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A Treacherous Faultline

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A Treacherous Faultline

China’s unprovoked aggression in recent days in Sikkim has been duly frustrated by India’s restrained posture. While prudence rules out conflict as an option, it is time to analyse the context of the current face-off, historical and contemporary


Jayadeva Ranade (President, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy)

China has since late 2007 followed an increasingly assertive policy, but after the 18th Party Congress and installation of Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President of China, it has also sought to aggressively expand its territory and strategic space. Xi Jinping’s use of ideology and nationalism to consolidate power reinforces these assertive policies.

The unusually extended over month-long face-off between Chinese and Indian troops at Doka La (Doklum) fixes the spotlight on China’s aggressive behaviour. It comes in the midst of considerable strain in Sino-Indian relations. China’s decision to publicise the incident and insistence that the Doka La area is Chinese territory and India must first withdraw its troops before negotiations can begin, not only potentially narrows the room available to both sides for diplomatic manoeuvre but has raised the stakes. It obfuscates the fact that Doklum is disputed territory. The numerous articles in China’s state-owned media and official statements additionally reveal the thinking in the CCP’s higher echelons about India.

The immediate cause for renewed tension in relations is China’s decision to resume building a road on the disputed Doklum Plateau after an interval of some years and in disregard of agreements between India and China not to unilaterally alter the status quo at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In its note of June 20, 2017, Bhutan stated that Beijing was violating the understanding reached in 1988 and 1998 on maintaining the status quo. China insists its claim to Doklum is based on the ‘1890 Convention Between Great Britain and China relating to Sikkim and Tibet’, which outlined a border treaty between Sikkim and Tibet along the watershed principle but without demarcation of territories. Bhutan has consistently contested China’s claim and China’s efforts in the past to construct mud tracks through this area have been resisted by Bhutanese border guards. China has also been selective in citing the 1890 treaty while terming the 1914 McMahon Line, which it does not recognise beyond this point, as “unequal”.

Although China and India both accept the alignment of the Sikkim-Tibet boundary as laid down in the Convention, except for the so-called ‘The Finger’ area at its northern-most point, both have agreed with regard to the tri-junction that the matter can only be settled in consultation with Bhutan. The areas of the current stand-off in the Sikkim-Bhutan area were never formalised into treaties between Bhutan and China and, since the area is at the tri-junction of three countries, India’s consent is necessary for finalising a border treaty. China’s road building activity in the Doklum Plateau violates this commitment and seeks to unilaterally alter the status quo even though it had accepted Doklum as disputed territory.

China’s bid to build a road in the Doka La area has the military objective of securing the high ground of the Doklum Plateau to dominate the Chumbi valley. This potentially heightens the security threat to the 27-kms wide Siliguri corridor — a vital transport artery for both India and Bhutan — and which links India to its northeast. Beijing also has the twin objectives of pressuring Thimpu to agree to the establishment of diplomatic relations and allowing Beijing to set up an embassy there, which it has long endeavoured, and to attempt to reinforce Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh. 

Doka La is on the tri-junction between India, China (Tibet) and Bhutan. China identifies the southern-most point as the peak of Gipmochi (Gyemochen) located on the Bhutan frontier but further south. China has been trying to build a road through Bhutanese territory, to which Thimpu has objected, up to Gyemochen. China claims Gyemochen is the tri-junction between India, China (Tibet) and Bhutan whereas Survey of India maps of 1956 show Batang La, approximately 18 kms north of Gyemochen, as the tri-junction and watershed. By insisting that Gyemochen is the tri-junction China hopes to bolster its claim over Arunachal Pradesh.

It is apparent now that the Chinese were caught off-guard by India’s decisive and robust response to China’s intrusion into Bhutan’s territory. Beijing would have assessed that with Sino-Indian relations under strain and India wanting China to ease its posture on various issues like admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), India will refrain from any action that would put bilateral ties under further strain and confine its assistance to Bhutan to diplomatic protests.

With Beijing’s decision to publicise the face-off it appears to have decided to stare India down. An extended face-off, however, makes the situation more volatile especially as additional troop reinforcements continue to be brought in. In the interregnum, China would be exploring different options, including military. Large in the background of Chinese calculations would be India’s opposition to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and reservations regarding Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship strategic geo-economic initiative, the ‘One Belt, One Road’ — now called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — because of which it resisted Chinese pressure and declined to attend the BRI Forum. The Commanders of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s Western Theatre Command and Shigatse Military Sub-District, whose careers are on an upward graph, would be supportive of military action in order to recoup the prestige they feel has been lost with the face-off at Doka La. Such action, if localised, could be elsewhere along the land border, like Arunachal Pradesh.  

Pertinent is that since 2013, China — which has border problems with other countries too — has repeatedly declared that it will never yield on issues of sovereignty or territory. Xinhua, the official and authoritative Chinese news agency, reported that Xi Jinping had directed “no compromise” on territorial and sovereignty issues while reaffirming that China sought to resolve disagreements peacefully. China’s White Paper on Military Strategy, 2015, cited Xi Jinping’s dictum of “bottom line thinking” i.e. that issues of sovereignty and territory are non-negotiable.

Revealing the thinking at senior echelons of the CCP are the articles published by China’s state-owned media like the Global Times. China’s state-owned media is tightly controlled by the CCP’s powerful Propaganda Department which often issues thrice daily ‘advisories’ on how and what to print and the prominence to be given to any particular article. Articles relating to neighbouring countries are especially vetted. The recent threats about China’s intentions regarding Sikkim, Bhutan, promoting insurgency in the northeast and attempt to draw a parallel between India’s action in Doka La in support of Bhutan and a possible Chinese intrusion in Kashmir at Pakistan’s instance, would have been approved at a high level in the CCP. India’s policy towards China would henceforth need to factor this in.

There are also larger issues at stake here. China, after having widely publicised the face-off, cannot be seen to be backing down especially since it has been assertively projecting itself as the dominant power in the region. Countries in the region, many of who have been urging India to play a more active role in the South China Sea issue, would see that India had stood up to China and got it to back off from aggression and view China as a “paper tiger”. China’s efforts over the past decade to project itself as a global power and strive for what it calls a “new type of big power relations” with the US would receive a major setback. These considerations could prompt it, if negotiations stall, to make the stand-off at Doka La the causus belli for “a counter-attack in self-defence”. At a time when China is trying to expand influence in South Asia, neither can India afford to be seen as backing down in the face of Chinese pressure and threats. Simultaneously, India’s stock in the world would rise with countries looking at India afresh as a power able to withstand Chinese pressure, capable of coming to the aid of its ally, and willing to safeguard its sovereign and territorial interests.

Any conflict would be damaging to both sides and it would be prudent to contain the dispute while trying for a mutually acceptable resolution. By not reacting to Chinese statements India has clearly signalled its desire to not escalate matters. The situation is made more fragile by China’s upcoming 19th Party Congress scheduled for late October 2017. There are already hints of opposition to Xi Jinping, for whom the Congress is important and he cannot afford to appear weak in the run up to the Congress. This could reduce the window for negotiations.

The author is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy. Views expressed here are his own

Bhutan walks the tight rope

Prof Manish (Department of International Relations, Sikkim (Central) University)

For weeks now, the Indian and Chinese troops are in a standoff over the border row at Doklam in the Sikkim sector. The row triggered off after the Indian Army resisted the construction of a road by China in Doklam — a disputed territory between China and Bhutan also known as Donglong. Since India and Bhutan enjoy the closest relationship including military-to-military cooperation on issues of mutual national interest, the Indian Army response was inevitable. Doklam, covering around 89 sq kms, is strategically located towards the North-Western sector of Bhutan in close proximity to Chumbi valley, which is the vital intersection or the tri-junction of Sikkim, Bhutan and China, and thus concerns New Delhi.

This valley has historically been part of Sikkim, when Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet were independent principalities. The Sikkim King Guru Tashi used to have a house in Chumbi valley and reside there for most of the year. Nathu La is the main gateway from Sikkim into Chumbi valley, now politically part of China after its occupation of Tibet in 1950. Indeed, it is interesting to know that hardly a month after China had invaded Tibet and occupied the town of Chamdo, the then Political Officer in Sikkim, Harishwar Dayal, had sent a Top Secret cable to New Delhi suggesting a takeover of Chumbi valley because of its strategic significance for the defence of Sikkim. The then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, did not heed to the request.

Predictably today, as the military stand-off continues at the Doklam sector, the officially-backed Chinese media has upped the increasingly negative anti-India rhetoric. There are writings suggesting of even “fuelling” a pro-independence movement in Sikkim, which had since 1975 become the 22nd state of India after the Sikkimese people chose to merge through a resoundingly pro-India verdict in a historic referendum.

In recent times, there has been a visible fragility and strain in India-China relations over a multitude of issues — NSG, Masood Azhar UN listing, CPEC and more importantly India’s growing strategic convergence with the US in the Indo-Pacific, to mention some. Both have been following a classic ‘hedging’ strategy — to engage and also deter wherever possible. Unfortunately, the current military standoff at Doklam clearly stands out in terms of posturing and pronouncements.

That China believes in ‘irredentism’ is now a well-established fact. At the time of coming to power in 1949, China had recorded at least 119 border problems with its neighbours. In most of the cases, the first territorial claims were made by China, and that too through cartographic aggression. Not surprisingly, therefore, there is a definite pattern in China’s behaviour. China has claimed that its borders on the Sikkim sector have been settled on the basis of an 1890 Anglo-Chinese treaty, which was signed between Lord Lansdowne, then Viceroy of British India and China’s Imperial Associate Resident in Tibet. Britain signed this agreement with China in acknowledgment that China had suzerainty over Tibet. The British interest in this region then was to set up a trade mart at Yatung in Chumbi valley.

