What is the Issue: On the night of June 8, China initiated a manoeuvre in Doklam Plateau that would trigger a chain of events leading to the most dangerous standoff between India and China in recent years. A platoon of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is said to have stealthily moved into the plateau and razed stone bunkers that the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) had constructed years ago and manned occasionally. In doing so, China seems to have made a premeditated move to alter the status quo that prevailed for decades in a sensitive region.
Background of the Issue: For centuries, the Doklam plateau, high up in the Himalayas, was a quiet grazing area for Bhutanese herdsmen. Prior to India’s Independence, neither the British nor the Chinese seem to have shown any interest in it when they negotiated various border settlements between themselves. It was only after the 1962 border war between India and China that the narrow plateau that abuts the trijunction between India, China and Bhutan became a bone of contention.
Since then, China has repeatedly disputed Bhutan’s territorial claims over Doklam. Beijing considers the plateau vital to fortify the dagger-shaped Chumbi Valley by piercing the trijunction of these countries. The trijunction is of immense strategic significance to the three countries. In recent years, China has been building an elaborate network of roads wide enough to transport artillery guns, light tanks and heavy vehicles to enhance its military presence. Doklam is critical as it brings China even closer to the India border in a vulnerable location towards the direction of the 27-km-long Siliguri Corridor or ‘chicken’s neck’ that links the northeastern states to the rest of India.
What lies at the heart of the Doklam dispute? China argues that the India-China-Bhutan trijunction is at Mount Gipmochi (Gyemo Chen), which is far south of where India and Bhutan mark the trijunction, near Batang la. China claims around 89 sq. km in a region south of where India and Bhutan say the trijunction lies . The dispute is not just about the size of the territory in Doklam: it is one of only four areas over which China and Bhutan, who do not have diplomatic relations, have had 24 rounds of talks.
“The construction of the road clearly changes the security dynamics to our detriment significantly, China changing the status quo in a very major way and it has serious security implications for us. The Chinese are changing the trijunction unilaterally, and this affects us as the Chinese military presence here will be widened and deepened.
The current dispute has echoes of a similar standoff more than 50 years ago in the same area, when the Indira Gandhi government took a strong stand against Chinese intrusions, with Beijing then dispatching herdsmen onto Doklam to stake its claims. Then, as now, China’s ire was aimed not at Bhutan but at India’s ‘interference’. This is possibly the first time Beijing has reacted so publicly over a boundary dispute with India since the normalisation of relations in 1988. One reason for this is China’s view that, by crossing over into Bhutanese territory at Doka la, India had ‘trespassed’ the agreed-upon Sikkim-Tibet border and entered Chinese territory.
“The trespass of Indian border troops took place at the defined Sikkim section of the China-India boundary, which is different in nature from the previous frictions and standoffs. Thus, this incident is quite serious in nature,” the Chinese foreign ministry said, citing the 1890 Sikkim-Tibet Convention which says ‘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’. Chinese officials now claim that both China and successive Indian governments have recognised that the Sikkim section has been ‘delimited’. Says Lu Kang, the foreign ministry’s spokesperson, “It has been confirmed by the Indian leader, the relevant Indian government documents and the Indian delegation at SRs’ (Special Representatives) meeting with China on the boundary question that India and China share a common view on the 1890 convention’s stipulation on the boundary alignment at the Sikkim section.”
Senior Indian officials involved in handling the crisis dismiss Chinese claims as poppycock. They point out that any reading of the 1890 convention would show that the British had entered into it largely for reasons of trade and not to sort boundary disputes. Also, China, which was a signatory to the convention, would not proceed beyond agreeing to the alignment of the boundary but went on to thwart efforts to delineate and demarcate it. New Delhi acknowledges that since Independence, successive Indian governments may have agreed that the 1890 convention “could be the basis of the alignment” in the region. But, as one official put it, “Neither has India agreed on the alignment nor have we agreed to what China calls the specific alignment. It has never been delineated and demarcated. There are no border posts or maps that we have produced, as we commonly do in such cases. China is clearly attempting to change the boundary at a certain sector by unilateral action, and that is why it is a problem for us.” What China also fails to point out is that Bhutan was never a signatory to the 1890 agreement and retained its sovereign rights over the Doklam plateau.
The Chinese foreign ministry also cited a 1959 letter written by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to his Chinese counterpart Zhou Enlai where he is said to have endorsed the 1890 convention. Indian officials say that the Chinese officials are cherrypicking statements and using them to back their claims. The Indian official adds, “They take one sentence that suits them in the 10-page letter and quote it. By the way, the same letter also claims Aksai Chin is a part of India and claims the McMahon Line as the boundary. So, will China agree to concede these points too?” Agreeing that China’s claims are disingenuous, former envoy Kantha says, “We have been broadly in agreement on the boundary in the Sikkim sector and we agree on the basis of alignment, which is the highest watershed in the area, but both sides are fully aware that more negotiations are required among the SRs to fix the alignment of the boundary on maps and also demarcate it on the ground. They are also aware that the biggest difference is with regard to the trijunction point.”
