Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Sikkim patrol clash

Photo released by China's foreign ministry purportedly depicting Indian troops blocking Chinese construction

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 4th July 17

The territorial and boundary dispute between India and China is a complex, historical, multi-layered wrangle across a sprawling 3,500 kilometre-long border. Yet, a relatively simple disagreement has brought patrols from both armies eyeball-to-eyeball on the Sikkim-Tibet border since June 16 and led to China blocking the travel of Indian pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar through the Nathu La border pass. At issue is sovereignty over a scenic, 4,000-metre-high pasture called Doklam – less than 100 square kilometres in spread. India claims that the Chumbi Valley, a dagger-shaped wedge of Chinese territory protruding southward from the Tibetan plateau, ends north of Doklam at the Batang La pass. China asserts ownership of Doklam too, claiming the boundary runs south of the pasture, along the dominating Gyemo Chen mountain, which China calls Mount Gipmochi. Complicating this otherwise straightforward dispute is Bhutan, since the tri-junction of the Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan boundary falls here. Bhutan’s claims are supportive of India’s.

Except for Ladakh, which lies northeast of the Himalayas, the de facto Sino-Indian boundary, called the Line of Actual Control (LAC), broadly follows the Himalayan watershed. The commonest form of dispute – and there are 14 separate disputes along the LAC – is whether one ridgeline, or the neighbouring one, constitutes the watershed. The 1962 war was sparked off near Ziminthang by disagreement over whether the boundary ran along the Thagla Ridge, as India claimed, or along the Hathungla ridgeline to its south, as China contended. The 1986 Sumdorong Chu confrontation, which saw India moving tens of thousands of troops to the trouble spot, was over the tiny Thangdrong grazing ground near Tawang, with India claiming the watershed ran north of that meadow, and China claiming it was to the south. At Walong too, at the eastern end of the Sino-Indian boundary, disagreement centres on which ridgeline constitutes the watershed. These small disputes over the alignment of the LAC are sub-sets of a major overarching territorial dispute – in which China claims all of Arunachal Pradesh (Southern Tibet); and India claims the Aksai Chin plateau.

Many of the 14 sub-disputes on the LAC are over relatively inconsequential grazing grounds and meadows. However, the on-going standoff at Tri-junction, at the southern tip of the Chumbi Valley, is over territory that both Beijing and New Delhi regard as strategically important. Indian military planners worry that letting Beijing extend the boundary southwards to Mount Gipmochi would bring China closer to the Siliguri corridor – a narrow sliver of Indian territory between Nepal and Bangladesh – which connects India’s seven north-eastern states with the Indo-Gangetic plain. In fact, advancing to the Siliguri corridor would require Chinese troops to break through strong Indian defences in Sikkim and advance southwards more than a hundred kilometres through difficult jungle terrain – a tough military task. The beleaguered Chinese units that do make it to Siliguri would have to beat back inevitable Indian counter attacks. Even assuming that China obtained control over the Siliguri corridor, India could simply bypass the corridor, moving through Nepal or Bangladesh.

If India’s sense of vulnerability over Siliguri is overblown, Beijing’s wish to extend the Chumbi Valley southwards is incomprehensible. Of all China’s border vulnerabilities, the Chumbi Valley is perhaps the greatest. It is a narrow salient overlooked by Indian defences, which can cut off the valley from Tibet by wheeling east from North Sikkim, capturing it at leisure. Strategists regard the capture of the Chumbi Valley as an obvious wartime target for India’s “mountain strike corps”, when it is operational. By extending the Chumbi Valley southwards, therefore, China would only be expanding a key vulnerability.

Why then is Beijing pressing its case for the Doklam Plateau so determinedly? The answer is probably that, unlike many claims elsewhere, Beijing has an arguable case here. As China’s foreign ministry spokesperson spelt out in tedious detail last week, the 1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention Relating to Sikkim and Tibet specifically mentioned Mount Gipmochi as tri-junction of China, India and Bhutan. True, Beijing rejects as “colonial impositions” other British era agreements, like the 1914 Simla Convention that birthed the McMahon Line. But, there is a difference – China actually signed the 1890 agreement, and not the 1914 one. Beijing also argues that Jawaharlal Nehru endorsed the 1890 agreement in a 1959 letter to Zhou Enlai.

