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China’s road in Doka La is headed for Thimphu

LiveMint logoLiveMint 10-07-2017 Kunal Singh

It is important to grasp the historical facts to understand the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction dispute. The Anglo-Chinese convention of 1890 says that Sikkim-Tibet boundary “line commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier”. In 1959, at least two letters from Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to Chinese premier Zhou Enlai refer to this convention as the final word on the Sikkim-Tibet boundary. This would suggest that India was on board with Mount Gipmochi—the tri-junction point according to China—being the tri-junction point in 1959.

In 2012, New Delhi and Beijing had come to a separate agreement that any tri-junction involving a third country would be settled by involving the third country in consideration. And since Bhutan was not party to the 1890 convention, the Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan tri-junction remains unsettled. Separately, Beijing and Thimphu arrived at two separate agreements in 1988 and 1998, according to which both sides have agreed to maintain the status quo that existed prior to March 1959. Then, clearly, China’s insistence on building roads in Doka La—between Mount Gipmochi in the south and Batang La, the tri-junction point according to India and Bhutan, in the north—is a violation of three separate agreements it had previously entered into.

If the Chinese are so clearly wrong, why are they the ones sounding so upset? The Chinese side has stiffened its position on the dispute and claimed that there can be no dialogue on the matter unless India withdraws its troops unconditionally from Doka La. The state-controlled Global Times has been far more spiteful: it has threatened that New Delhi will have to pay for its provocations. If a military conflict ensues, India’s losses, the Global Times thunders, will be worse than 1962.

There are four possible reasons why China is upset and articulating itself in such an aggressive manner. One, it is understood that the Chinese have maintained some presence in roads and dirt tracks existing between Batang La and Doka La for more than a decade. Its construction activity has faced little resistance so far and therefore the current stand-off has taken Beijing by surprise. Two, China might actually be taking its territorial claim in this region more seriously than many observers assume. After all, the Chinese foreign ministry has claimed that prior to 1960, Bhutanese herders in the region had to pay “grass tax” to China. The Tibet archives, the Chinese claim, still retains some receipts from those years. Three, Bhutan on its own, the Chinese believe, would have surrendered this area to China long ago. Thimphu extended its claim to Doklam area—as Manoj Joshi has pointed out in The Indian Express—only in November 2000 even though the Bhutan-China border talks had commenced in 1984. Beijing would not be completely wrong in concluding that Thimphu’s extended claim was the result of New Delhi’s prodding. The Chinese could have deemed this Indian action to be in bad faith especially because New Delhi had already signed off on the 1890 Anglo-Chinese convention way back in 1959. Four, it is the Indian forces which have halted the Chinese road construction in a territory which New Delhi agrees is not Indian in any case even if it is disputed between Bhutan and China. India deems that area to be of high strategic importance because any further road construction will allow Chinese troops to come nearer to the Siliguri corridor—a sliver of land that connects India’s northeastern states to the rest of the country.

What could be Beijing’s motivation in choosing this time to construct a road in Doka La? Did it want to embarrass New Delhi by timing its incursion just before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington? But that does not make sense because such an act to embarrass New Delhi might just convince the fence-sitters in Washington of the importance of the partnership with India to tackle the Chinese bullying. This episode also cannot be explained as one more instance of an inevitable clash resulting from a China sitting at the cusp of superpower status demanding respect from India, which in turn believes in its own destined rise. Broadly, it is true but for all instance of bilateral disagreements; China’s unilateral move in Doka La will need more granular analysis.

Beijing’s first objective was clearly to change the status quo on the border so as to gain an unassailable edge in subsequent boundary negotiations. But it is the history of how Beijing and Thimphu arrived to the table for boundary negotiations in 1984—John Garver’s Protracted Contest is a good resource on this—that holds the key to understanding the second objective. While Bhutan has no diplomatic relations with China, it is not because of Beijing’s lack of interest. Thimphu has declined all offers to establish diplomatic relations in deference to India’s security considerations.

The Indo-Bhutanese treaty of 1949 allowed India to have a say in Bhutan’s external engagements. This was not without controversy: New Delhi claimed that India would, in effect, determine Bhutanese foreign policy while Thimphu claimed that India merely had an advisory role. However, the core principle to which both sides agreed was that New Delhi would recognize and preserve Bhutanese independence and Thimphu, India’s security concerns.

Under the 1949 treaty, New Delhi believed it had the right to discuss the China-Bhutan boundary dispute on behalf of Thimphu. But China wanted to discuss the issue only with Bhutan. In 1982, Renmin Ribao, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, came down heavily on the “unequal treaty” between India and Bhutan. Chinese forces also carried out regular intrusions in disputed territories for at least two decades. Apprehensive of being squeezed between two giants, Thimphu began to press New Delhi to allow direct talks with Beijing. India conceded and the talks began in 1984.

In May this year, Bhutan was the only south Asian country, other than India, that did not participate in the inaugural Chinese Belt and Road forum—a high-profile initiative of the Chinese President Xi Jinping. A month later, the Chinese forces began to construct a road in Doka La. And it is no coincidence that the 5 July editorial of Global Times not just condemns India’s “unequal treaties”—referring to both the 1949 treaty and the currently operational 2007 treaty which grants greater autonomy to Thimphu—with Bhutan but also suggests China “put more efforts into establishing diplomatic ties with Bhutan at an earlier date”. Bhutan is the last south Asian prize China has its eyes set on.

Kunal Singh is staff writer (views) at Mint.

Comments are welcome at kunal.s@htlive.com

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