People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA) made incursions into Sikkim’s Doklam Sector near the Tri-junction with Bhutan and Tibet in fourth and fifth week of June, 2017. Doka La (La means Mountain Pass) and Doklam Plateau is Bhutanese territory but China, which calls it Donglang, regularly sends PLA Patrols to that area to lay claim on it with a view to incorporate it with its adjoining Chumbi Valley.
This valley is shaped like a dagger jutting into India, separating Sikkim from Bhutan. Southern Tip of the valley is merely crow flight 100 km from Northern border of 30-50 km wide Siliguri Corridor.
India is strongly opposed to Chinese attempts to construct a road configuration on Doklam Plateau leading right up to Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet Tri-junction. And this has emerged as the major flashpoint in the ongoing faceoff between the two armies.
Ongoing troop confrontation, with some initial jostling and a scuffle, began early this month when Chinese Troops brought in heavy earth-moving and road-construction equipment as well as manual labor to the area. When Indian Troops strongly objected to the move, PLA soldiers destroyed two Indian bunkers in retaliation near the Lalten post.
Indian Troops had to struggle hard to stop the Chinese personnel from advancing further into Indian Territory. They had to form a human wall along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to stop the PLA personnel, some of whom also videographed and click pictures of the incident.
Subsequently, Bhutan has issued a demarche to China over the construction of a road towards its Army camp in Zomplri area of Doklam and asked Beijing to restore status quo by stopping work immediately.
India is concerned at the “creeping territorial aggression” by China, which aims to progressively swallow the 269 sq km Doklam plateau to add “strategic width” to its adjoining but narrow Chumbi Valley. China has also been pushing Bhutan hard for last two decades, to go in for a “package deal” under which, Beijing wants Thimphu to cede control over Doklam plateau, while it surrenders claims to the 495 sq km of territory in Jakurlung and Pasamlung Valleys in Northern Bhutan. But Bhutan has successfully resisted it till now.
India is deeply concerned at the recent Chinese actions and has conveyed to Chinese Government that such construction would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India. India and China had reached an agreement in 2012 that the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalized in consultation with the concerned countries. Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine Tri Junction points is in violation of this understanding.
China has cited 1890 Treaty signed between the British Indian Government and then ruling Chinese Qing dynasty on Sikkim to blame India for violating Set of Rules established 127 years ago. According to this treaty, boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating waters flowing into Sikkim and Tibetan Mochu then flowing northwards into other rivers of Tibet.
According to the Chinese Foreign Minister, border region in question, contested by India is located on Chinese side of Line of Actual Control (LAC). China has lodged protests in Beijing and New Delhi against Indian Soldiers “trespassing” into its territory and indicated that Mansarovar Yatra would remain suspended till India “withdrew” its troops from this area. He further stated that, for a long time, the Chinese government has made enormous efforts to provide necessary convenience for Indian pilgrims.
Since Indian soldiers deployed along LAC have trespassed Chinese border recently to obstruct Chinese road construction, so we have taken these actions, said the Chinese Foreign Minister.
In early 2001, India and China had decided to maintain’ status quo’ over Tibet and Sikkim, following which the Nathu La pass was opened for border trade after forty years. Much water has flown through Teesta and Yangtse Rivers since then. Earlier visits of very high ranking Chinese Diplomats like President, Prime Minister or Defence Minister were always punctuated by PLA incursions in the Ladakh sector, at Depsang and Chummar but never in Eastern Sector.
After much publicised PLA incursions during President Xi Jinping's visit to India in 2014, the LAC had cooled down to a great extent. As both countries worked out ‘Border Defence Cooperation Agreement’ piloted by former Indian National Security Advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon; number of Chinese incursions sharply dropped in last three years.
China had welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent comment, ‘not a bullet has been fired at the border in 40 years’. China started raising objections regarding Indian intentions in Tibet since Delhi helped in organizing a conference of Tibetans, Uighurs and Falungongs at Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh, in May,16.
The visit of His Excellency Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh in May 17, and his planned visit to Ladakh later this year; have led to issuance of fierce/stern Chinese warnings as Beijing thought that, HE Dalai Lama may/will announce his successor in Tawang/Ladakh to thwart her nefarious designs in Tibet. Chinese Army started displaying more aggressive postures after these developments.
China is scared of ongoing rapid development of Indian Military Infrastructure in Himalayas and had protested against border roads and bridges like one at Dhola Sadiya in Assam/Arunachal Pradesh. Indian decision of raising a Mountain Strike Corps in North East had upped Chinese ante even more.
Sikkim is the only sector along the 3500-km border where India has a tactical and terrain advantage. Strategically and/or tactically, effective Counter Thrust in the event of Sino Indian conflict must come in Sikkim. China, who earlier had agreed to reopen the Nathu La for border trade, is now wary of any new Military Infrastructure coming up in Sikkim for the same reason.
Latest Chinese incursion in Sikkim area has made Indian Army/Government apprehensive regarding Chinese intentions because:
a). India is “militarily very sensitive” about the Doklam Plateau, especially the Zomplri Ridge Area as it overlooks strategically-vulnerable Siliguri corridor or the 'Chicken's Neck' area. India will lose its "Strategic Advantage" in this region if the said road configuration comes up;
b). Indian Army does not occupy the Doklam Plateau but physically hold Watershed (High Mountain Ridge Line and Peaks) dominating Doka La which ultimately opens into Chinese Chumbi Valley;
c). By extending road configuration up to tri-Junction, China can physically threaten strategically-vulnerable and narrow Siliguri Corridor just 50-km away in West Bengal which connects rest of India with North-Eastern States;
d). This extended road configuration till Tri Junction, through in Bhutanese territory, will help PLA in Military logistics and Maneuverability for rapidly moving Artillery, Armors and other equipment, in case of Sino Indian conflict;
e). Though India has progressively strengthened its defences in Siliguri corridor to stem any Chinese ingress; it is still a geographical vulnerability;
f). China has constructed several feeder roads from Tibet to Bhutanese border and is also trying to extend its railway line in this region. This would facilitate movement of Chinese Troops to Siliguri Corridor through Chumbi Valley in just 36 hours as and when conflict starts, g).This region saw clashes between China and India in 1967, and tensions still flare from time to time but latest development appears to be one of the most serious escalations between two countries in recent years.
This is reminiscent to 1962 when America abetted Tibetan insurgency with close support from India but backed off from providing any meaningful help when Nehru had desperately asked for the US fighter squadrons during Chinese Aggression. This latest incursion took place just before PM Narendra Modi’s US visit in third week of June,17, with Chinese foreign office warning India and US against any plans to ‘intervene together’ in the South China Sea or elsewhere.
One should see the incursion in Sikkim as a continuation of Beijing’s muscle-flexing in the Himalayas to convey the message that if provoked, the US will not be able to help Delhi. Sino Indian geo-political standoff is a clash of two competing, would be, world super powers and will not end any time soon. China is engaged in strategic encirclement of India through its proxies like Pakistan and its ‘string of pearls’ strategy in the northern Indian Ocean.
In the past, China has objected to India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd (ONGC) prospecting for oil off the coast of Vietnam after winning a contract from its government, even though the area was within Vietnam’s territorial waters.
According to a Chinese saying, “One mountain can accommodate only one tiger.” The Chinese look at themselves as the tiger on the Asian mountain and there is no place for a second tiger like India. If India were to play second fiddle, there would be more frequent noise around the deceptively enthralling slogan of the 1950s: Hindi-Chini, bhai-bhai.