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Sikkim-Tibet border: an historical perspective

LiveMint logoLiveMint 03-07-2017 Ranjit Singh Kalha

Of the entire 3,488km Sino-Indian border, the only section on which both countries agree that there is no dispute is the 220km Sikkim-Tibet section of the boundary. This is because under the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890, the Sikkim-Tibet border was agreed upon and in 1895 it was jointly demarcated on the ground. Not only that, but the new government of People’s Republic of China, which took power in 1949, confirmed this position in a formal note to the government of India on 26 December 1959. So why should there be any dispute and why should this lead to a stand-off between the armed forces of the two countries?

In the early years the Chinese authorities steadfastly refused to deal with India as far as the affairs of Sikkim and Bhutan were concerned. When prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru raised this point in his letter dated 22 March 1959, premier Zhou Enlai, in a response on 8 September 1959, categorically refused by saying that “the Sikkim-Tibet boundary does not fall within the scope of our present discussions”. Even though India stressed that it had treaty rights to represent both Sikkim and Bhutan, the Chinese authorities would say that these were a hangover of the colonial and imperial past and refused to deal with India. When India incorporated Sikkim as a state of the Union in 1975, there was bitter recrimination from the Chinese authorities, who went to the extent of stating that they would “never” recognize this merger of Sikkim with India.

Earlier, Sikkim came into the limelight in 1965 during the India-Pakistan conflict, when the Chinese suddenly and without any provocation sent a strongly-worded threat on 8 September 1965 that if India did not dismantle “all aggressive military structures” on the Sikkim-Tibet boundary, “it would be responsible for all consequences”. Prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri neatly sidestepped the issue by stating that if the bunkers were on the Chinese side they were well within their rights to demolish them. The point that the Chinese were trying to make was not military, but political, for they wanted to bolster the Pakistani spirit, which by then was rapidly losing steam. Three explicit warnings by the two great powers of the day—by the Soviet Union on 13 September 1965 and two by the US on 15 September 1965—asking China not to intervene, further dampened any Chinese enthusiasm for intervention on behalf of Pakistan. As India stood firm, nothing emerged from Chinese threats on the Sikkim-Tibet border.

In 1967, the Chinese again activated the Sikkim-Tibet border and on 11 September, suddenly opened fire on an Indian patrol party near Nathu La pass. For several days, fierce fighting raged and at one stage it became very intense when heavy artillery opened up on both sides. Several curt diplomatic notes were exchanged. When peace finally returned, casualties were heavy on both sides, with India reporting a loss of 88 killed and 163 wounded. The Chinese were estimated to have lost 300 men and about 450 wounded. But the main point was that India did not lose any position, nor did it yield any ground.

The next important episode was in 2003. When prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee conceded during his visit to China in 2003 that “the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was a part of the People’s Republic of China” with the expectation that China, as a quid pro quo, would recognize Sikkim as a part of India. This did not materialize then, but in the joint statement issued by premier Wen Jiabao and prime minister Manmohan Singh on 11 April 2005. In para 13, the Chinese recognized “Sikkim State of the Republic of India”. Wen even handed over an official map of the People’s Republic of China to Singh, showing Sikkim as a part of India.

History would thus indicate that the present stand-off between India and China over the Sikkim-Tibet boundary is nothing new. The latest episode started on 16 June when a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) road construction party entered Doklam area, despite Bhutanese attempts to dissuade them. The Bhutanese protested on 20 June. It is the Bhutanese contention that this violates the 1988 and 1998 agreements that while the process of boundary negotiations is on, the status quo would not be changed. In co-ordination with the Bhutanese, Indian Army personnel present in Doka La also tried to dissuade the Chinese from road-building. The Indian side has conveyed that this activity represents a significant change and thus presents it with “serious security implications”. As for the location of the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction, it is India’s contention that an agreement was reached in 2012 that it would be finalized only after “consultations” with concerned countries. The Chinese reiterate that, as per para (1) of the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890, the tri-junction is at Mount Gipmochi. Meanwhile Sino-Indian consultations continue at the foreign ministries level, with a border personnel meeting at Nathu La on 20 June.

As in the past, what is the political import of this stand-off and what are the Chinese trying to convey? The Chinese decision to cancel the Kailash Mansarovar yatra through Nathu La is a piece of theatrics by which they hope to keep the issue alive in the public domain. Nothing more. The timeline of initiating this incident indicates a high level of pre-planning, possibly at senior levels of the PLA as well as the Chinese government. The Chinese are probably hoping to drive a wedge between Bhutan and India and to break the steadfast support that each gives to the other. To recall, Bhutan was the only South Asian state that did not participate at the 14-15 May Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, along with India.

To seek an Indian withdrawal as a pre-condition for talks indicates the desire to “puncture” the strong and decisive image of the Indian leadership. Conversely, it would add to the image of President Xi Jinping as a “strong” leader for having stood up for Chinese rights in the run up to the 19th Party Congress due shortly this fall. The Chinese also wish to demonstrate that, unlike in the past, no other great power will come to the aid of India and therefore no matter how much bonhomie is shown in Washington, India will have to deal with China on its own.

There is no question of India bending to Chinese “demands”, for like in 1967, it must stand its ground firmly. That would be a sufficient lesson for the Chinese that the Indian Army is no pushover and this is perhaps the only way to deal with a China that likes to flaunt its economic and military prowess.

Ranjit Singh Kalha is a former secretary (West), ministry of external affairs, and the author of India-China Boundary Issues: Quest For Settlement (2014).

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