Eyeball-to-eyeball in the Himalayas

Re-establishing Tibet’s geopolitical centrality in the trans-Himalayan region and breaking the special Bhutan-India bond is an important geopolitical goal for China in its competition with India in South Asia

Written by Manoj Joshi | Updated: July 24, 2017 8:22 pm
india-china standoff, trijunction tension, indo-china relations, bhutan clash, bhutan-india bond, himalayan region The Bhutanese believe the tri-junction is at a place called Dhoka La, where the so-called intrusion is believed to have taken place.

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.

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App

  1. V
    Vinod Jaiswal
    Jul 3, 2017 at 6:14 am
    All this is distraction. Cow is our mother. We are the world "GURUS". Yoga has been accepted by the world. Sanskrit must be spoken by every Indian. Swatch Bharat is our dream. Chankya is the last word of diplomacy. Bharat mata ki jai
    Reply
    1. P
      papa imran
      Jul 1, 2017 at 11:33 am
      Muslims of India demolish Somnath and take revenge for Babri mosque. Genocide in Varnasi and take revenge for Gujarat genocide. Kill Hindus and rape Hindu women to take revenge for Mumbai 1993 Muslims of India unite and rebel against Hindu Kafir India
      Reply
      1. S
        Someco
        Jul 6, 2017 at 2:35 pm
        Papa Imran, stop your nonsense. You will be reported to the police for openly inciting communal violence.
        Reply
      2. P
        papa imran
        Jul 1, 2017 at 11:26 am
        Where are so called brave hearts and this so called army chief will go there and touch chinese soldiers feets..nothing else will happen , and by the way where are RSS terrorists? should they not go to defend " so called bharat mata jiih". and this gen gen bakhshi, this rat is no where
        Reply
        1. R
          Raj Parwani
          Jul 1, 2017 at 12:40 am
          While trying to isolate Pakistan India allowed itself to be encircled by China and it's allied nations, if India wasn't stubborn in Kashmir it had good relations with Pakistan and it wouldn't be in such a bad situation from military strategic point of view, India cannot fight on two fronts at a time, read what IAF chief said last week, he used the analogy of playing cricket with only seven players in India's team. It's still not too late for India to reconcile in Kashmir, improve relations with Pakistan and then tackle China in a level plain field. Pakistan always tried a negotiated settlement of Kashmir but India always evaded negotiations thinking that it can keep Kashmir by force forever, this strategy is clearly not working in India's favour. And please don't rely on US or Trump they have proven to be unreliable many times in the history.
          Reply
          1. T
            Thrinethran T
            Jul 1, 2017 at 4:34 am
            Your preceding comment about renaming India revealed your real nature and intent. You want India to concede Kashmir to the neighbouring Jihadi state of communal cleansers. Since they have allied themselves to the rising hegemonic power, India has no recourse other than to defend herself against both, whatever their boorish agents propagate.
            Reply
            1. P
              papa imran
              Jul 1, 2017 at 11:30 am
              Muslims of India unite and rebel against this the Indian state. Let's find this Thinethran T guy and make a example of him by Let's finding her daughter and raping her in front of Thinethran. Let's cut the breast of Thinethran's wife and make qeema of them and feed it to her holy cow. Let's sell her daughter to a Muslim rickshaw driver and make herdaughter a pros t i t ute. Let's sodomise himin front of his mother and father. Let's put him in front of a barrell yo demolish Somnath and Varnasi. Muslims of India unite and become a fifth column to the Indian state. CRUSH INDIA in bits and take revenge for 1992 and 2002 genocide.
          2. R
            Raj Parwani
            Jul 1, 2017 at 12:38 am
            These Sanghis and Bhakts of BJP/RSS are destroying India from inside. They talk about India being a super power, it can defeat China and Pakistan at the same time, it has biggest military, I have been hearing this for so long but here is a suggestion, do it all but first decide a new name for the country, for some time rape-istan seemed better fit but now Lynch-istan is looking more suitable. And don't forget "open defcation-istan" and "farmers suicide-istan" are in close compe ion. I am sick and tired of these bhakts and sanghis talking big and living in fools paradise, enough is enough. India's child mortality rates are among highest even in third world countries, 400 million live below poverty line and these s talking about being super power while using railway track as toilets right after killing a Dalit on the suspicion of transporting a cow. This is way beyond insanity.
            Reply
            1. S
              Sharath
              Jul 1, 2017 at 1:31 am
