Much has been said about the dispute at the Doklam trijunction between India, China and Bhutan. China started building a road in a territory at the tri-junction between China, India and Bhutan in June this year. Bhutan and India claim that the territory is inside Bhutan and so by building the road China is violating the status-quo which cannot be changed unilaterally. India also insists that building a road this close to India’s ‘Chicken’s neck’ or Siliguri corridor will threaten India’s security interests. This is because the Siliguri pass is the only road that connects India to the north-east and to Bhutan. Building a road this close will make Chinese travel easier to the area so that in the event of a conflict, the Chinese can easily bring in its military reinforcements and cut the Northeast from the rest of India.
China, however, is insisting that the territory where it is building the road is located inside China and that India is violating its sovereignty by entering there. China has released video proofs to back its claims and is saying that by entering China, India is violating the 1890 treaty which had clearly demarcated the India-China boundary in the Sikkim sector.
To begin with, India shares a border with China, along three sectors – middle, eastern and western. It is obvious that the dispute at the trijunction is between Bhutan and China (a long-standing dispute) and India is interfering due the fact that it wants to control Bhutan’s defense and foreign policy (even though, since 2007, Bhutan has transitioned to an independent foreign policy, thus diluting India’s obligations) and has taken it upon itself to protect the smaller country’s sovereignty.
In this article, we will delve into the main points of contention to show that India’s position on Doklam is entirely unfounded.
The 1890 Treaty
The text of the 1890 treaty clearly supports the Chinese position that, indeed, the border between Sikkim and Tibet was clearly demarcated and starts at Mount Gipmochi. Taking this position into account, the Doklam plateau would actually lie inside China, located at the Chumbi valley inside Tibet.
The other proof that China has on its side is the collection of receipts of ‘grass’ taxes that were collected from the Bhutanese herders who wanted to graze their cattle in the contentious area.
Both are strong and valid proofs. China is citing the letter written by Nehru to Zhou Enlai in 1959, where the former clearly accepts the Sikkim-Tibet demarcation. However, the Indian side, releasing the entire letter, is accusing China of taking selective passages, since in the same letter, Nehru states that the Sikkim-Tibet demarcation in the 1890 treaty was actually referring to ‘northern Sikkim’ and that it did not include the contested trijunction area. Nehru also stated that the 1890 agreement could not apply to the trijunction area as Bhutan and Sikkim were not parties to that agreement.
The Indian side, as far as the 1890 agreement is concerned is catching the wrong end of the stick. The Indian government cannot argue its case by claiming that just because Nehru said something back in the 1950s, it must be right. The word of the treaty and not Nehru’s perception holds ground.
When we see the actual text of the agreement, it becomes obvious that the treaty nowhere says that the border was being decided between Tibet and just northern Sikkim. This means that Sikkim as a whole was included. Therefore, Nehru’s claims may have been politically coloured perceptions. The present government needs to take its stand on the actual treaty.
The other contention, again emerging from Nehru’s arguments, was that Tibet and Sikkim were not party to the colonial agreement and therefore it cannot be valid. This is again misplaced. Sikkim had already accepted the British Indian suzerainty over itself, therefore there is no question of Sikkim being a party to the agreement, separately. And, to say that Tibet needs to negotiate separately would be a violation of India’s One-China policy.
Obviously, Nehru’s interests and letters show that both India and Bhutan have been trying to subvert the actual meaning and spirit of the clear-cut 1890 agreement and have been trying to establish the trijunction as an area of dispute. But as per the 1890 agreement which mentions the demarcation at Mount Gipmochi, there is no dispute. Nehru’s word cannot be taken as final.
India’s Imaginary Documents and Interests
Has China threatened India’s ‘Chicken’s neck’? Doklam is supposedly claimed by both China and Bhutan, but India’s sovereignty is not involved in the issue at all. India is only jumping in at the behest of Bhutan and raising the bogey of China threatening its interests. This emerges from India’s bias that China is against it and the usual tendency of the former to compete with China. As always, India makes China a suspect in every issue, ranging from border areas to economic cooperation to global partnerships! When India is bent on doubting China’s intentions, nothing can be done unless the attitude itself changes.
Now for the other ‘proofs’ that India is invoking to claim that China promised to maintain the status-quo at Doklam – for that, India is citing a 2012 agreement and, before that, an agreement signed in 1993 and followed up in 1996. India is saying that as per a 2012 agreement between India and China, ‘the tri-junction boundary points between India, China, and third countries will be finalised in consultation with the concerned countries. Any attempt, therefore to unilaterally determine tri-junction points is in violation of this understanding.’1
This is not what the 2012 agreement states. This is India’s perception of it. The document is titled “Agreement between The Government of the Republic of India and The Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs”, dated January 17, 2012.
It talks about the boundary dispute between the two countries along the LAC (mainly the western sector dispute) and agrees to establish a working mechanism for India-China border affairs. There is no mention of the Sikkim-Tibet boundary – which is not, essentially, a border dispute between India and China.
Another major agreement which India is now invoking is the “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas” signed between India and China, dated September 7, 1993. Shivshankar Menon, India’s former NSA and former ambassador to China, recently alleged that, “this is an attempt by China to change the status quo that we are committed to maintain under the 1993 BPTA. They were trying to build a road, which would change the situation at the tri-junction.”2
However, when the actual 1993 document is seen, it again talks about maintaining status-quo at the LAC. Again, there is no commitment whatsoever made by China to India regarding the Doklam question between China and Bhutan.
Similarly, the follow-up agreement to the 1993 document was “Agreement Between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas”. This again talks about the nature of military exercises that can be carried out by the two countries along the LAC and how suitable restrictions can be observed. It also affirms the traditional stand that LAC differences are differences of perception and that countries will exchange maps and try to resolve the issue through various joint working groups.
One fails to see any reference in any of these documents to the Doklam dispute. The only agreement – as far as India and China are concerned – which deals with Doklam is the 1890 treaty which demarcates the Sikkim-Tibet border. According to that, areas beyond Mount Gipmochi are with China and Doklam lies in that area. As already repeated, given that the dispute is between Bhutan and China, the fact that Bhutanese herders were paying grass tax to the Chinese during the 1950s (not so early a period in history!) makes China’s historical claims stronger than those of Bhutan.
As far as India is concerned, existing agreements invalidate any claim by India to interfere in Chinese road construction at Doklam. Even if the Indians do interfere on the pretext of protecting Bhutan (although, since 2007, Bhutan has an independent foreign policy), as per the 1890 treaty, Indians are indeed transgressing into the Chinese territory.
China’s Legitimate Claims and How India has been Coercing Bhutan
While, as seen above, none of the existing documents support India’s claims, there is enough proof to show that India has been using Doklam as a ploy to keep China at bay, by going against Bhutan’s wishes. For years now, India has had a vested interest in preventing Bhutan from reaching a permanent border settlement with China, even though Bhutan is willing, since 1996, to cede Doklam to China in lieu of China’s acceptance to withdraw its claims on Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys of Bhutan.
The settlement would be most simple – besides this quid pro quo, many in Bhutanese policy circles also acknowledge that China has a legitimate claim over Doklam – but India is the main obstruction.
In a shocking article in 2013, an author who was a former Special Forces Lieutenant General in the Indian Army, suggested that, “To start with, the Doklam Plateau is private property of the Royal Family – belongs to the King. What India should do is to make an offer that China has not. The offer could be to establish a joint Indo-Bhutanese venture on the Doklam Plateau. Alternatively, this underdeveloped piece of land can be developed by India through a development project, which after completion can continue to be operated by Indians or jointly by Bhutanese and Indians. A third possibility is that the king of Bhutan may consider selling the Doklam Plateau to India so that this bone of contention is resolved permanently. It would be prudent for the foreign policy mandarins not to let the issue lie in a state of limbo, permitting China the initiative.”3
The suggestions imply India’s desperation to lay claim to Doklam (due to its own bogey of China) under the guise of protecting Bhutan, even to the extent of Indian policy groups and former army officials suggesting that Doklam be bought by India.
On the other hand, Bhutan has always resisted this high-handedness of India, since 2007 when the Druk king stepped down and a representative government took over. The suggestions above were made in 2013 and it was also in 2013 that India instigated the Bhutanese elections to ensure the defeat of Jigme Thinley’s government, because Bhutan was close to reaching an amicable border settlement with China. The two had already reached an agreement on the border demarcations in Pasamlung and Jakarlung. The settlement in the north was to pave the way to determine the course of action to settle the western border in Doklam.
A compromise on boundary demarcation had nearly been finalised during the 19th round of boundary talks held in 2010 between Bhutan and China.4 In 2012, when China’s Wen Jiabao met Jigme Thinley, the Chinese foreign ministry released a statement saying that, “China is willing to complete border demarcation with Bhutan at an early date and strengthen exchanges in various fields so as to push bilateral ties to a higher level.”5
This is now being used by India to mislead everyone by saying that China had agreed not to change border demarcations unilaterally pending a final settlement. This is like turning a diplomatic statement on its head and forcing a commitment where there was none – and that too this is coming from India, which has no business either in Bhutan’s foreign policy or in Bhutan-China border relations. There is obviously complete silence from Bhutan which has neither attacked China nor supported a single claim made by India in the current crisis.