Beijing also cites a pastureland claim over Doklam, arguing that the yak graziers of Yadong have long held grazing rights over Doklam, and that graziers from Bhutan paid a “grass tax” to Yadong graziers if they wanted to herd there. China’s foreign ministry claims the Tibet Archives still possess “grass tax” receipts from earlier times. The grazier argument is a powerful one in borderlands peopled by nomadic herders. Both China and India use it to back their territorial claims in other disputed sectors.

Although Beijing has made Indian withdrawal a precondition for de-escalating the Doklam face-off, Indian forces are showing no sign of blinking. This firmness follows a pattern seen in earlier patrol confrontations in Ladakh, like in Daulet Beg Oldi in April-May 2013; and in Chumar in September 2014. Over the preceding decade, India’s defensive posture has been greatly stiffened by raising two new divisions in the Northeast; an armoured brigade each for Ladakh and the Northeast; a mountain strike corps currently being raised and major improvements in India’s air defence and air strike capabilities. Whereas once, China bullied India on the LAC and – as it is attempting in Doklam – built roads, tracks and bunkers as “facts on the ground” to consolidate its position in any future negotiation; today the Indian Army is rightly willing to, and capable of, physically blocking such attempts.


The question then is: Does the army’s new assertiveness risk a patrol clash escalating into shooting and possibly skirmishes on a wider front? There has been no shooting on the LAC since 1975, a peace bolstered by the successful “Peace and Tranquillity Agreement” that New Delhi and Beijing signed in 1993. China has pressed for additional agreements, most recently a “Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination” in January 2012; and a “Border Defence Cooperation Agreement” in October 2013. Yet, inexplicably, Beijing continues to resist Indian calls to formalise the LAC’s alignment – an important first step towards resolving the larger territorial dispute. A clear LAC alignment, recognised by both sides, would end the imperative to “create facts on the ground”. This would also greatly reduce patrol clashes – and tamp down the nationalism sentiment in stands in both countries in the way of a comprehensive settlement. Paradoxically, India’s pro-active LAC stance is creating incentives in Beijing for an LAC settlement. Yet, calibrating the aggression and managing each patrol confrontation remain tricky balancing acts. Until an LAC agreement comes about, New Delhi must develop the instruments and expertise needed for managing such crises.

14 comments:

Alok Asthana said...

The present dispensation in the govt is working hard to show off India's new found strength (since 2014). Army leadership seems to be playing along.
The threat to Siliguri corridor through Doklam is simply too childish to be taken seriously by any army officer who has completed his JC (Junior Command) course in his career.
What is, however, real is the teeming millions in India who remain unfed, uneducated, unadministered and jobless in India, simply for want of investment of govt funds in these areas. Can a country in a condition like this throw away money, lives and growth opportunities like this? Utterly irresponsible.
Can we got out of this mess with self pride intact? Definitely. Will a shooting war help Modi further cement his claims of super-patriotism. Unfortunately, yes again.

nb vishen said...

China's actions have to be viewed historically.Right from Qin Shi Huang dynasty(221 BCE), to Mao and Deng the country has been dreaming of a divine empire and consolidating. China does not subscribe to Westphalian doctrine.

China and India exercise their balance of power differently. This difference of approach is rooted in their respective civilisations. China believes in being a superior strong state and a self arbitrator with clients around. India works to create regional balance by attempting to forge a mutual understanding based on equality of nations.It counts upon outside powers and global institutions to guarantee the maintenance of regional peace.

China does not believe in extraneous involvement,because it has not recognised the Westphalian Doctrine-sovreignity of states based upon non interference,equality and comity of nations.

Nithesh said...

Awesome article . Brings clarity . Praying for our soldiers .

Eagle said...

Not easy to recover if Shiliguri is taken by PLAGF. Why Bangladesh will allow Indian army transit facility or Nepal? Massive Chinese attack can be repulsed by only MBRL, artillery and gunship.

Priya said...

Very Well Article Sir

China only understands hard power

We Need to Raise Additional Artillery Divisons
with Many more Missile and MBRL Regiments

Though they have so much land ; these Chinese are always looking for an excuse to fight

They are Evil people ; Bullies by nature

Diganta Biswas said...

Sir, thanks for the insight into the developments. Nice, informative write-up from you as usual. Some media reports have been exploring the possibility of another Indo-China war without delving deep to assess the actual scenario. Regards.

Manu Singh said...

