It is difficult to figure out just what is happening in the ongoing face-off between India and China on the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction, or specifically the point where the three Himalayan regions — Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan — meet.
The standoff has seen some uncharacteristic responses 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 its ambassador in New Delhi, General V. Namgyel, has publicly called out China for constructing a road towards a Royal Bhutan Army camp, thereby violating a 1998 agreement in which both sides had agreed not to alter the status quo on their border.
Third, the usually voluble New Delhi has so far maintained a studied silence on the matter.
Problem is, Google Maps don’t quite show the places where the action is taking place. There is some confusion about where exactly the Doklam plateau, allegedly disputed between China and Bhutan, is located. Most maps show a 269 sq kms area to the north east of Yadong and some distance from the tri-junction. However, Chinese maps show the disputed area all the way down to the tri-junction.
This could well be the nub of the problem.
The Bhutanese believe the tri-junction is at a place called Dhoka La, where the so-called intrusion is believed to have taken place. The Chinese believe the tri-junction is located at a place called Gamochen, about 15 kms south of Dhoka La, and are building a road in this direction – which the Bhutanese are objecting to, saying Beijing is intruding into its territory. While India says the tri-junction is located at Batang La, about 6.5 km north of Gamochen.
The truth is that even 15- 20 kms on the ground brings the Chinese that much closer to a Bhutanese Valley; if the crow flies south of Gamochen, it would reach the sensitive Siliguri corridor, vital for India’s security.
However, none of these features are visible on publicly available maps and it requires an effort to locate them. Batang La seems to have the clearest claim to being the tri-junction, because of the flow of the river waters at that point.
The Chinese are not talking about a problem on the Sikkim-Tibet border; they allege that Indian forces crossed a mutually recognized border to block their road construction which, according to them, is “indisputably” Chinese territory.
It is clear why the Indian troops reacted. The goal of the Chinese action is to shift the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction south to Gamochen and though it is being done in the name of a road construction in Bhutan, it directly impacts on Indian security.
China has multiple motives in the region. First, 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.
Second, China would like to establish formal ties with Bhutan, set up an embassy in Thimphu and develop direct trade connections with it; so far Bhutan has fobbed off its advances. Breaking the special Bhutan-India bond would be an important geopolitical goal for China in its competition with India in South Asia.
Third, 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 areas, control of the Doklam plateau would allow China’s military to cut through Bhutan to the Siliguri corridor and if it pleased, to cut off India’s North-eastern states from the rest of the mainland.
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. Since 1984, it has been in talks with the Chinese and has succeeded in reducing its disputed territory from 1128 sq kms to just 269 sq kms. This, however, was done by Bhutan voluntarily ceding territory, including Mount Kula Kangri. But China continues to maintain its claims over seven areas and is pushing the hardest in the Doka La 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 kms 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 China’s 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.
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 Jinping’s visit to India.
Even though the Chinese recognized 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 1975.
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 recognize Sikkim as an Indian state, while India agreed to recognize 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 to Kailash Mansarovar 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 on Sino-Indian relations.