Again, in the 20th round of talks in 2012, China and Bhutan gained remarkable headway on the boundary issue, with positive sentiments on both sides. India could never allow these good relations because of its own coloured perception of ‘security threats’ from China in the Siliguri corridor for which India wanted to force Bhutan to lay claim on Doklam, and so supposedly instigating the 2013 elections in Bhutan. In fact, as the Bhutan-China relations show, it is as if India is trying to lay illegitimate claims to Tibetan Doklam by simply using Bhutan.
Importantly, according to people working in this field, “Several Bhutanese analysts have argued that neither Bhutan nor India has a strong historical argument to lay claim over Doklam, Sinchulumpa, Dramana and Shakhatoe vis-à-vis China. Bhutan’s claims, they contend, are based on an ‘imaginary line drawn on paper by some British surveyors – like those of the McMahon Lines – without actual verification on the ground,’…”6
Bhutan now wants an amicable border settlement with China, and to maintain good and equidistant relations with both India and China. Bhutan also does not appreciate India’s high-handedness despite the fact that Bhutan ceded lot of space and dominance to India.
In the present conflict, even Bhutanese have privately acknowledged that Doklam belongs to China and that is India’s biggest fear – that Bhutan might easily cede Doklam to China.
What India Needs to Realize
The major facets to the present conflict hold a lesson for India. India needs to realize that currently it has transgressed into Chinese territory and that, despite this transgression, the Chinese are displaying exemplary patience. India needs to come up with a face-saving acknowledgement and call its troops back. India should also realize that its latest moves have not been appreciated by Bhutan. Since Bhutan is interested in reaching a settlement with China on Doklam, even if it means ceding Doklam to China (with many Bhutanese privately accepting that China has historical, legitimate claim), India should not interfere.
Throughout this entire incident, India has displayed an utter lack of magnanimity. In fact, recent India-China history has proven China to be more large-hearted and understanding and possessing a wider vision and more patience than India. Unfortunately, India has operated like the materialistic West would operate, while China has remained true to the Oriental spirit.
The materialistic West has shaped the current international order on the basis of principles of realism and self-interested cooperation between sovereign nations. In reality, these terms can be translated to mean self-centered and selfish approaches rooted in a narrow protection of one’s interests and mistakenly calling it sovereign nationalism. Just like the Western materialist culture does, the Western ideas of international cooperation too are based on pulling things towards themselves and, in a true utilitarian spirit, propagating selfishness and commercialism under the guise of international cooperation.
We can now see the results of these principles in the weak, commercialized and corrupt organization of the United Nations, the ignited arms race harking us back to the times of the last world war, increasing civil strife and in an intense haggling over environment and other goods. This represents everything but cooperation!
Much-misunderstood China has not fallen prey to this Western model. China conducts its international relations on its own terms. For the Chinese, history and culture are paramount in relations between countries. And hence, the Chinese respect for and patience with India.
Unfortunately, India, since the times of Nehru, enamoured by the glamour of a new world order, has fallen prey to a petty mentality. None of our views are grounded in history, culture or ethics. We judge international relations without vision, on the basis of a material cost-benefit analysis seeking to get the most out of it and always begrudging the rise of others like China as a threat and competition to ourselves.
For the longer term, India should bring vision into its foreign policy without being unduly impressed by what other countries do. As long as India continues to be self-centered and to feel threatened all the time, it will face these problems. This narrow outlook is not in consonance with its destiny of world leadership, which requires both firmness and self-giving.
- Mitra, Devirupa, The Wire, June 30, 2017, https://thewire.in/153189/construction-doklam-will-harm-security-interests-india-tells-china/
- Katoch, Prakash, Centre for Land and Warfare Studies, March 16, 2013, http://www.claws.in/985/dealing-with-doklam-prakash-katoch.html
- Jha, Tilak, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, August, 2013, http://www.ipcs.org/pdf_file/issue/IB233-TilakJha-ChinaPeriphery-Bhutan.pdf
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, June 22, 2012, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/topics_665678/wjbcxlhgkcxfzdhbfwbxwlgzlagt_665712/t945186.shtml
- Stobdan, P., The Wire, July 11, 2017, https://thewire.in/156180/bhutan-doklam-border-china/