each side believes that a military confrontation need not go against it, continued standoff seems imminent.

 Overall Outcome for Resolution – India will have to apparently give in or be prepared for an armed confrontation

Also Read Can Game Theory provide answers to the Doklam Standoff?

 Game of Chicken

 The Game of Chicken, draws its name from the phrase, “chickening out,” which colloquially means being declared a coward. Thus when two sides in this case India and China are on a collision course, the one who pulls back first will be the chicken. Theoretically speaking both sides will benefit if one side yields first – be it India or China while there is an equilibrium if both pull back simultaneously.

 The worst outcome is if both sides continue not to yield for this will inevitably result in a clash which will not be beneficial for either even if there may be a temporary outcome of apparent tactical success. Unlike the Prisoner’s Dilemma, there is a degree of irrationality in the Game of Chicken.

 China is combining the Game of Chicken with Brinkmanship – the constant rhetoric by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and state supported media arms as Global Times – threatening war, reminding India of 1962 misfortune and so on is an attempt to force India to back off. The legal instrument of the 1890 Treaty is also similarly used to cow down the Indian response possibly having learnt lessons from case of Philippines having taken the maritime dispute to the International Tribunal.

 Use of Game Theory in the Current Situation

An evaluation of the developing situation so far denotes that China has taken the maximalist position thus for Beijing to swerve from the road or give in to India’s demand without a corresponding payoff in the Game of Chicken will not be seen as success. Similarly Cooperation in the Prisoner’s Dilemma model is also not seen to benefit China, which has undertaken a brinkmanship approach.

India will have to convince China that it is beneficial for both  sides to adopt the Cooperation route to break the deadlock while preparing for an armed conflict in the future.