              Raj, what have you done to improve the situation in India? What is your contribution in making India better? Read and get educated about Modi's achievements across all sectors and you will not publicize your ignorance on forums like this.
              Reply
              1. T
                Thrinethran T
                Jul 1, 2017 at 4:41 am
                What would you expect from someone who vilifies this country , a clear enemy agent?
              2. P
                papa imran
                Jul 1, 2017 at 11:23 am
                Where are so called brave hearts and this so called army chief will go there and touch chinese soldiers feets..nothing else will happen , and by the way where are RSS terrorists? should they not go to defend " so called bharat mata jiih". and this gen gen bakhshi, this rat is no where
                Reply
                1. P
                  papa imran
                  Jul 1, 2017 at 11:25 am
                  Thank you Raj. Let's unite and join forces to defeat India. Let's make Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits, Dravidians, Naxalites and Gorkhas rebel against India and form a common front to break India into thousand pieces. Let's help our neighbouring countries in breaking India into Khalistan, Dravidistan, Gor nd etc. Muslims of India unite and become a fifth column to rot and break India from within. Muslims unite and rebel against against.
                  Reply
                  1. S
                    Someco
                    Jul 6, 2017 at 2:47 pm
                    Papa Imran, go back to sleep and keep dreaming about all the garbage that comes out of your mouth.
                  2. S
                    Someco
                    Jul 6, 2017 at 2:39 pm
                    Raj Parwani, don't defecate from your mouth. India does have problems. But they are being tackled. You can also contribute provided you shed your colossal pessimism.
                    Reply
                  3. V
                    Vishnu Sharma
                    Jun 30, 2017 at 11:53 pm
                    I wish for a 9.0 earthquake to happen in the Pacific and a massive Tsunami sweeping the coastal cities of Eastern China killing hundreds of millions of these chinese mongrels in 3 days.
                    Reply
                    1. R
                      Raj Parwani
                      Jul 1, 2017 at 12:36 am
                      shame on you, you are the lowest form of life. that tsunami can hit Mumbai too, how would you feel then?
                      Reply
                      1. M
                        mark
                        Jul 1, 2017 at 12:54 am
                        Gentlemen Mumbai is not exactly on the Pacific Coast ... but China is not, as well sitting on the Pacific, so it will probably first mostly destroy an, the Philippines, part of Indonesia, and possibly Korea and Taiwan, before hitting, with limited power, the coasts of mainland China (that will have time to isue tsunami alert) Oh, and Hawaii is in the Pacific, too ...
                      2. P
                        papa imran
                        Jul 1, 2017 at 11:34 am
                        Muslims of India demolish Somnath and take revenge for Babri mosque. Genocide in Varnasi and take revenge for Gujarat genocide. Kill Hindus and rape Hindu women to take revenge for Mumbai 1993 Muslims of India unite and rebel against Hindu Kafir India
                        Reply
                      3. S
                        S.Chatterjee
                        Jun 30, 2017 at 11:11 pm
                        This is for Lovely. China has world's biggest army with a personnel strength about double that of India and has Asia's largest airforce with personnel strength about three times that of India. India is world's biggest importer of arms while China is third largest exporter of arms. I do not know, how you propose to cut the dragon's tail to size, but I am sure that our defence minister ( never mind, he is not full time defence minister) is conscious of these facts.
                        Reply
                        1. V
                          Vinod Jaiswal
                          Jul 3, 2017 at 6:30 am
                          You are ignorant and anti national. Do you know the power of mantras. Do you know we had agni ban and pushpak viman. We know every thing. We are great. We will destroy every one who has evil designs on us. Save the cow. .
                          Reply
                        2. A
                          aman
                          Jun 30, 2017 at 10:51 pm
                          Chinese believe in expansionist mentality,this is the reason that they have territorial disputes with every neighbouring country except two of its slave rogues.They not only believe in territorial but also in ideological expansion.They can go low to any degree for their self interest.
                          Reply
                          1. Load More Comments