It is difficult to figure out just what is happening in the present face off on the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction, to be specific, the point where Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan meet.
But the standoff has seen some uncharacteristic response from the three actors. First, Beijing has adopted the posture of an aggrieved party and says it has issued a formal diplomatic protest to India. Second, discarding its normal reticence on these matters, Bhutan, through their ambassador in New Delhi, General V. Namgyel, has publicly called out China for violating the conditions of a 1998 agreement not to alter the status quo on their border by constructing a road in the region towards a Royal Bhutan Army camp. Third, the usually voluble New Delhi has maintained a studied silence till now.
The average Google Map does not quite show the places where the action is taking place. There is some confusion about where Doklam Plateau is.
Most maps show the 269 sq Kms area disputed between China and Bhutan to the north east of Yadong, some distance from the trijunction. However, Chinese put out a map on 30 June showing the area to be south of the trijunction and this, obviously is a problem.
Former RAW officer and China expert, Jayadeva Ranade says that "Dhoka (Doka) La" is on the trijunction, though, according to him, China is trying to build a road through the Bhutanese territory "up to Gayemochen (Gamochen) which is towards the lower end of the trijunction." According to him, the Chinese claim that Gamochen is the trijunction, though Indian maps show it at Batang La, some 6.5 Km (as a crow flies) north of this area. None of these features are visible on the publicly available maps and it requires an effort to locate them. But it is clear that Batang La is the trijunction which is evident from the flow of the river waters there. However, the difference of even 15-20 Km on the ground brings the Chinese that much closer to a Bhutanese Valley that opens into the sensitive Siliguri corridor, vital for our security.
Source: Google Earth, accessed on 25 May 2016
The Chinese are not saying that there is any problem on the Sikkim-Tibet border. They say that the Doklam Plateau is "indisputably" their territory and allege that Indian forces had crossed a mutually recognised border to block their road construction. It is clear why Indian troops reacted. The goal of the Chinese action is to shift the India-China-Bhutan trijunction even further south of Gamochen and though it is being done through a road construction in Bhutan, it directly impacts on Indian security.
China has multiple motives in the region.
, it would like to promote the development of the Yadong region which is connected to Lhasa with a highway and will soon get a branch of the China-Tibet railway from Shigatse. The Lhasa-Kalimpong route to Kolkata is one third shorter than the one via Kathmandu. This is linked to China's aim of re-establishing Tibet's geopolitical centrality in the trans-Himalayan region. Remember that it also claims all of Arunachal Pradesh, south of the Himalayas.
, it would like to establish formal ties with Bhutan and set up an embassy in Thimpu and develop direct trade connections with the South Asian country which has so far fobbed off its advances. Breaking the special Bhutan-India bond would be an important geopolitical goal in its competition with India in South Asia.
, it would like to adopt a military posture in the area which will ensure that it can defeat India in any military contest. Given the strong Indian positions in Sikkim and adjacent area, control of the Doklam Plateau gives it the possibility of its military cutting through Bhutan to the Siliguri corridor to cut off India's Northeastern States.
To this end, China is following its characteristic tactics of changing goalposts in its negotiations with Bhutan, and mixing military coercion with diplomatic and economic inducements. At the same time, it is seeking to check India's efforts to help Bhutan.
Bhutan shares a 470 Km border with China in the north and since 1984, it has been having a dialogue with the Chinese to reduce their disputed territory from 1128 sq Km to just 269 sq Km, but this was done through Bhutan voluntarily ceding territory, including Mount Kula Kangri. But China continues to maintain its claim over seven areas and is pushing the hardest in the Doklam area. It has built a network or roads through the Chumbi Valley and is making lateral roads encroaching on Bhutanese positions whenever it feels the situation is opportune.
During the Bhutan-China talks in Beijing in 1996, China offered to trade 495 sq Km in the Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys for the 269 Km it claims in western Bhutan. There were reports that Bhutan had accepted the proposals, but the news proved to be incorrect. However, in 1998, the two sides signed an Agreement for the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity in the Bhutan-China Border Area. Article 3 of the treaty explicitly says that prior to the final solution of the problem, the two countries should maintain "the status quo of the boundary prior to March 1959."
This is what the Bhutanese say is being violated in their action in constructing a road in the Doklam region.
The 220 Km border between Sikkim and Tibet is the only delimited and demarcated part of the 4,000 Km odd Sino-Indian border. The rest is defined by a notional Line of Actual Control. This was an outcome of the Anglo-Chinese convention of 1890 which defined the border as the crest of the range separating the Teesta river flowing to India and the Mochu river waters flowing to Tibet. As per the wording of the treaty, the Sikkim-Tibet boundary line "commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier, and follows the above mentioned water-parting to the point where it meets Nepal territory."
Subsequently, it was demarcated on the ground and marked by boundary pillars. It is true that over the years, there have been issues with regard to the exact location of some of the pillars and there have been similar incidents in 2007 and 2014 during Chinese President Xi's visit to India. It should be fairly easy to work out where the border lies, considering it is supposed to be a watershed leading off from Mount Gipmochi. However, when it comes to border issues, especially with China, nothing is simple.
Even though the Chinese recognised the dealings of the British Empire with their Qing counterparts in the late 19th
and early 20th
century in relation to Tibet and Sikkim, they did not accept the integration of Sikkim into the Indian Union in 1974. It was only in 2003, during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to Beijing, that the two sides struck a deal. The Chinese agreed to recognise Sikkim as an Indian state, while India agreed to recognise the "Tibet Autonomous Region" as a part of China. Even so, it took the reluctant Chinese another three years before they formally altered their maps to show Sikkim as being part of India and opened it up for cross-border trade.
And this is where the Chinese refusal to allow Indian pilgrims to go through Nathu La comes in. Opening up Nathu La to traffic in 2006 was an important part of the effort to normalise Sino-Indian relations. This old route offers Lhasa the closest access to a port. Because Nathu La is on the only section of the border which is mutually recognised, the Chinese agreed to allow it for use by Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrims as an alternate to the tough route through Lipu Lekh. By blocking the pilgrims, the Chinese are slowly, but clearly turning the clock back in Sino-Indian relations.
A shorter version of this article was published in The Indian Express.
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