The standoff between Indian and Chinese forces on the Dolam Plateau is entering its fourth week. India and China have both miscalculated, with potentially dire consequences. China clearly did not appreciate the sensitivity that India attaches to any Chinese presence on the Jampheri Ridge south of the plateau and the implications for the security of the Siliguri Corridor that connects eastern India with the rest of the country. A decade ago, for example, Indian soldiers training the Royal Bhutanese Army in Bhutan challenged a Chinese foot patrol that was discovered along the ridge.
India, however, clearly did not appreciate the degree to which China believes it has already established a presence on the plateau, which forms part of China’s dispute with Bhutan in this area. In either the 1980s or early 2000s, China built a dirt road from the Chumbi Valley in Tibet to Shenche La that Bhutan views as the border with China, and then onto the Dolam Plateau. In fact, this road terminates perhaps just 100 metres from the Indian outpost at Doka La, near the site of the current standoff. Probably at the end of the 2000s, China enhanced or regraded the road and added the “turning point” where Chinese vehicles turn around to return to the Chumbi Valley. The road is likely used only in the summer months to facilitate patrols in the area (including surveying Indian presence at Doka La).
For India, any Chinese presence on the Dolam plateau is worrying. And any extension of the road toward the Jampheri Ridge would constitute a real change to the status quo. Yet for China, India’s actions are also unprecedented. As former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran wrote a few weeks ago, “This is the first time that Indian forces have engaged China from the soil of a third country.” Specifically, the Indian Army moved forces beyond the international border to pre-empt Chinese efforts to start extending the road toward the Jampheri Ridge.
Unfortunately, the 1890 convention delimiting the border between Tibet and Sikkim may worsen the situation. The convention contains a contradiction that allows each side to claim it supports its own position. Article 1 states that the border begins at Mount Gimpochi, roughly 3 km south of the Chinese road and the western point of the Jampheri Ridge. Article 1 also states that the boundary will follow the watershed. Unfortunately, however, Mount Gimpochi is not the start of the watershed, and the convention did not explain how to square this circle. Sometime between 1907 and 1913, Britain published a map of the area showing the border starting at Batang La, 6 km north of Mount Gimpochi, effectively changing the terms of the convention.
Unsurprisingly, India and China have chosen the starting point of their border in the region that maximises their interest. But this also creates a conflict between the black letter of 1890 convention, which Britain and China ratified, and the main principle of delimitation. Moreover, these divergent interpretations bear a disturbing resemblance to the dispute over the Thag La ridge and Dhola post in the eastern sector of the China-India border dispute, the proximate spark for the 1962 war.
In the eastern sector, India maintained that the China-India border was delimited by the McMahon Line from the 1914 Simla Convention. McMahon’s line generally followed the watershed between present-day India and China. Unfortunately, for the last 25 km or so, the line did not follow the watershed but was drawn south of the Thag La Ridge. The post at Dhola that the Indian Army established in June 1962 lies in the area between the watershed to the north and the McMahon Line to the south. China challenged the Indian post as being located in undisputed Chinese territory. The gradual of escalation of tensions over Dhola played a key role in Mao Zedong’s final decision to launch a wider war on October 22, 1962.
To be sure, the analogy to the present is imperfect. Overall, India-China relations are stable, including on the border. Neither side has deployed large numbers of forces nearby on Dolam. Unlike Dhola, where China dominated the high ground, the local geography favours India, which can easily deploy forces already in Sikkim. China must rely on the single road in the area that climbs more than 1,400 meters from the Chumbi Valley to the Dolam Plateau.
Despite the imperfections of the analogy, it highlights the danger of the present situation. China believes the black letter of the 1890 convention not only supports its presence on the Dolam Plateau but also its right to extend roads in the area south to Gimpochi. India believes the border lies to the north at Batang La, which justifies its challenge of China beyond its borders on the Dolam Plateau. But this is based on the principle contained in the convention and what appears to be Britain’s subsequent map.
The longer the standoff lasts, the more easily these positions will harden. For example, given the unprecedented Indian presence in territory disputed by China and Bhutan, China may conclude that it needs to strengthen its physical position on the Dolam Plateau. Beijing could build more permanent structures a kilometre or two behind the “turning point” at Doka La. That is, China may use the Indian challenge to justify further steps to consolidate its presence on Dolam. India would then be faced with accepting a larger, more permanent Chinese presence or escalating further to stop it. The most realistic outcome would be restoration of the situation before June. This would mean the return of Indian troops to Indian territory and the withdrawal of Chinese construction crews from the area. India may demand or hope that China will vacate the Dolam Plateau, but China is unlikely to leave an area where it believes it had already maintained a presence for decades. The danger inherent in the current stand-off demands a quick resolution.