Geopolitical implications

Border manoeuvres

Print edition : August 04, 2017

At the Nathu La pass, a file photograph. Photo: AFP/DIPTENDU DUTTA

A view of the Yam Dro Yum Tso lake on the Lhasa-Yadong route to Nathu La. China is constructing the new road because this road is too narrow for military manoeuvres. Photo: Atul Aneja

The standoff in Doklam is emblematic of a growing competition between India and China for a larger geopolitical role in Asia.

From the middle of June, a face-off between Chinese and Indian troops, with the latent danger of escalating into a major conflict between the two emerging economies in Asia, has been brewing in the remote Doklam area (The Chinese call it Donglang) in the Sikkim section of the India-China frontier. The Chinese say that Indian troops have infringed China’s sovereignty, as the face-off was taking place on Chinese territory. To buttress their claim, the Chinese point to the 1890 convention between China and Britain, which, in their view, defined without ambiguity the boundary between Tibet and Sikkim.

Doklam is at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan. It is part of the strategic Chumbi valley, leading to the Dok La pass which connects Tibet with Sikkim. China and Bhutan have a territorial dispute over Doklam. In 1998, both sides agreed not to change the status quo in the area until a final settlement between the two countries was achieved. The current standoff commenced after the Chinese began to construct a road in the disputed area.

The Chinese citation of the 1890 boundary convention as the touchstone of their narrative on the current crisis needs to be discussed in some detail. Certain questions in deciphering the fine print, arise: Were only the guiding principles for defining the boundary agreed upon by the two parties—China and Britain—or was there more to it? Was the boundary demarcated post-delineation? That would have meant dispatching personnel from both sides and actually fixing boundary markers, which would have made the agreed border on the ground visually discernable without a shadow of doubt. In case the boundary was demarcated, was it demarcated along the entire length of the Tibet-Sikkim border, or only partially, along certain segments of it? Did the entire boundary go through the process of delimitation, that is, enter the post-demarcation phase, where the final frontier was depicted on an agreed map by the two parties? In the fog of high-decibel claims and counterclaims by either side, answers to many of these questions lie obscured in a grey zone.

The location of the standoff is also contested by India and China. The Indian side claims that the face-off is taking place at the tri-junction of China, Bhutan and Sikkim. According to the Indian narrative, the boundary along the tri-junction has not been finalised, implying that contrary to Chinese claims, the entire Sikkim-Tibet boundary is yet to become a done deal. The Indian side also points out that any finalisation of the boundary would have to involve Bhutan. But tripartite talks between India, China and Bhutan, that are necessary to finalise the border, have simply not begun.

It is well known that the border between China and Bhutan is far from settled. Since 1984, the officials of the two sides have held 24 rounds of talks over their disputed border. In the past, the Chinese have offered 495 sq km of territory in the northern part of the Himalayan nation to Bhutan. In return, they insisted that Bhutan give China 269 sq km of the disputed territory in the west—an area of rich grazing pasture, central to the livelihood of Bhutanese pastoralists. The Chinese have claimed four areas in western Bhutan: Charithang, Sinchulimpa, the Dramana pasture land and Doklam, the present bone of contention. This western alignment is geopolitically sensitive as it provides China another access point to the Chumbi valley, the channel leading to India’s underbelly, the narrow Siliguri corridor, called the “chicken’s neck”. At its narrowest, the Siliguri corridor is only 30 kilometres wide. It is a thin sliver of land connecting the north-east with the rest of India.

In a statement issued on June 30, India insisted that the India-China boundary in the Sikkim sector was yet to be finalised. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) pointed out that India and China had reached an understanding in 2012 reconfirming their mutual agreement on the “basis of the alignment”. “Further discussions regarding finalisation of the boundary have been taking place under the Special Representatives framework.”

Regarding tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries, it said that those will be finalised in consultation with the concerned countries. “Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine tri-junction points is in violation of this understanding.”

Contesting the Chinese view, the Bhutanese have gone on record to contend that the Doklam area is very much a disputed one. Vetsop Namgyel, the Bhutanese Ambassador to India, categorically stated that “Doklam is a disputed territory and Bhutan has a written agreement with China that pending the final resolution of the boundary issue, peace and tranquillity should be maintained in the area.”

According to the Indian narrative, the current standoff was triggered by the Chinese decision to build a strategic road in the Doklam tri-junction area. The Indian troops responded to the Chinese initiative following a complaint by Bhutan. The Chinese government and Chinese security analysts questioned India’s move on behalf of Bhutan. Some accused India of disrespecting Bhutanese sovereignty. In an interview with Frontline, the Chinese scholar, Dr Hu Shisheng, Director of the Beijing-based Institute of South and Southeast Asian and Oceania Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said: “Maybe if this is a disputed area, this should be a disputed area between China and Bhutan, but not directly between China and India.”

Analysts, however, say that India could not have stayed aloof to the escalating crisis. India is obligated to side with Bhutan as the two countries have special ties which have been legally affirmed by the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 2007. Article 2 of the Friendship Treaty, which succeeded the 1949 Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship between the two countries, affirms that India and Bhutan shall “cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests”. It adds: “Neither Government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.”

Consistent with the 2007 treaty, the June 30 statement by the MEA highlighted that in keeping with the “tradition” of maintaining close consultation on matters of mutual interest, Bhutan and India “have been in continuous contact through the unfolding of these developments”.

In an interview with The Hindu, former Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon underscored that though the area of the standoff is Bhutanese territory, “we are there because of Bhutan and we have a certain relationship and certain obligations to Bhutan. In this case, China’s actions have disturbed the status quo, and that needs to be addressed”.

