Understanding Doklam standoff between India and China

Doklam or Zhoglam also known as Donglang  in China, is an area with a plateau and a valley, lying between Tibet’s Chumbi Valley to the north, Bhutan’s Ha Valley to the east and India’s Sikkim state to the west. It has been depicted as part of Bhutan in the Bhutanese maps since 1961, but it is also claimed by China. To date, the dispute has not been resolved after 24 rounds of border negotiations between Bhutan and China. The area is of strategic importance to all three countries.

Immediate provocations

In June 2017 a military standoff occurred between China and India as China attempted to extend a road on the Doklam plateau southwards near the Doka La pass. Bhutan has formally objected to China’s road construction in the disputed area. China, citing the 1890 China-Britain treaty, calls Doklam its own while Bhutan has disputed it saying the convention applies to the India-Bhutan border, not Bhutan and China. In June 2017, 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. As reported in media, subsequently  Chinese troops asked India to remove two bunkers that were set up in 2012 at Lalten in Doklam plateau. The two bunkers were reportedly positioned by the Indian Army as a backup option. Later, sources told PTI, that the two bunkers were destroyed by the two Chinese bulldozers on the night of June 6 after China stated that neither India nor Bhutan had any claim over the region.  Soon, there was a standoff between troops of both countries with PLA and Indian Army sending immediate reinforcements to the region. At a flag meeting later, China asked Indian troops to withdraw from the Doklam 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.

Strategic importance of Doklam

The three countries are concerned with their own strategic interests, China having more expansionist aspirations. According to an acclaimed journalist Parveen Swamy,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. In 1904, the imperial military officer Francis Young husband had led British forces into the Chumbi, following the epic battle of Karo-La, fought by Gurkha and Sikh troops at altitudes of 5,700 metres,” Swami wrote.

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. He further explained that 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 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.

The reputed journalist asserts that India’s decision to take a military stand in Bhutan has changed the game for all sides. 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.

According to him, 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.” After China asked India to learn from ‘historical lessons,’ Defence Minister Arun Jaitley hit back saying India of 2017 is different from what it used to be 55 years ago.

China’s claims

On its part, China has repeatedly asserted its claim over Donglang (Doklam) and accused Indian troops of trespassing. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that India wanted to infringe upon sovereignty of Bhutan in order to cover up the illegal entry by Indian troops into the Chinese territory  and they are now try to confuse right from wrong. This is futile. China claims that it has no objection to normal bilateral relations between India and Bhutan but it firmly opposed to the Indian side infringing on Chinese territory using Bhutan as an excuse. China says that it will take all steps to ensure its territorial sovereignty.

Chinese officials are also referring to existing provisions to make their claim strong. In a 1949 treaty, Bhutan agreed to let India guide its foreign policy and defence affairs. In 2007, the treaty was superseded by a new friendship treaty that replaced the provision that made it mandatory for Bhutan to take India’s guidance on foreign policy, providing broader sovereignty to Bhutan and not requiring it to obtain India’s permission over arms imports.

Indian position

India charges that China has violated this ‘peace agreement’ by trying to construct roads in Doklam. On 18 June, Indian troops apparently crossed into the territory in dispute between China and Bhutan in an attempt to prevent the road construction. On 3 July 2017, China told India that former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru accepted the 1890 Britain-China treaty. India has criticised China for “crossing the border” and attempting to construct a road (allegedly done “illegally”).

Bhutan’s position

On 29 June 2017, Bhutan protested to China against the construction of a road in the disputed territory. On the same day, the Bhutanese border was put on high alert and border security was tightened as a result of the growing tensions. On the same day, China released a map depicting Doklam as part of China.

The current position

China claimed, via the map, that territory south to Gipmochi belonged to China and claimed it was supported by the 1890 Britain-China treaty.

On 3 July 2017, China told India that former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru accepted the 1890 Britain-China treaty. Contrary to Chinese claim, Nehru’s 26 September 1959 letter to Zhou, cited by China, was a point-by-point refutation of the claims made by the latter on 8 September 1959. Nehru made is amply clear in his refutal that the 1890 treaty defined only the northern part of the Sikkim-Tibet border and not the tri-junction area.

China claimed on 5 July 2017 it had for the past 24 months a “basic consensus” with Bhutan that Doklam belonged to China, and there was no dispute between the two countries. In a 15 page statement released on August 1, 2017, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing accused India of using Bhutan as “a pretext” to intefere and impede the boundary talks between China and Bhutan. The report referred to India’s “trespassing” into Doklam as a violation of the territorial sovereignty of China as well as a challenge to the sovereignty and independence of Bhutan. The Bhutanese government on August 2017 later denied an earlier statement by China that Bhutan has relinquished its claims to Doklam.

As of now, there is no further movement and status quo is being maintained, although tension at the border is high.  Both countries have said they would use official diplomatic channels to find a solution to the dispute.

Looking Forward

China is unscrupulously pursuing its strategic goals in India’s neighbourhood be it Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan or Bangladesh and Myanmar. The Indian Prime Minister had softly reminded China during his China visit that China should keep in mind strategic interest of India as well while engaging with its neighbours. China maintains a double standard. It is calling South China Sea as its strategic backyard, but is not ready to recognize that Indian Ocean is India’s strategic backyard. Likewise China wants to invoke old British time agreement about Doklam, but the same it is not ready to accept regarding McMahon Line. Even in the case of China Pakistan Economic Corridor, it has not paid much heed to India’s claim of disputed part of Kashmir through which the project would pass affecting India’s sovereignty. India normally as a pacifist country avoids any strategic broil with China by remaining uncritical about China’s Tibet or One China policy, but China never misses any opportunity to keep India at disadvantage whether it is India’s inclusion in UN Security Council, Nuclear Supplier Group or putting Pakistani non-state terror mongers in the UN terrorists list.   Doklam standoff is an indication that India would not remain a mute spectator if China would further try to encircle India. As said clap requires joining both the hands together, thus China should pay heed to Indian concerns as well, otherwise India would also rethink its strategy.

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