In its first statement on the Indian Army’s on-going confrontation with a Chinese patrol and road construction party that began two weeks ago, New Delhi stated on Friday that it is “deeply concerned” at China’s attempt to alter the status quo, which could have “serious security implications” for India.”
This refers to Sikkim’s proximity to the Siliguri corridor – a narrow “chicken’s neck” that connects the northeast India with the rest of the country. China’s army edging toward this corridor constitutes a nightmare for Indian defence planners.
New Delhi’s statement reveals that troops of the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) first intercepted a Chinese construction party on June 16 in the Doka La area of the Doklam Plateau in Sikkim. The incursion took place on Bhutanese territory, near the “tri-junction” of the borders of India, Bhutan and China. It quickly drew in Indian troops, which crossed into Bhutanese territory.
Explaining India’s involvement, the statement says: “In coordination with the RGOB (Royal Government of Bhutan), Indian personnel, who were present at general area Doka La, approached the Chinese construction party and urged them to desist from changing the status quo. These efforts continue.”
Highlighting further the coordination between New Delhi and Thimphu, the statement goes on: “In keeping with their tradition of maintaining close consultation on matters of mutual interest, RGOB and the Government of India have been in continuous contact through the unfolding of these developments.”
Using typically robust methods, Indian troops physically prevented the Chinese from building activities while New Delhi and Beijing have attempted to defuse the crisis.
“The matter has been under discussion between India and China at the diplomatic level in the Foreign Ministries since then, both in New Delhi and Beijing. It was also the subject of a Border Personnel Meeting at Nathu La on 20 June”, said the Indian foreign ministry statement.
Ten days later, with the Indian army in full control of the area where the incident took place, New Delhi has signalled a face-saver for Beijing: “India is committed to working with China to find peaceful resolution of all issues in the border areas through dialogue.”
The three-way confrontation came to public notice early this week, when TV channels repeatedly broadcast a video showing members of Indian patrol physically jostling with a Chinese patrol.
Business Standard has learnt authoritatively that the video in question relates to another patrol clash that took place elsewhere, much earlier. No video has been broadcast of the current confrontation in Sikkim.
Thimphu has played an active role in negotiations, although it does not have diplomatic relations with Beijing. Consequently, Bhutan’s diplomacy was conducted through its embassy in New Delhi. On June 20, the Bhutanese ambassador lodged a protest with the Chinese embassy in New Delhi.
On Tuesday Beijing had issued a statement claiming the Doklam plateau, based on the 1890 “Convention Between Great Britain and China Relating to Sikkim and Tibet.”
Bhutan responded on Thursday, pointing out that Chinese road building directly violates the 1988 and 1998 agreements between the two countries to maintain peace and tranquillity on their border, pending a final solution.
Beijing is particularly furious at India’s intercession on Bhutan’s behalf. Its foreign ministry spokesperson declared: "The China-Bhutan boundary is not delineated, no third party should interfere in this matter and make irresponsible remarks or actions."
Further, “"If any third party, out of hidden agenda, interferes it is disrespect of the sovereignty of Bhutan. We don't want to see this, as Bhutan is a country entitled to sovereignty by the international community.”
New Delhi’s statement also pointed out that India and China “had in 2012 reached agreement that 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.”
The statement urges China not to unilaterally change the status quo of the well-settled Sikkim-Tibet boundary. It notes: “India and China had reached an understanding also in 2012 reconfirming their mutual agreement on the ‘basis of the alignment’. Further discussions regarding finalization of the boundary have been taking place under the Special Representatives framework.”
While a shrill Chinese defence ministry has aggressively reminded the Indian Army chief of the 1962 military defeat of India, New Delhi’s statement today is more restrained: “India cherishes peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas. It has not come easily.”
While the crisis plays out, it has disappointed about 100 Indian pilgrims to Kailash Mansarover, who were to cross through Nathu La into Tibet, but whose entry was blocked by China when the crisis broke out. In 2015, China had accepted India’s request to allow pilgrims through Nathu La -- a relatively easier route than the other route through Uttarakhand. The yatra through Uttarakhand is continuing smoothly.