The Indian side has also said that India’s security considerations were a major factor driving the military standoff.

It is well known that China has developed an excellent road and rail network in the direction of the Chumbi valley. The Qinghai-Tibet railway has already reached Shigatse, not far from the border with Nepal. From there, the Chinese plan to extend the railway to Yadong, which is inside the Chumbi valley. Yadong is the base for reaching Nathu La. The pass, which connects Tibet with Sikkim, is only 31 km away along a winding road up a mountain.

The road network between Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, and Yadong, a distance of around 500 km, is excellent. Vehicles usually manage to cover that distance in less than eight hours. Departing from Lhasa, the Kamba La pass, at a dizzying height of 16,000 feet (4,800 metres), is the first major landmark that is crossed enroute Yadong. This pass is in Tibet’s Shannan prefecture, also known for its turquoise blue Yam Dro Yum Tso lake, an emblematic point of reference in Buddhist religious calendar. Further ahead lies the Tibet-Bhutan junction before the road descends steeply towards Yadong, located at a height of around 9,000 feet (2,700 m).

From a Chinese military perspective, there is one major problem with this road to Yadong. It is too narrow for major military manoeuvres. Greater tactical space can be acquired if a new road is constructed through the Chumbi valley via the disputed tri-junction area, with Dok La as the access point to India. But if the new road is constructed, the vulnerability of the Siliguri corridor would, arguably, be significantly enhanced, a situation that New Delhi well recognises and wants to nip in the bud.

Chinese security experts do recognise India’s strategic compulsions, despite disagreeing with the tactics that the border forces adopted. “My personal understanding [is] that this time the Indians did it on purpose. The reason is to stop the potential strategic construction. But this should not be the way,” said Hu, when asked whether India’s security considerations may have been a factor in the standoff as the construction of a new Chinese road would have added to the vulnerability of the Siliguri corridor.

Hu stressed that India should have used diplomatic channels instead of adopting a military stance if it perceived the road construction by China as “threatening”. However, analysts in India say that once new “facts on the ground” in the form of a finished road by China are established, it would be hard for diplomacy to achieve any tangible results.

China blamed India for the standoff, insisting that Indian troops had “trespassed” into Chinese sovereign territory as there was no ambiguity in the boundary alignment in the Sikkim sector. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that “successive” Indian governments had agreed to this “settled” boundary in the Sikkim sector. However, Beijing did not produce any documentation to prove India’s acceptance of this boundary after the 1962 war, a watershed event that completely redefined India-China ties, including the boundary question.

To illustrate its assertion, the Chinese Foreign Ministry cited letters written by Jawaharlal Nehru to the Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. In a media briefing on July 3, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson cited two letters written by Nehru in 1959 where he “had explicitly recognised many times that the (1890) Convention has defined the boundary between Xi Zang (Tibet) of China and Sikkim”.

While it is true that Nehru had acknowledged that the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet “was defined by the 1890 Convention and demarcated by the two sides on the ground in 1895,” his letter also excluded the tri-junction area with Bhutan from his endorsement of the boundary. In a letter written on September 26, 1959, Nehru said that the “rectification of errors in Chinese maps regarding the boundary of Bhutan with Tibet is therefore a matter which has to be discussed along with the boundary of India with the Tibet region of China in the same sector”.

Article 1 of the 1890 convention, signed in Calcutta (Kolkata), states: “The boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its effluents from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other rivers of Tibet. The line commences at Mount Gipmochi, on the Bhutan frontier, and follows the above-mentioned water-parting to the point where it meets Nepal territory.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, using unusually harsh language, described India’s alleged incursion into its territory as a “betrayal”. It has also been consistently demanding the pull-back of Indian forces as the pre-condition for talks. Besides, full-blown “mind games” are also being played. The Chinese Defence Ministry reminded India of the 1962 debacle. It also tested a new lightweight tank in the Tibetan highlands, and pointedly publicised the event.

On his part, the Indian Army chief, Gen. Bipin Rawat, expressed India’s ability to simultaneously fight a two-and-a-half-front war, implying that India was fully capable of fighting China, Pakistan and internal dissidents, all at the same time.

The standoff at Doklam is emblematic of a growing competition between China and India for a larger geopolitical and geo-cultural role in Asia and the Indian Ocean area. India views China’s 21st century Maritime Silk Road as a doctrine that endorses encroachment of India’s regional standing in the Indian Ocean, with countries such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives among the main battlegrounds. The reinforcement of China’s ties with Pakistan through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is also seen as an expression of Sino-Pak entrenchment in the Indian Ocean area, via the development of Gwadar port. It can also significantly expand the scope of China-Pakistan military collaboration on land, should the need arise.

China’s closer bonding with Nepal and the perceived additional pressure on Bhutan in the wake of the current standoff are seen as an attempt to change the India-centred status quo in South Asia.

Additional points of friction are also likely to emerge as India seeks to leverage its geo-cultural space, especially in South-east Asia as part of its Act East policy. Besides, ties with the United States, Japan and Russia are likely to feed into the evolving equation between China and India, with ripple effects being felt far beyond the immediate neighbourhood of the two countries.

In the interview with The Hindu, Shivshankar Menon advocated a new modus vivendi to govern India-China relations. “My own sense is that both of us must sit down and work out a new modus vivendi to govern the relationship. We have both since the ’80s been rubbing up against each other in the periphery we share. So we do need a new strategic dialogue to discuss how we should sort out problems.” Perhaps a fresh attempt to harmonise rising national aspirations, tactics and strategy in the shared regional and global space by the two countries may be the way forward.

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