In the first week of June 2017, China had bulldozed an old bunker of the Indian army at Doka La south of the tri-junction of India, Tibet and Bhutan in Sikkim. The Indian army had refused to remove the structure after being asked to do so by China. China, on its part, has alleged that Indian soldiers crossed the boundary into China to interfere with the construction of a road within its territory.
The incident took place in the Doka La (Doklam or Donglang as Chinese call it) area, where India had earlier objected to the road that China is building in the territory ofBhutan. However, the Chinese claim that they were constructing the road within their territory, which led to jostling between the two sides and demolition of the Indian bunker resulting in a standoff.
The incident was also significant as it takes place in the Sikkim sector, where the border is settled. The earlier standoffs between soldiers from the two sides have usually taken place in the western and eastern sectors, where the status of the boundary/Line of Actual Control remains unresolved.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said that the suspension of the pilgrimage route was “an emergency response to the situation there”. “I want to stress that Indian pilgrims’ trip to Xi Zang [in the Tibet Autonomous Region] requires necessary atmosphere and conditions. The Indian side is to blame for the trip not being able to take place as scheduled. As for when the pilgrimage route will reopen, it totally depends on whether the Indian side can correct its mistake in time,” he said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said that delineation of China’s boundary with India at Sikkim was based on a 127-year-old treaty signed between the Qing Empire and Great Britain – the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890.
“Both China and the successive Indian governments recognise that the Sikkim section has been delimited. It has been confirmed by the relevant Indian government document and the Indian delegation at the special representatives’ meeting with China on the boundary question, India and China share common view on the 1890 convention’s stipulation on the boundary alignment at the Sikkim section. To observe the relevant convention and document is the inescapable international obligation of the Indian side,” said Lu.
On this question, there is no disagreement from the Indian side. According to Ranjit S. Kalha, former Indian secretary of the external affairs ministry and one of South Block’s old ‘China hands’, “the Sikkim-Tibet sector of the boundary has already been negotiated under the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 and demarcated in 1895.”
“The Chinese ministry of foreign affairs, in its note of 26 December 1959 addressed to the embassy of India, confirmed the position by stating that ‘the boundary between China and Sikkim has long been formally delimited and there is neither any discrepancy between the maps nor any disputes in practice,” said Kalha.1
The Doklam Plateau, north of the tri-junction between Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet by Indian claim, is not only just a disputed area, but also has huge strategic importance for both the countries.
Bhutan finds faults with China
Lu accused India of impinging on Bhutan’s sovereignty by attempting to fight its battles. “We hope that all countries can respect Bhutan’s sovereignty. Although the boundary between China and Bhutan is yet to be demarcated, the two sides have been working on that through peaceful negotiation. Any third party must not and does not have the right to interfere, still less make irresponsible moves or remarks that violate the fact,” he said.
A “third country’s” army could enter Kashmir at Pakistan’s request; using the “same logic” the Indian army stops the Chinese military from constructing a road in the Doklam area in the Sikkim sector on behalf of Bhutan, an analyst at a Chinese think tank said.
“Even if India were requested to defend Bhutan’s territory, this could only be limited to its established territory, not the disputed area,” Long Xingchun, director at the Centre for Indian Studies at China West Normal University, said in the article he wrote in the Global Times.2
Currently, Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with China, but maintains contacts with periodic visits by the Chinese ambassador based in Delhi.
Talking, Major General (Retd) Vetsop Namgyel, ambassador of Bhutan to India, said: “The PLA started motorable road construction in the Doklam area towards Bhutanese Army camp at Zomphlri. We are in boundary resolution talks with China and have written agreements that pending final boundary settlement, peace and tranquillity be maintained along the boundary and both sides refrain from unilaterally altering the status on ground. Bhutan has conveyed to China that road construction is not keeping with the agreements between two countries. We have asked China to stop road constructions and refrain from changing the status quo. Doklam area is near the tri-junction is part of the boundary talks between Bhutan and China.”3
Wedged between Bhutan, India and China are few areas of dispute — together accounting for just over 750 square kilometres. Among the disputed areas is Doklam, which is just about 90 square kilometres where the present dispute has taken place. Not very far from Doklam is the strategically important Chumbi Valley in the Tibetan region, to which Chinese are now planning to expand their rail link. Doklam, being on higher ground protects the Chumbi Valley from the southside. It also brings the Chinese closer to the hinterland areas in Sikkim and West Bengal.
The disputed area also provides, according to Indian perspective, a bigger buffer to its sensitive Chicken’s Neck, or the Siliguri Corridor, which is an extremely narrow stretch of land that connects the northeastern region to the rest of India. From the Chumbi Valley it is just a little over 100 kilometres away.
We should by now be accustomed to Sino-Indian disputes occurring with the backdrop of border trouble, and July G20 handshake between a smiling Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a less enthused Chinese President Xi Jinping was no exception. However, the Doka La Stand-off, beyond the southern tip of the Chumbi Valley, is perhaps the most significant of all the border confrontations that have roiled the India-China relationship recently. This is not because of its size, dwarfed by the Sumdorong Chu crisis of 1986-87, or duration, still only a few days longer than the Depsang (near Daulat Beg Oldi) standoff of 2013. Rather, the importance of the incident is threefold.
