Himalayan face-off

The current standoff in the Doklam area, the worst crisis in India-China relations since the 1962 war, has the potential to escalate and unsettle the geopolitics of the region unless resolved quickly.

Published : Jul 19, 2017 12:30 IST

International Zero point on the India-China border in North Sikkim.

International Zero point on the India-China border in North Sikkim.

THE SITUATION ON THE SIKKIM BORDER involving the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is being described as the most serious crisis to break out along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the last 40 years. Since the middle of June, Indian and Chinese soldiers have been facing each other on a Himalayan plateau in the Doklam area, on the border with Sikkim. The latest confrontation has been described as the most serious crisis since the 1962 India-China war. No shots have been fired along the border between the two countries since 1975, and there have been no shots fired yet. After India and China signed the “Peace and Tranquillity Agreement” in 1993, followed by other major agreements such as the “Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination” and the “Border Defence Cooperation Agreement” in 2012 and 2013 respectively, the border between the two countries has been relatively calm.

The crisis between the two countries first came into spotlight around the time Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was visiting the United States in late June. The military standoff at the tri-junction where the borders of China, Bhutan and India meet was triggered by the construction of a motorable road by the PLA from Doka La in the Doklam area. The Indian government claims that the road, when completed, will connect Lhasa to the Chumbi valley in the disputed tri-junction area. Indian military planners and security experts are of the opinion that this move by the PLA poses a serious threat to India’s national security.

The Bhutanese Foreign Ministry lodged a complaint with China in June, claiming that the construction was taking place on Bhutanese territory and that the road was heading towards a Bhutanese military camp in Zumpeiri. The Ministry noted that the construction activity was in violation of the 1988 and 1998 written agreements between the two countries which pledged to maintain peace and tranquillity along the border between the two countries until a final settlement of the boundary question was made. The Bhutanese statement claimed that the road building affected the prospects for the demarcation of the boundary between the two countries. Bhutan’s Ambassador to India, Maj. Gen. (Retd) V. Namgyel, handed a formal “demarche” to the Chinese Embassy in Delhi on June 20 demanding a halt to the Chinese road-construction activities.

Indian troops moved into the area where the road construction was going on. The Indian government initially gave the impression that the PLA had trespassed into the Indian side of the LAC. The jingoistic Indian media had a field day and went to town condemning Chinese “aggression”. This sparked a reaction from the nationalistic section of the Chinese media. There was even talk in sections of the Chinese media of another war looming with India and about India not learning from “the lesson of 1962”.

Visuals were shown on Indian television of Indian and Chinese soldiers pushing and shoving each other. It later turned out that the visuals were of an incident which happened more than seven years ago.

It was only after the Indian Army chief, Gen. Bipin Rawat, who had rushed to the area, disclosed that Indian troops had entered the Doklam area at the invitation of the Bhutanese government that the hyper-nationalistic narrative of the Indian media was toned down. Gen. Rawat flew to Sikkim to meet the commanders of the 17 Mountain Division, which had been given the task of protecting the Sikkim border area. India is raising the 80,000-strong elite Mountain Strike Corps to guard the 3,500-km-long border with China. Beijing was quick to demand the withdrawal of the Indian troops who, they claimed, had crossed over from the Sikkim border.

China insists that the Sikkim-China sector of the LAC is a settled border in accordance with the 1890 “Article One of the Convention between Great Britain and China, Relating to Sikkim and Tibet”. It says that its recognition of Sikkim after it was taken over by India was based on this convention. China warned that if India did not adhere to this treaty which, it claimed, clearly defined the Sikkim section of the Sino-Indian boundary, the legality of Sikkim’s accession to the Indian Union could be reopened.

The 1890 agreement clearly stated that “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”. Doklam has been under Chinese control for a long time. China has also quoted a letter from Jawaharlal Nehru to his Chinese counterpart, Zhou En-lai, in 1959, conceding the validity of the Anglo-Chinese convention of 1890. Referring to the road construction in Doklam, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that its activities there were “acts of sovereignty on its own territory”, adding that it “was completely justified and lawful”.

It came as a surprise, therefore, when Indian troops were given the go-ahead to move into the area. The foolhardy move must surely have been cleared by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). India currently has only a part-time Defence Minister. Arun Jaitley holds the key portfolio, but his major preoccupation is with the Finance Ministry. All the important decisions seem to be made in the PMO and the Army headquarters. The last time India decided to send troops across the borders, it resulted in the 1962 war. The psychological and political scars left behind in India by that war are yet to heal. Gen. Bipin Rawat has said that India is ready to fight a war simultaneously on two fronts, with Pakistan and China, at short notice.

Graphic evidence provided by the Chinese side shows that the Indian troops crossed the “water-parting” which defines the boundary. They have remained there since the end of June. It looks likely that the standoff may continue for quite some time. The Indian Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar, told the media in Singapore that he was hopeful of “differences” being resolved soon while insisting that “no part of the border has been agreed on the ground”. The Chinese government has ruled out talks on the issue until the Indian troops withdrew to their side of the border. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson reiterated that the latest standoff was a “dispute”, not a matter of mere differences regarding the Sikkim border. He said that the present dispute was completely different from previous incidents between the two sides at undefined sections of the border between the two countries. On June 20, the Chinese government announced that it would not allow Indian pilgrims going to Kailash Mansoravar to use the Nathu La route in Sikkim, until the present crisis was settled. Global Times , a tabloid-style newspaper which reflects Chinese popular sentiment and has the tacit backing of the Chinese Communist Party, said in an editorial that China should have a rethink about its recognition of Sikkim as part of India in 2003.

The Indian government, after initially helping whip up a nationalist frenzy in the media, is now looking for an honourable way out of the impasse. The Indian side had hoped that Prime Minister Modi would be able to meet with President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg. The Chinese government, taken aback by the unexpected move by the Indian Army, quashed all talk of a Modi-Xi meet. In fact, the Chinese government denied that there was a meeting between the two in Hamburg, as reported by sections of the Indian media. Modi and Xi had extremely cordial talks in Astana during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit there in June. In Hamburg, they did greet each other and exchanged pleasantries. The Indian Foreign Office claims that the two leaders did find the time to discuss the current crisis. The Chinese side has since made a statement that normal trading and cultural ties will not be affected by the ongoing crisis.

According to Foreign Secretary Jaishankar, Modi and Xi had reached a “consensus” on two important points when they met in Astana—that at a time of global uncertainty, India-China relations were a factor of stability, and that India and China should not allow differences between them to become disputes. The Indian National Security Adviser (NSA), Ajit Doval, will be in Beijing between July 26 and 27 to attend a BRICS NSA meeting hosted by China. As the meeting is hosted by Doval’s Chinese counterpart, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, the military stalemate along the border will be discreetly discussed on the sidelines despite the tough stance taken publicly by China.

The current standoff, if not resolved quickly, has the potential to turn into a full-blown dispute that could have wide-ranging consequences for the geopolitics of the region. The last serious standoff between the two militaries took place in 1986 in Sumdorang Chu near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. That dispute has some similarities with the present one. The Sumdorang Chu standoff lasted more than eight months. Both sides retreated to their original positions across the LAC following the visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China that year.

China’s Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, said in early July that there was no question of the PLA withdrawing this time. He reiterated the Chinese government’s position that there would be “no compromise” and that the “ball was in India’s court”. Beijing has been saying that “withdrawal of Indian troops” was a precondition for talks on the latest dispute. The Chinese envoy pointed out that “it was for the first time that Indian troops crossed the mutually recognised boundary and trespassed into Chinese territory, triggering a close range face-off between Chinese and Indian troops”. He said this was the first time that such a serious incident between the two countries had occurred on the Sikkim sector of the Sino-Indian boundary. When asked about the possibility of hostilities breaking out, he said that it was up to the Indian government to decide whether or not to “exercise the military option”.