However, equally interesting is the fact, now concealed by the Chinese, is that the Tibetans did not recognise the 1890 treaty, and indeed boycotted it. Notwithstanding the fact, if the Anglo-Chinese treaty becomes the framework of reference for boundary delineation between Sikkim and Tibet, then it has to be in accordance with the treaty provisions. The Article 1 of this treaty, reads: “The boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its affluents, from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other rivers of Tibet”. The second line of the treaty further amplifies that: “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.”

Going by this and by applying the watershed principle, the tri-junction is at Batangla, contrary to the Chinese insistence further south at Mount Gipmochi. Indeed, until the current crisis, China had considered this area as one of disputed areas between China and Bhutan, and was negotiating with Bhutan for a resolution.   

Clearly, the Chinese move appears to be to alter the tri-junction point, which they have been unsuccessful to negotiate and settle with Bhutan despite several rounds of talks which have happened between the two since 1984 onwards.

As mentioned earlier, the Doklam dispute flows from the territorial dispute between Bhutan and China, which dates back to the 1950s when China published maps claiming vast portions of the Bhutanese territory. In July 1959, in pursuance of its policy of integrating Tibet with the heartland, China seized control of the Bhutanese-administered enclaves in western Tibet in the vicinity of Mount Kailash and the Gartok region. The other disputed areas that China claimed covered a total of 764 sq kms covering the north-west and central parts of Bhutan. The north-west constituted Doklam, Sinchulung,  Dramana and Shakhatoe in Samste, Haa and Paro districts. The central parts constitute the Pasamlung and the Jakarlung valley in the Wangdue Phodrang district.

Since the 1980s, China and Bhutan had started regular talks on border and security concerns, with the aim of reducing tensions between both the countries. The establishment of a Boundary Commission followed in 1981. The official boundary talks between China and Bhutan started in 1984 with India’s approval. Before the official boundary talks between the two governments, Bhutan had established informal contacts with China through a diplomatic note sent to the Chinese embassy in New Delhi in March 1981. Till today, there have been a total of 24 rounds of boundary talks between China and Bhutan.

During the first round of boundary talks held at Beijing in 1984, the Chinese had made it amply clear that their approach to the boundary issue with Bhutan would be the same as in the case of Pakistan, Burma (now Myanmar) and Nepal.  This meant that China would prefer to deal with Bhutan as an independent and sovereign status of Bhutan. Border issues between Bhutan and China used to be incorporated into Sino-India border discussions. In 1959 also, then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai wrote a letter to India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru expressing China’s wish to stage direct bilateral talks with Bhutan, thereby indicating an intention to separate the Sino-Bhutan border issue from the Sino-India border negotiations.

The second point on which China was firm was that it would not accept Bhutanese claims on strategic points. It added that it would be more generous on less important territorial claims, but not on strategic points, which are more advantageous to Bhutan and India. This meant that China would pressurise Bhutan into accepting the Chinese claims. The Doklam area of southwest Bhutan then becomes strategically important due to its topographical features, but more so because it provided an excellent observation point over the Chumbi valley and the roads leading to it. The area is also closer to the strategic Jaldhaka barrage in the Indian State of West Bengal, and therefore, China does not want to forego its claim on this disputed area.

By 1996, as these negotiations progressed, China offered Thimpu a deal: It wanted Bhutan Western part, including Doklam in exchange for recognising Bhutan’s control over the central areas. Clearly, Beijing desired Bhutan to compromise on the Chumbi valley.

In 1998, both countries for the first time signed a peace agreement promising to ‘Maintain Peace and Tranquility on the Bhutan-China Border Areas’. This was also an official recognition that the two have unsettled territorial issues, including the Doklam plateau, which require a peaceful settlement. The Article 3 of this treaty clearly stated that “peace and tranquility along the border should be maintained and the status quo of the boundary prior to March 1959 should be upheld, and not to resort to unilateral action to alter the status quo of the border”. Despite this, China’s periodic incursions continued into Bhutan’s territory, thereby leading to another interim agreement in 2002. Bhutan has had to contend with the Chinese pressure tactic of border incursions to bring it to the negotiation table. This tactic has led some to describe China’s policy towards Bhutan as a pattern of ‘military intimidation followed by diplomatic seduction’. 

However, China’s failure to resolve Bhutan’s border problem on its lines has forced a change in its tactics. Beijing is now trying to change the lines on ground through military threat and intimidation. Clearly, Doklam matters to China. But any territorial transgression on part of China in this area concerns New Delhi as well, due to its proximity to India’s Chicken neck or the Siliguri corridor which connects the rest of India with its North East. For this reason, above all others, the impasse is likely to continue.

The author is Associate Professor and Head, Department of International Relations, Sikkim (Central) University. Views expressed here are his own




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