On June 18th 2017, the Indian army marched across an international border to hinder the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China from marching on. Some eight weeks have passed, but under the tense grey clouds of Sino-Bhutanese territorial dispute, a highly sensitive question remains.
Whose border did they cross?
For the last two months, the Indian and Chinese forces have been at an impasse in a tri junction between India, China and Bhutan, while the world is fearing what the outcome would be.
What happened? Why is the situation so fraught with uncertainty? These are some of the questions that need to be answered.
The epicentre of this territorial battle is the small, bowl shaped plateau in the previously unheard of location, called Doklam. The three main stakeholders here are Bhutan, India, and China.
It all started with China extending its road network through the disputed territory of Doklam, which China believes has belonged to it “since ancient times”. Bhutan, which did not like the fact that China started making roads in a disputed territory, sought help from India. Since then, there has been increasing numbers of both Indian and Chinese troops stationed at the tri-junction, with both sides refusing to budge.
Map according to Bhutan and Google Maps:
Map According To China:
All this comes at a time of steadily deteriorating ties between the two countries, say analysts, who point to Chinese investment in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and Chinese frustration with India’s unwillingness to join its One Belt One Road development initiative as points of contention.
What India says:
India maintains that the Chinese construction work was done without consultation with Bhutan, thereby changing the status quo and violating the understanding on the tri-junction boundary points.
But what is India’s problem if China is building roads?
There are fourteen countries China shares its 22000 km land borders with. And it has a border conflict with eighteen. The only neighbouring country China has managed to not have a conflict with is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. India sees this fact as China trying to cement its place as the sole superpower in the Asian region, and eliminating India as its competition.
More importantly, the primary concern for India is the strategically all-important Siliguri corridor, also known as the Chicken’s neck.
According to BBC India,
“Sikkim is the only area through which India could make an offensive response to a Chinese incursion, and the only stretch of the Himalayan frontier where Indian troops have a terrain and tactical advantage.”
India’s attention was ignited when a group of Chinese builders started clearing the path to pave off a track to a pass called Gymochen, which China claims to be the southern extent of its realm. Now this pass occupies a ridge that has a commanding view to the Siliguri Corridor, a critically important splinter of land jutting out, which connects the North East to the rest of India. If China builds roads through the Doklam area, its distance to the Siliguri corridor would significantly be reduced. If it ever comes to war, China could easily keep weapons in the Doklam region and also transport soldiers via that road and get to the Siliguri corridor. Hence, China would hold military superiority over India.
What China says:
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said that “the border in Sikkim had been settled in an 1890 agreement with the British”, and that India’s violation of this was “very serious”.
China has repeatedly cited the 1890 Britain-China treaty that the former Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru had according to them, accepted in 1959. The Chinese media and officials have made frequent use of this treaty to cement their claim of the tri-junction area belonging to China. Contrary to this claim, Nehru made it very clear that only the upper Sikkim and Tibetan area was talked about in the treaty, and NOT the tri-junction area. Chinese officials say that in opposing the road construction, Indian border guards are obstructing “normal activities” on the Chinese side. They also reiterated sovereignty over the area by saying that the Indian troops are trespassing on a land that has belonged to China “since ancient times”, and called on India to immediately withdraw. China has accused India of undermining Bhutan’s sovereignty by interfering in Sino-Bhutanese matters. It has also called Bhutan a puppet nation, and accused India of trying to sabotage chances of Bhutan and China coming to an amicable agreement. China has warned India several times to remember its defeat in the 1962 war, warning Delhi that China is also more powerful now than it was then. The Global Times newspaper, meanwhile, accused India of undermining Bhutan’s sovereignty by interfering in the road project, although Bhutan has since asked China to stop construction.
Possible solution that India could employ:
It is essential that both Bhutan and India do not cave under pressure from the Chinese government and give up. At the same time, the situation of a war must be avoided at all costs.
China brings up the argument of siding with Pakistan against India, as it has done multiple times by using its power of veto against India’s gain in the UNSC. India could employ a similar strategy with Tibet and extend support to Dalai Lama. India must also strengthen ties with countries like Japan, Taiwan, and Philippines, which China continues to harass in the name of border dispute. Boycotting Chinese products would not be of much help as China only exports 1-2% of its goods to India. Diplomatic options would be the best course to solve this crisis, with one option being to have troops from Bhutan replace the Indian soldiers at the border and hope it leads to a mutual disengagement by China and Bhutan themselves. Another thing that could be done by India would be to wait it out till November when the National Congress of the Communist Party of China happens, post which the intensity of the conflict could be alleviated via hushed diplomacy.
Also, though a war would hurt both economies hard which neither Xi Jinping nor Narendra Modi would want, neither of them would want to back down at this moment. India needs to be able to support Bhutan during its time of need, as Bhutan is its closest, and for all practical purposes, its only ally amongst the South Asian countries against China. Modi faces elections in 2019. Jinping doesn’t exactly face elections, but the Chinese Communist Party’s Nineteenth Party Congress is coming up in November, and the changes he announces there will create political enemies. Hence either of the two cannot afford to look politically weak.
As China continually reminds India of what happened in 1962, it does not seem to want to keep an imminent war out of the picture. It would be up to India now to try its best to resolve everything through diplomatic options, without having to cave in to the ominous Chinese threat looming over.
– Palak Oswal