All the bluster and threats between India and China these days should not conceal the fact that on the Doklam stand-off China has a case. Yet, the opacity in the position of all three players—India, China and Bhutan— confuses the issue. Certainly, the face-off speaks for the need for an urgent need for all parties to address the issue through negotiations, rather than military means.
To start with, India’s position on the tri-junction at the borders of the three countries being near Batang La (N 27°19′48″ & E 88°55′04”) is not tenable. The reason is that Sikkim’s border with Tibet, the only settled border between India and China, is determined by the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 which says that “it commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier.” In other words, Mount Gipmochi is the tri-junction, although its coordinates (27°16’00.0″N & 88°57’00.0″E) places it around 7.5 km south-west as the crow flies from where India and Bhutan claim the tri-junction is.
To go by the reading of the treaty, which talks of the boundary following the watershed, the border should go from Gipmochi to Gyemochen (27° 16′ 26″ N, 088° 54′ 08″ E ) and then north to Batang La.
India has accepted the validity of the Convention. On March 22, 1959, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to his Chinese counterparts, that “The boundary of Sikkim, a protectorate of India, with the Tibet Region of China was defined in the Anglo Chinese Convention of 1890 and jointly demarcated on the ground.”
In a note later that December, the Chinese foreign ministry, too, accepted that the Sikkim boundary “has long been formally delimited and there is neither any discrepancy between the maps nor any disputes in practice.”
So, the Chinese are right to complain that India is violating the treaty in sending its troops across at Doka La (N 27°17′22″ E 88°54′57″) which is between Batang La and Gyemochen, to block a Chinese road construction team.
But the issue is not that simple. While the British and the Chinese decided that the border would begin at Mount Gipmochi, they did not consult the Bhutanese. It is only after 1910 that Bhutan became a formal British protectorate. Bhutan is not bound by the Anglo-Chinese convention, nor the boundary it has created. In fact, while the Bhutan-India border has been formally delimited and demarcated as of 2006, the 470 km border with China is in the process of being settled through negotiations.
In their note of December 26,1959, the Chinese had noted that in the case of Bhutan “there is only a certain discrepancy between the delineation on the maps of the two sides in the sector south of the so-called McMahon Line.” But typical of the Chinese, they have expanded their claim over the years to include not just chunks of northern and western Bhutan, but also a significant area of eastern Bhutan.
So far the two sides have had 24 rounds of talks. In the process, Bhutan has conceded a great deal of Chinese claims, and by their reckoning, there are now only some 269 sq kms yet to be settled—two chunks in western Bhutan and an 89 sq km area of Doklam where the present problem is focused.
While China claims that the Doklam plateau is “indisputably” part of China, Bhutan’s ambassador to India V Namgyel publicly complained at the end of June that a Chinese road being constructed was headed for a camp of the Royal Bhutan Army at Zom Pelri. He added that “Bhutan has conveyed that the road construction by the PLA is not in keeping with the agreements between China and Bhutan. We have asked them to stop and refrain from changing the status quo.”
Here Bhutan is correct. In December 1998 the two sides signed an agreement whose Article 3 noted that “prior to the ultimate solution of the boundary issues, peace and tranquillity along the border should be maintained and the status quo of the boundary prior to March 1959 should be upheld and not to resort to unilateral action to alter the status quo of the border.”
Clearly, China is violating this agreement and its December 1959 acknowledgement that there was only some “discrepancy” in the Sino-Bhutan border’s delineation and that, too, in the east, is proof that it knows as well. Further, from the start China has maintained systematic pressure on the Bhutanese border by its road-building activities, which have often been undertaken in Bhutanese territory and in plain sight of Royal Bhutan Army posts.
But Bhutan’s own conduct is not above reproach. It was only in the 14th round of talks held in Beijing in November 2000 that it actually extended the claim line of the border to the Doklam area. A translation of the proceedings and resolutions of the 79th session of the National Assembly of Bhutan says, “during the 14th round of border talks held in China the Bhutanese delegation had further extended the claim line in three areas in Doklam, Sinchulumba and Dramana.”
Bhutan’s Council of Ministers had decided that “the claim line in these areas should be extended as much as possible.”
The Bhutanese sprang these last-minute changes on the Chinese and asked them to take into account the discrepancy of the size of the two countries. But Beijing’s officials told their Bhutanese counterparts that they could not offer any concessions, because this would impact on their negotiations with other countries.
No doubt China believed that Bhutan had been put up to it by the Indians.
The principal issue concerns China and Bhutan. Under the India-Bhutan friendship treaty of 2007 that guides our relations, the two sides are committed to “cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests.” But this is not tantamount to a military alliance that commits us to come to the aid of the other party automatically. This is especially so in an issue which is so tangled and complicated as the Bhutan’s claim of Doklam plateau and India’s own commitment to the Anglo-Chinese convention of 1890 that seems to negate it.
Instead of talking up war, the government of India needs to feel its way carefully here. The area is sensitive for India’s security, but it is not as if India confronts an existential threat on the ground.