The Indian government reiterated that the decision to move troops to stop the Chinese road construction activity was initiated after close consultations with the government of Bhutan. India told China that the construction of the road violated a written agreement between Indian and Chinese Special Representatives on the border issue that the status of the boundary at any tri-junction would be resolved only with the participation of the third party. A statement from the Indian External Affairs Ministry said that New Delhi was “deeply concerned” by the road construction activity that represented “a significant change in the status quo with serious implications for India”. India claimed that the Chinese construction activity in Doklam undermined a 2012 agreement under which the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and Bhutan will be finalised in consultation with all the three concerned parties. The ongoing face-off between Indian and Chinese soldiers is happening at a place located only a few kilometres from the tri-junction where the borders of the three countries meet.

India views the rise in road and railway construction activity across the LAC with increasing suspicion. Chinese roads extending into the Chumbi valley particularly are viewed with extreme suspicion as the valley is located close to India’s Siliguri corridor, known in military parlance as “the Chicken’s Neck”, connecting mainland India with the north-eastern States of the country. It is just 30 km wide at its narrowest point. India’s security analysts like to describe the Chumbi valley as “a dagger” pointing towards the “Chicken’s Neck”. Many Indian security analysts are of the view that the military importance of the Siliguri corridor is being over-hyped. They say that India has a strong military presence in Sikkim and Bhutan to deter any adventurism from China. Even in the worst-case scenario of the Siliguri corridor falling into enemy hands, the Indian Army can bypass the corridor and send troops and reinforcements to the north-east through Nepal and Bangladesh.

China occupies a narrow strip of land in the Chumbi valley, with the areas controlled by India and Bhutan flanking it. In 1996, China offered to swap with Bhutan 495 sq km of its territory in the Pasamlung and Jakharlung sectors in lieu of 269 sq km of territory in Doklam. Bhutan has been holding separate border talks with China since 1984. Before that, India was acting on behalf of the kingdom. China and Bhutan have held 24 rounds of boundary talks already. After initially issuing the “demarche” on the latest border flare-up, Bhutan has been noticeably quiet. Sections of the Chinese media have accused India of arm-twisting Bhutan into filing the “demarche”. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson alleged that India used Bhutan as “a cover up” for its “illegal entry” into Doklam. There is an apparent unease in the kingdom as its two giant neighbours square off at its doorstep. Senior Bhutanese officials want the dispute to be settled at the earliest through talks between India and China.

For all practical purposes, India still runs Bhutan’s defence and foreign policies. The 1949 “Friendship Treaty” between India and Bhutan put the running of Bhutan’s external policy in the hands of India. The treaty was revised in 2007, allowing Bhutan, at least on paper, to conduct its own foreign and defence policies. Article 2 of the revised treaty states that India and Bhutan “shall cooperate with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither country shall allow the use of their territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.”

But when an elected government in Bhutan tried to chart a slightly independent course, India imposed an economic blockade and played a role in getting the party led by the then Prime Minister, Jigme Thinley, defeated in the elections held in 2013. In 2012, Thinley, in talks held with his Chinese counterpart, had agreed to resolve border disputes and establish diplomatic relations. China and Bhutan had signed an “Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity” along the border in 1998. Chinese sources has said that a border deal acceptable to both sides is ready. China’s Ambassador to India has gone on record stating that India had no right to interfere in the China-Bhutan boundary talks and that it was not entitled to make territorial claims on behalf of Bhutan.

India, of course, is averse to a separate deal between China and Bhutan. It insists on a comprehensive settlement of the border dispute that includes all the three countries. Public opinion in Bhutan is said to be strongly in favour of resolving the border dispute bilaterally with China. The feeling among the Bhutanese is that once this issue is resolved, Bhutan can have a truly independent policy. Bhutan has full diplomatic ties with more than 50 countries including Japan but not with its immediate neighbour, China. This fact rankles influential sections of the ruling establishment and the public in Bhutan. The Indian government’s decision to send troops into Doklam and drag Bhutan into its confrontation with China will not go down well with the populace there. The Indian move on the Sikkim border may prove to be counterproductive in more ways than one. Internationally too, there has been little diplomatic support for India. During a recent visit to Paris, U.S. President Donald Trump was effusive in his praise for the Chinese President, saying that they will be able to do business together. As it is, India has very few “all-weather friends” in its immediate neighbourhood.

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