One factor is the unique position of the Chumbi Valley, which is at once a dangerous conduit into the slender Siliguri Corridor and a dangerous choke point, exposed on both sides, for Chinese forces. A second factor is that this tussle is formally over the interests and rights of a third country, Bhutan, echoing the wider competition for influence in smaller countries — Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and elsewhere — across the Indo-Pacific region. Third, the standoff comes in a period when it is clear that “the wheels are coming off the India-China wagon, with Indian trust in Chinese intentions collapsing steadily and Beijing taking an ever-more strident tone”.4
At the military level, India has good reason to prevent Chinese road building near Doka La. Chinese activity has steadily increased in the area beneath Bhutan’s claim-line, pushing the area under its de facto control about 5 km southwards, towards a crucial ridge-line. This has a number of implications. It would widen the area of Chinese control in an otherwise very narrow valley, from around 8-9 km at present (Batang La to the Amo Chu river) compared to 12-13 km (Gamochen to the river), thereby easing the logistics of moving large convoys, guns and troops. Control of the dominating plateau would also give China a strategic advantage, by some accounts even domination, over Indian posts to the west, and Bhutanese ones to the south and east.
India is still well short of matching the impressive infrastructure development in Tibet over the past decade, with two-thirds of sanctioned roads on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) still remains to be built. However, Chinese forces moving through the Chumbi Valley — 90 km from top to bottom — would have long, exposed flanks. India has a formidable set of forces arrayed to the west, with mountain divisions in Gangtok, Kalimpong, and Binaguri further to the south, all of which are part of the Siliguri-based Corps. Furthermore, the mountain division of India’s first mountain strike corps, raised for the purpose of offensive operations into Tibet, is headquartered in Panagarh is likely to be operational this year. It’s worth noting that former National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon has argued, in his 2016 book Choices, that Beijing backed down in the 2013 Depsang incident “to a great extent because of India’s improved capabilities, which left the Chinese in no doubt that India could embarrass them”. 5
The bilateral relations between the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan and the Republic of India have been traditionally close and both countries share a ‘special relationship’, India remains influential over Bhutan’s foreign policy, defence and commerce. In 2012–13 fiscal, India’s budgetary support to the Kingdom country stood at $600 million (around INR 30 billion). It steadily rose over the years to reach $985 million (INR 61.60 billion) in 2015–16 making Bhutan the largest beneficiary of India’s foreign aid.
Another of India’s military advantages is its privileged relationship with Bhutan. This allows it to bring to bear large forces from the east. A sizeable Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) is permanently based in western Bhutan, while other units regularly cooperate with the Royal Bhutan Army. Bhutan’s involvement highlights the way in which Sino-Indian competition is increasingly channelled through third countries, as China relentlessly expands into India’s periphery through strategic investments, trading relationships and arms sales. India’s willingness to intervene forcefully in a bilateral Bhutan-China dispute is a reflection both of India’s own vital interests in the Chumbi Valley and of its commanding position in Bhutan, which might otherwise have ceded the Doklam plateau to China in a territorial swap many years ago. The India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, though revised in 2007 and 2014 to give Thimpu more autonomy, still notes that the two countries “shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests”. In stepping across an international border and defying Chinese expectations, India has signalled a degree of confidence that will resonate more widely.
China is putting pressure on India by carrying out a few military exercises in Tibet across the Doklam plateau area and Arunachal Pradesh to prove its supremacy China’s military on 17 July said it has conducted live-fire exercises in the remote mountainous Tibet region to test its strike capability on plateaus, amid the standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in the Doklam area in the Sikkim sector.
China is also showing its military muscle through a “live fire exercise” involving howitzers and anti-tank grenades in Tibet. The brigade engaged in the drill is one that has been “responsible for frontline combat missions”. The specific mention of the howitzers comes after the Indian military began testing its M-777A-2 ultra lightweight howitzers deployed along the border with China.
Chances of de-escalation
There is a reasonable chance that these standoffs will de-escalate within weeks, with China quietly halting road construction and Indian troops returning westward to their posts. The risk of escalation appears low. There were repeated skirmishes on the India-China border ever since the 1962 war. More broadly, the thicket of border agreements accumulated over the past 50 years — in 1967,1988, 1993, 1996, 2003, 2008, 2013, 2014, 2016 and now 2017 — serve as an important cushion whose value is still not fully appreciated.
September 1967: Chinese troops fired at Indian posts close to Nathu La and the Indian Army retaliated with full force. Both sides suffered casualties with China significantly higher resulting in ceasefire.
June 1986: The Indian Army launched exercise ”Chequerboard” after China amassed thousands of troops in the Thandrong pasture on the banks of the Sumdorong Chu (River). The situation was diffused diplomatically by August 1987.
November 2008: Chinese troops destroyed makeshift Indian Army bunkers at Doka La near the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction.
April 2013: Chinese troops intruded into Daulat Beg Oldi in Eastern Ladakh and set up camps in the Depsang Valley.
