Saturday, July 1, 2017

Analysis of the Standoff in Sikkim

The drums of war may not have been beaten as yet. However, the standoff on the Sikkim border has continued since early June of this year. A peaceful resolution does not appear to be in sight with both sides locked in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation.

Genesis of the Confrontation

The Indian defence establishment is opposed to China's attempts to construct a road on the Doklam plateau leading right up to the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction, which has emerged as the major flashpoint in the ongoing face-off between the two armies in the remote border region. 


The Doklam plateau is Bhutanese territory but China, which calls it Donglang, regularly sends its patrols to the area to lay claim to it. Beijing is anxious to integrate the plateau in its adjoining Chumbi Valley. China is desperate to incorporate the plateau in its adjoining Chumbi Valley, which is shaped like a dagger jutting into India, separating Sikkim from Bhutan for geo-strategic reasons. 

China claims a total of about 764 square kilometers of Bhutanese territory – in the North West about 269 square kilometers constituting Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe in Samste, Haa and Paro districts; and in the Central parts about 495 square kilometers constituting the Pasamlung and the Jakarlung valley in the Wangdue Phodrang district.

In 1996, China offered Bhutan a “resolution package deal” proposing an exchange of Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys aggregating an area of 495 square kilometers in Central Bhutan with the pasture land of Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe, amounting to 269 square kilometers in North Western Bhutan. However, Bhutan rejected it. In 1998, Bhutan and China signed a peace agreement promising to maintain peace and tranquility on the Bhutan-China Border Areas. 

China violated this peace agreement by trying to construct roads in Doklam. According to Bhutanese ambassador to India, Doklam is a disputed territory and there is a written agreement between the two countries that pending the final resolution of the boundary issue, peace and tranquility should be maintained in the area. China thus cannot describe the area as a part of its territory.

Strategic Dimensions

Chumbi Valley is only 500 kilometres from Siliguri corridor – a place called the Chicken’s Neck which connects India to North East India and Nepal to Bhutan. 

This explains the rationale behind the aforesaid package deal that China has offered to Bhutan – Central areas for Bhutan in exchange the North-Western areas, which lie next to the Chumbi Valley tri-junction, for China.
The Chumbi Valley has enormous strategic importance for India in the sense that dominance here by China will adversely affect the stability in the Siliguri corridor, vital not only for the linkage between Indian mainland and the north-eastern Indian states but also to ensure security for Kolkata and the north Bihar plains.

And this is all the more important after China opened a railway network in August 2014 connecting Lhasa with Shigatse, a small town near the Indian border in Sikkim. China now wants to extend this line up to Yadong, situated at the mouth of the Chumbi valley. And once this is done, potential threats to the Siliguri corridor from China will take a menacing proportion.

India-Bhutan relations are guided by the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, signed in 1949 and renewed in 2007. Bhutan and India are supposed to consult each other closely on foreign affairs and defence matters.

The Indian Army has always been present in Bhutan and is posted on many China-Bhutan border posts. The Indian Army maintains a training mission in Bhutan, known as the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT), not to speak of the exemplary work done in that country by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), a subdivision of the Indian Army Corps of Engineers.

Besides, the Royal Bhutan Army relies on the Eastern Command of the Indian Air Force for air support during emergencies. In 1958, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had declared in the Indian Parliament that any aggression against Bhutan would be seen as aggression against India.

In order to get a bigger hold on the area and a wider depth in the event of a military deployment are attempting to shift down the tri-junction point in the Chumbi valley by almost 12 kilometres. China thus claims Gyemochen is the tri-junction between India, China (Tibet) and Bhutan whereas the Survey of India maps of 1956 show Batang La, north of Gyemochan, as the tri-junction.

The difference of 18 kms would affect the claims of both countries regarding the border with reference to the McMahon Line, which Beijing describes as 'illegal' beyond Myanmar.

They intend building a road which they want to extend further so that it will bring them as close as possible to Chicken's Neck.

'The Chinese troops have even been patrolling areas up to a place called Gemochin, where the Royal Bhutanese Army has its posts and PLA troops marched to their positions and reportedly even confronted them for being in their territory,' the sources said.

From the Chinese Army's point of view, the Chumbi valley has to be widened as they want to move closer to the strategically important Chicken's Neck corridor in Siliguri - which is under the watch of Army's 33 Corps headquarters situated in Sukna in West Bengal.

The Indian establishment is obviously concerned about Chinese incursions into the Bhutanese territory. For one, India will lose its "strategic advantage" in the region if the road is constructed. 

According to a source, "Though our troops don't hold the plateau, the watershed they hold dominates it. The Dhok La, in which we are present, opens into the Chumbi Valley."

Moreover, China can militarily threaten the strategically-vulnerable and narrow Siliguri Corridor just about 50-km away in West Bengal — the so-called "Chicken's Neck" that connects the rest of India with the north-east states — if China manages to extend the road up to the tri-junction.

"China already has a couple of roads coming up to a certain point in the Chumbi Valley. If one of them is extended till the tri-junction, through what we consider is Bhutanese territory, it will help the PLA in military logistics and maneuverability, like rapidly moving artillery and other equipment, in the case of a conflict with India," said the source. 

Cartographic Aggression

The Chinese have adopted one strategy – embark on a cartographic aggression, followed by a physical aggression on the ground. This is the reason why the Chinese are reluctant to share their final official Claim Line of 1960 of their perception of LAC, as this gives them the freedom to engage in further cartographic aggression leading to physical confrontation. 


Stepping up its claims that India had "trespassed", China has now released a map showing the site of the stand-off as well as China's territorial claims at the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction that are in conflict with India's and Bhutan's claims.

The map claims the Indian Army crossed the border at Doka La pass, depicted with a blue arrow, into the Doklam plateau which India and Bhutan see as Bhutanese territory but is claimed by China.

The map, released on Friday, also reveals China's substantial territorial claims at the tri-junction that are conflicting with India's and Bhutan's. It shows that China fixes the tri-junction far south of where India and Bhutan do, which explains the current stand-off.


The Chinese tri-junction, marked by an arrow that claims it is under the 1890 Britain-China treaty, is at the Mount Gipmochi. This is far south of where India and Bhutan mark the tri-junction, which the map acknowledged with a dotted line.

The area on the Doklam plateau south of the dotted line is claimed by China, and it is here that Beijing was building a road into what Bhutan sees as its territory, triggering the stand-off with Bhutan and India.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday: "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. It is without any doubt that the spot where the Indian border troops trespassed is on the Chinese side of the boundary."

Indian Reaction
India, however, on 30th June 2017, reminded China that building a road in this disputed area was a violation. "India is deeply concerned at the recent Chinese actions and has conveyed to the Chinese Government that such construction would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India," the Ministry of External Affairs said.

"In this context, the Indian side has underlined that the two Governments had in 2012 reached agreement that the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalized in consultation with the concerned countries. Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine tri-junction points is in violation of this understanding. Where the boundary in the Sikkim sector is concerned, India and China had reached an understanding also in 2012 reconfirming their mutual agreement on the "basis of the alignment". Further discussions regarding finalization of the boundary have been taking place under the Special Representatives framework." 


India needs to call China’s bluff. India through diplomatic channels and other outlets must expose China’s cartographic aggression and must thwart the physical land grabbing carried out by the Chinese (where it invariably uses civilian resources like herders to settle on disputed territory and then follow it up with PLA control). And if minimum use of force is required to be used, India must not hesitate to use it, more so as a message than as a strategy.  Beijing understands the language of force and bullet than of words.

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