What is the present controversy around the India-China-Bhutan standoff?
In June this year, India accused China of constructing a road in the disputed territory towards Doklam plateau, an objection that the Royal Bhutanese Army has also raised. India intervened in the crisis supporting Bhutan’s stand and asking China to halt its construction work. China claims Doklam plateau, an 89 sq km pasture that falls close to Chumbi valley at the corner of India-Bhutan-China tri-junction and is not very far from the Sikkim sector.
PTI, quoting sources, subsequently reported that Chinese troops asked India to remove two bunkers that were set up in 2012 at Lalten in Doklam plateau. The two bunkers were reportedly positioned by the Indian Army as a backup option. Later, sources told PTI, that the two bunkers were destroyed by the two Chinese bulldozers on the night of June 6 after China stated that neither India nor Bhutan had any claim over the region.
Soon, there was a standoff between troops of both countries with PLA and Indian Army sending immediate reinforcements to the region. At a flag meeting later, China asked Indian troops to withdraw from the Doklam region. In the aftermath of the standoff, China refused to allow the entry of Kailash Mansarovar pilgrims into its territory through the Nathu La Pass on the Sikkim border.
What is the significance of the Doklam plateau and the Chumbi valley?
In an article in the Indian Express, Praveen Swami has lucidly explained the significance of the region to China and the historical precedents associated with it.
While Chumbi valley has served as a trade route from Sikkim’s capital Gangtok through Yadong and Gyantse on to Dalai Lama’s court at Lhasa, the enclave for a long time did not fall to the Chinese.
“In 1904, the imperial military officer Francis Younghusband had led British forces into the Chumbi, following the epic battle of Karo-La, fought by Gurkha and Sikh troops at altitudes of 5,700 metres,” Swami wrote.
The valley holds strategic significance for India, China as well as Bhutan. India sees it as a dagger pointed towards its so-called ‘chicken’s neck’ sector in the Northeast and rapid Chinese road construction in Tibet could make things difficult for India. At the same time, Sikkim is one of the few sectors where India has an advantage.
“In the event of war, India’s Brigade-sized military presence inside Bhutan, stationed at Ha, allows it to attack the Chumbi valley from two sides, potentially cutting off Chinese troops stationed facing Sikkim,” Swami wrote.
But China’s recent assertions in the area are portentous for Bhutan which has never faced territorial issues with the the Dragon in the past. China, citing the 1890 China-Britain treaty, calls Doklam its own while Bhutan has disputed the fact saying the convention applies to the India-Bhutan border, not Bhutan and China.
How is the dispute affecting India-China ties?
Swami wrote that it was India’s decision to take a military stand in Bhutan that has changed the game for all sides.
Ever since the standoff came to light, there has been a series of arguments, counter-arguments and statements from both sides enough for the foreign ministries to interfere as well. Indian officials have said that the road construction efforts by the Chinese PLA are aimed at getting closer to Doka La, the last Indian military post on its border with Bhutan and China.
It also said the construction ‘would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India.’ India underlined that the two governments had agreed in 2012 that the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalised in consultation with the countries concerned. “Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine tri-junction points is in violation of this understanding,” it said.
After China asked India to learn from ‘historical lessons,’ Defence Minister Arun Jaitley hit back saying India of 2017 is different from what it used to be 55 years ago.
“If they are trying to remind us, the situation in 1962 was different and India of 2017 is different,” Jaitley said in an oblique reference to the 1962 war.
On its part, China has repeatedly asserted its claim over Donglang (Doklam) and accused Indian troops of trespassing.
“In order to cover up the illegal entry by Indian troops into the Chinese territory, Indian side wants to infringe upon Bhutan’s sovereignty and they try to confuse right from wrong. This is futile. We have no objection to normal bilateral relations between India and Bhutan but are firmly opposed to the Indian side infringing on Chinese territory using Bhutan as an excuse,” said Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson Geng Shuang. He added that China will take all steps to ensure its territorial sovereignty.
As of now, there is no push and shove at the border although tensions are high. Both countries have said they would use official diplomatic channels to find a solution to the dispute.
India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is scheduled to visit Beijing on July 26 to attend the meeting of NSAs from BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. He is expected to raise the issue with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi.