Doklam Standoff: Future of India-China Relations
The earlier tension points have mostly been in the Western Sector of the boundary, primarily around Ladakh. The attempt by the Chinese Army to escalate tension in the Dolkam area, which falls in the Middle Sector, is a completely new and unexpected development.
Recently, an another tension point has arisen along the India-China border. Since the second week of June 2017, armies of India and China have been involved in a border standoff in the Doklam area, near Sikkim. Though military standoffs between two countries are endemic in nature, the recent development has raised concerns due to the location of Doklam at the India-China-Bhutan trijunction.
The earlier tension points have mostly been in the Western Sector of the boundary, primarily around Ladakh. The attempt by the Chinese Army to escalate tension in the Dolkam area, which falls in the Middle Sector, is a completely new and unexpected development. It brings Bhutan into the boundary matrix between India and China. Against this backdrop, it is pertinent to understand the origin of the recent border conflict and the basis for the claims of India and China over the region.
Strategic Significance of Doklam
As per the security experts, the claims of China over the Doklam region are not just territorial in nature, but has geo-strategic imperatives to the region as a whole. China’s presence in Doklam would bring China within striking distance of India’s vulnerable Siliguri Corridor. The corridor, which is also called as ‘Chicken Neck’, is the life-line to India’s Northeast. It connects the rest of India with the seven States of the North East region.
Some of the finerpoints related to the current standoff are given below.
The Doklam Plateau is located at the tip of the Chumbi Valley, which is located at the trijunction of India, China and Bhutan.
Historically, Bhutan has claims over the region; However, this is now questioned by China.
The current standoff stemmed from differences between Bhutan and India on the one hand and China on the other over the exact location of the tri-junction between the three countries.
While India puts it near Batang La, China asserts that the trijunction is located at Mt. Gipmochi further south.
More or less, Thimpu has been equivocal about China’s claims. Bhutan acknowledges that Tibetan/Chinese graziers had free access to the Doklam plateau and the Dorsa Nala area, but accept the fact that the trijunction is at Batang La.
The genesis of the current altercation is rooted in Chinese army’s reported entry into the area on 17 June with an intention to build an all-weather road in the region, which is capable of sustaining heavy vehicles.
The army of the Bhutan attempted to dissuade the road construction, to no avail. Indian personnel present in the region tried to dissuade the construction personnel since the Doklam plateau region is a trijunction point.
Agreements one must be aware of to understand the issue are –
Calcutta Convention of 1890:The Convention was tripartite in nature as it was entered into by India, Sikkim and China. The convention seeks to settle the border areas among the parties. However, the real problem lies in the ambiguous nature of the landmarks used in the convention and varied interpretations it assumed over a period of time.
Simla Accord 1914: The legal basis for the McMahon line lies in this accord between British India, China and Tibet, which was signed in Shimla. McMahon’s line generally followed the watershed between present-day India and China. However, the line, especially in the southern part, did not follow the watershed, but was drawn south of the Thag La Ridge, which is located near Doklam.
India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty 2007: Under the treaty, there is an overriding obligation on Bhutan to ensure no part of its territory is used for activities that are harmful to Indian security interests in the region. By invoking this clause, Indian security forces objected to Chinese construction of a road in June 2017.
India-China Agreement 2012: Both the countries signed an agreement in 2012, which states that - “tri-junction boundary points” between the two countries and any third party would be “finalized in consultation with the concerned countries.” This provision is applicable to the current standoff involving India, China and Bhutan.
What is the way forward?
To ward off the recurring nature of border skirmishes the following steps should be taken.
- A hotline should be established between India and China at the highest level to ‘talk’ on pressing issues without any delay.
- The ongoing negotiations between Permanent Representatives on the Border Question should be concluded as early as possible.
- Summit level talks should be held between the leaders of three countries for early conclusion of the dispute.
India must hold firm at Dokla. However, it should be kept in mind that even a short border conflict is not in India’s interest. India’s interests lie in arriving at the immediate demarcation of the LAC, followed by the early resolution of the territorial dispute. It is towards these goals that India must steer the course of future meetings with China’s political and military authorities.