August 2014: Chinese troops entered 25 to 30 km into the Indian Territory in Burtse area in Ladakh and pitched their tents and the standoff continued for three weeks.
September 2014: About 1,000 troops intruded 3 km inside Chumar in Eastern Ladakh. The incident lasted for a week and coincided with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India.
March 2016: A platoon of Chinese soldiers came about 5.5 km inside the Indian Territory near Pangong Tso Lake in Eastern Ladakh. Incident resolved within hours.
June 2017: In the first week of June 2017, China had bulldozed an old bunker of the Indian army at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan in Sikkim. Stalemate is going on.
However, the wider context is one of relentlessly hardening attitudes, on both sides. Beijing is aggrieved by the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang in April, India’s aggressive repudiation of the Belt and Road Initiative in May, and India’s forward-leaning posture in the South China Sea — the latter underscored by Vietnam’s two-year extension of a 2006 oil concession to ONGC Videsh recently. India’s complaints are too numerous and familiar to elaborate, but they span international institutions (membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group), terrorism (Masood Azhar), sovereignty (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and, in a more inchoate way, questions of the basic security order in Asia.
Relationship in a flux
“India-China relations are undergoing a change,” wrote former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran on July 3. “China believes that India should acknowledge the power disparity between the two sides and show appropriate deference to China.” India has become bolder with its modernisation of armed forces and healthy foreign relations with Chinese enemies. This is evident in last month’s U.S.-India joint statement, where China was not mentioned but all pervasive in areas from North Korea, to trade, to freedom of navigation. It is on display in the Bay of Bengal, where one of the largest-ever iterations of the Malabar exercise series got underway with aircraft carriers/helicopter/submarines from India, the U.S., and Japan.6 It is also reported the government is conducting a national security review of Chinese investment in South Asia. Perhaps, in the coming weeks, the new mountain Corps will soon be operational. The government has already given wide financial powers to Vice Chief of the Army Staff for immediate purchases of defence equipment.
Breaking the stalemate
Maybe 20 years down the line, once we develop our border infrastructure at par with the Chinese in terms of roads, airports, and railways, we can be more welcoming of better connectivity and be relaxed about the dispute.
The situation in the subcontinent is equally complex. Given Pakistan’s unabated proxy conflict in Kashmir, an escalation with China will truly bring the two-front situation back into play after decades. On the other hand, the rest of the neighbourhood would prefer a stable India-China equation. Each of India’s neighbours has adopted a dual track foreign policy where special or friendly ties with India are supplemented by geo-economic linkages with China. A Sino-Indian conflict disrupts this triangular dynamic and impels these states to make choices they would rather not make. This sub-regional reality cannot be wished away by India, or for that matter China.
It should be clear that both countries have much to lose in an armed clash and a new Cold War in the region. Hopefully, the virtues of restraint would be obvious to both Delhi and Beijing.
The Centre’s briefing to the Opposition on the ongoing standoff with China on the Doklam plateau was long overdue. The Defence, Home and External Affairs Ministers and senior officials, including the National Security Adviser and Foreign Secretary, spent two evenings explaining the ground position and the strategy ahead to Opposition leaders representing the political spectrum and different States. This is a clear signal of the gravity with which the government views the situation at Doklam, and the bipartisan iteration of the national interest that New Delhi would like to underline at a time of heightened rhetoric from the Chinese foreign office and media. The message the government sent, beyond the facts of how the stand-off began, was threefold: that Indian troops now sit across from Chinese troops for a second month at a part of the tri-junction claimed by Bhutan; that India is upholding its commitment to Bhutan with its military presence there; and finally, that it is pursuing all diplomatic options in order to resolve differences with China on the dispute. China has so far rejected any talks until the Indian troops move back. But New Delhi’s insistence on neither asking the troops to step back nor stopping the pursuit of dialogue is a mature response. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scheduled visit to Xiamen for the BRICS summit in September will see this strategy bear fruit.
In inviting television panellists and foreign policy analysts to a separate briefing on Doklam recently, the External Affairs Ministry also indicated a desire to control the narrative emanating from India, by restraining easily excitable commentators and TV anchors from wrapping themselves in the flag and advocating aggressive military postures.
- Ranjit S. Kalha, Sikkim-Tibet border; an historical perspective –Livemint, 4 July 2017.
- “Even if India were requested to defend Bhutan’s territory, this could only be limited to its established territory, not the disputed area,” Long Xingchun, director at the Centre for Indian Studies at China West Normal University, said in the article he wrote in the Global Times.
- Major General (Retd) Vetsop Namgyel, ambassador of Bhutan to India. “Bhutan has conveyed to China that road construction is not keeping with the agreements between two countries“. June 2017.
- Shashank Joshi,“Power games at tri-junction” The Hindu. July 10, 2017.
- Shivshankar Menon, Choices: Inside the making of India’s foreign policy. 2016.
- Zorawar Daulet Singh, India China Relations: The Border Issue and Beyond (Viva Books, New Delhi. The Hindu Review 2017.