Just to clear two crucial facts in your argument:

1. Nehru did not endorse 1890 treaty in full. He said - Tibet Sikkim border in north will follow the treaty but in south, where India-Tibet-Bhutan borders are concerned, a negotiated agreement will finalise the border alignment.

2. Himalayan watershed principle takes the highest ridge as the border.

3. The distance between Chinese claimed Mount Gyemochen and Silliguri corridor is 44 km by air. Even regular firing from a 155mm howitzer can block that route, if not their long range rockets.

4. How come China did not think of changing its borderline between 1949-2017? Its only now
they have remembered the treaty? How selective memory though ??

Indian apprehension is not without justification.

arvind said...

Respected Sir
A query comes to mind can a Chinese artillery Battalion in the Doklam plateau cut us completely from the Northeast? Sir i hope you respond

Longtime reader first time writer

Pierre Zorin said...

1890s China was not the current Red Capitalist China. Does China recognise the non-Communist government? They don't therefore the signature of a non entity per communist China's own manifesto is null and void. In 2012 China did an agreement with India - an agreement can't be reached without considering previous arguments. 1890 must have come up in that. China agreed to the new arrangements the matter should be settled. This Chinese claims, like Abraham's promise - look east west north and south I will give you the land God said to Abraham- need to stop because it is bullying neighbours and smaller countries and playing victim to oppress others is not mandated under international law. Chinese behaviour is unacceptable towards other countries, many of whom are smaller, and there should have been a moral code and ethics attached to the permanent seat at the UN meaning a country can be deposed of their seat under code of conduct.

SSanon said...

Do the Chinese take into consideration that the air power balance within operation range of the border is not in their favor? Do they hope to score a quick land victory and declare a cease fire to avoid the impact of indian counter attacks and aerial bombardment?

Alok Asthana said...

The author suggests 'A clear LAC alignment, recognised by both sides, would end the imperative to “create facts on the ground”. This would also greatly reduce patrol clashes – and tamp down the nationalism sentiment'.
But isn't that the whole point, though seen from the wrong side? Modi and Jaitley, DO NOT WANT to tamp down nationalism. Who kills a golden goose? UPA managed to keep the borders quiet, and just lost all opportunities to 'nationalist sentiment' and, of course, the elections.

Anonymous said...

The Big... Ugly... Inferiority Complex ed... Self Centered... Greedy... Dragon...

Unknown said...

Re:"Why then is Beijing pressing its case for the Doklam Plateau so determinedly? The answer is probably that, unlike many claims elsewhere, Beijing has an arguable case here"

This statement is a lot of bull actually,just like most Chinese statements related to the current standoff at Doka La.

Article 1 of the 1890 Convention states:
The boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the teesta and its affluents from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other rivers of Tibet.The line commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier and follows the above mentioned water-parting to the point where it meets Nepal territory.The boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and it's affluents from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other rivers of Tibet.The line commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier and follows the above mentioned water-parting to the point wher it meets Nepal territory.

According to Sukkimese records Gipmochi is Batang-La,5km north of DokaLa.

This clearly means that the territory south of Batang La is Bhutanese,therefore where is the question of Indian troops trespassing into Tibetan(now Chinese)territory?

So much for China having a case this time based on the 1890 treaty!!!

Brownian Motion said...


It is interesting, to say the least, that you're willing to accept w/o argument or analysis, China's twist to the 1890 agreement when you say "Why then is Beijing pressing its case for the Doklam Plateau so determinedly? The answer is probably that, unlike many claims elsewhere, Beijing has an arguable case here." As has been mentioned by analysts elsewhere (who are clearly not interested in kowtowing to China), China is very selectively interpreting 1890 agreement in its own favor and the same agreement can equally be used to support India's case simply because the agreement makes incorrect assumptions about the lay of the land! You've either not bothered to look at the agreement or would simply prefer to peddle the Chinese line.

Any doubts I had about your intentions were quickly clarified when you wrote "China’s foreign ministry claims the Tibet Archives still possess “grass tax” receipts from earlier times. The grazier argument is a powerful one in borderlands peopled by nomadic herders....". You know as well as anyone that China ALWAYS claims historical evidence backs up its claims, in the South China Sea for instance, but has never been able to produce any evidence. Indeed the South China Sea Arbitration tribunal specifically declared that there's no evidence to support China's claim. But rather than point this out on your blog, you've, quite ridiculously, called it a "powerful argument". At this point I think it's quite pertinent to ask: "Who's paying you?