Sikkim impasse: What is the India-China-Bhutan border standoff?
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.
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.
- China stated that neither India nor Bhutan had any claim over the 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.
- The current standoff began on 16 June when a column of Chinese troops accompanied by construction vehicles and road-building equipment began moving south into what Bhutan considers its territory.
- Bhutan, a small Himalayan kingdom with close military and economic ties to India, requested assistance from Delhi, which sent forces to resist the Chinese advance.
- To avoid escalation, frontline troops in the area do not generally carry weapons, and the Chinese and Indian troops reportedly clashed by “jostling”: bumping chests, without punching or kicking, in order to force the other side backwards.
- At the heart of the dispute are different interpretations of where the “trijunction” – the point where the three countries’ borders meet – precisely lies. China argues its territory extends south to an area called Gamochen, while India says Chinese control ends at Batanga La, further to the north.
What is the significance of the Doklam plateau and the Chumbi valley
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- On its part, China has repeatedly asserted its claim over Donglang (Doklam) and accused Indian troops of trespassing.
- 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.