China also went on to make the astonishing claim that Bhutan had already acknowledged that the Doklam plateau was Chinese territory and was okay with what Beijing was doing there. It prompted Bhutan to issue a stern statement pointing out that boundary talks had been going on between Thimphu and Beijing for decades and there were written agreements in 1988 and 1998 that “the two sides agree to maintain peace and tranquility on the boundary question and refrain from taking unilateral action or use force to change the status quo on the boundary”. Bhutan firmly stated that it sees the construction of the road in Doklam as a “direct violation of the agreements”.
China also charged India with joining the issue without the consent of the Bhutanese government. Indian officials point out that India and Bhutan have been coordinating with each other on such issues for years. They cite an incident in 1966 where China had again made an intrusion in the Doklam region. Bhutan had requested the Indian government to take it up with Beijing and sort out the matter. Says an Indian official, “The effort by the Chinese seems to be to repeat a lie several times so that it becomes a historical fact. Let’s be clear, we are not the guys who came here to dig up the place and say we are here. We will happily go back tomorrow morning if the issue is sorted out. Clearly, the guys with the bulldozers and road-rollers are trying to change the status quo.”
In Bhutan, which finds itself at the centre of the standoff between the two Asian giants, there is unease over the developments. India and Bhutan have close relations as well as a 2007 friendship treaty, according to which ‘neither government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other’. China and Bhutan, on the other hand, do not have diplomatic relations and are dealing with territorial disputes. There is, however, constant engagement by China and confidence-building in the area of culture and religion. Only recently, Dr Jiang Yili, wife of the Chinese ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, visited Bhutan and called on the Queen Mother of Bhutan to exchange views on Mahayana Buddhism and cultural issues.
Bhutan, however, is acutely aware of the reality of confronting an increasingly aggressive China on its borders. Beijing’s claims on the disputed areas, including in Doklam, are hardening. Even for tiny Bhutan, China is in no mood to make concessions. This was made clear following boundary talks in 2002, when then foreign minister Jigmi Thinley informed the National Assembly that China “claimed to have documentary evidence on the ownership of the disputed tracts of land”. Beijing has said its archives in Tibet have proof of the ‘grass tax’ paid by Bhutanese herders. Adds Thinley, “When Bhutan asked them to be generous with a small neighbour like Bhutan, they said that as a nation that shared its border with 25 other countries, they could not afford to be generous with one particular neighbour.”
A retired official in Thimphu says Doklam is vital not just for India, considering its location overlooking the Siliguri corridor. In fact, he says, it is essential that Bhutan never cedes this territory as this could pose a serious threat to its communications network as it is connected through Siliguri in India. Meanwhile, the war of words rapidly escalated, with Chinese commentators reminding India of what happened in 1962 if it upped the ante. Then Defence minister Arun Jaitley’s riposte was measured, he said, “If they are trying to remind us, the situation in 1962 was different and the India of 2017 is different.”
THERE IS MUCH ABOUT this three-way face-off that is unprecedented. For one, past incidents of standoffs between India and China were in the western and eastern sectors of the as-yet-undemarcated India-China boundary. Disputes in the middle sector are rare, with the India-China border in Sikkim largely determined on the basis of the watershed laid out in the 1890 Sikkim-Tibet convention. In fact, in recent rounds of talks between the SRs of India and China on resolving the boundary question, China proposed a standalone ‘early harvest’ agreement to reach a permanent boundary settlement in the middle sector, which would be the most ambitious deal between the two neighbours in history.
India has been cool to such a prospect, pointing out that both countries, most recently in their 2005 boundary agreement on political parameters, had agreed to make meaningful and mutually acceptable adjustments for a ‘package settlement’ in the western, middle and eastern sectors. ‘The boundary settlement must be final,’ the agreement reads, ‘covering all sectors of the India-China boundary.’ Whether or not Beijing was trying to send a message to push its proposal, or testing the India-Bhutan relationship by its incursion into Doklam, the fact is India is likely to be even more wary of such a deal following the latest standoff.
The second new development-one with immense significance for Bhutan and India-is that China appears to be deploying in the Himalayas a strategy it has used in other disputes, namely establishing permanent infrastructure in disputed areas and then making the claim that there was no dispute to begin with. “We have seen this in the South China Sea,” says one official, pointing to how China established a city it calls Sansha on the disputed Woody Island in the Paracels. So far, in the western sector of the India-China boundary, where both sides have overlapping claim lines of the LAC, China has only sent patrols to mark its claims. The most China has done was in 2013, when the PLA set up a camp in the Depsang plains, which sparked a three-week-long standoff. But even that was a small temporary camp.
Another major development is that all across Tibet, Beijing has paved immaculate highways that stretch all the way down to Nathu la and right up to the Doklam plateau. The 700 km journey from Lhasa to Yadong, on the Chinese side of Nathu la, can now be covered in less than eight hours, or twice the time it takes on most days to make the 50-km journey from Gangtok on the Indian side. Now, Beijing seems to be making the argument that it would be well within its rights to build roads in Doklam, by claiming that there was no dispute here to begin with. This despite China and Bhutan having many rounds of talks on territorial differences, including Doklam in the west, as well as other territories on Bhutan’s northwestern and northern borders.
THE DOKLAM STANDOFF holds significance for the larger boundary dispute between India and China, and suggests a hardening Chinese position on interpreting past agreements. After all, the middle sector was thought to be the closest to a final resolution. In the west, China occupies 38,000 sq. km in Aksai Chin, and in the east, Beijing claims most of Arunachal Pradesh, close to 90,000 sq. km. A final settlement will involve both sides giving up claims-India in the western sector and China in the east, but Beijing has increasingly put out the message through both officials and experts that Tawang is non-negotiable, putting paid to any likelihood of a resolution in the near future.
Even in the middle sector, China appears to be calling into question an understanding reached in 2012. The Union ministry for external affairs pointed out in a June 30 statement that in 2012, for the boundary in the Sikkim sector, both sides ‘reconfirmed their mutual agreement on the “basis of the alignment”‘ but also agreed that ‘trijunction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalised in consultation with the concerned countries’. ‘Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine trijunction points is in violation of this understanding,” the MEA said. China, however, now appears to view the 2012 understanding differently, with its foreign ministry claiming that the SRs ‘share a common view on the 1890 convention’s stipulation on the boundary alignment at the Sikkim section’ and that ‘to observe the relevant convention and document is the inescapable international obligation of the Indian side’. In other words, Beijing sees no room for negotiation on the disputed trijunction.
The Doklam standoff has added to the growing list of strains in the India-China relationship, which has always been a mix of cooperation and competition. On the whole, both sides have done remarkably well to not only keep the border peaceful-it is an immense achievement that a shot hasn’t been fired since 1975 despite dealing with a 3,500-km undemarcated frontier-but to also insulate boundary disputes from other aspects of the relationship. In the middle of the Chumar incident in 2014, Xi Jinping travelled to India and announced a $20 billion investment commitment. (It’s a different matter that the investment has been slow to materialise.)
Beijing has suspend the annual Kailash Mansarovar yatra through Nathu la. China made no attempt to disguise the fact that it was a punitive measure for the June 18 ‘transgress’. The Chinese foreign ministry said India bore ‘liability’ for the stopping of the yatra through Nathu la. The opening of the route in 2015 was itself a significant goodwill gesture-Xi personally okayed the move and the local government in Tibet made considerable efforts to open the route, which is two days shorter and far easier to traverse than the older route through Lipulekh in Uttarakhand. This year, 18 batches of 60 pilgrims will travel to Kailash Mansarovar through Lipulekh, but the seven batches of 50 pilgrims each to Nathu la have been stopped. Since Modi heads a BJP-led government, with a rather large vote bank of devout Hindus to please, China is using it as a pressure point to exploit the vulnerability the party faces on the issue.
There are other looming tensions in the relationship that have jeopardised the sensitive balance. Especially in the case of China’s deepening alliance with Pakistan, including massive investments in PoK, the view in New Delhi is that India is now dealing with a fundamentally different China-one that is less cautious, more muscular and not afraid to aggressively pursue its interests overseas. The Doklam incident may be a harbinger of a stronger approach to resolving territorial issues, which other countries have already witnessed in the disputed South China Sea.
India and China have agreed to an “expeditious disengagement” of troops in a disputed border area where their soldiers have been locked in a stand-off for more than two months, India’s foreign ministry said on Monday.
The decision comes ahead of a summit of the BRICS nations – a grouping that also includes Brazil, Russia and South Africa – in China beginning on Sunday, which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to attend.
China said Indian troops had withdrawn from the remote area in the eastern Himalayas. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Chinese troops would continue to patrol the Doklam region.
China defended the presence of its troops in the Doklam area, over a month after the standoff with India ended, saying its soldiers are patrolling the region, also claimed by Bhutan, to exercise Beijing’s sovereignty. “The Donglang (Doklam) area has always belonged to China and has been under the effective jurisdiction of China,” said the Chinese Foreign Ministry.