India-China Standoff in Bhutan: Explanation and Prognosis

The ongoing standoff between India and China in the Doklam area in Bhutan is the result of a disagreement over the terms of the 1890 Convention Relating to Sikkim and Tibet signed by the colonial British government in India and the Qing empire in China. Contrary to the Chinese stress today on ‘Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier’ as the beginning of the boundary between Tibet and Sikkim, the Indian side has pointed out that the specific trijunction point should actually be the result of an adherence to the watershed as indicated in the same Article I of the Convention.[1] And as has been underscored by the 2005 Agreement between India and China, ‘the delineation of the boundary will be carried out utilising means such as modern cartographic and surveying practices and joint surveys’ (Article VIII) and that ‘[p] ending an ultimate settlement … the two sides should … work together to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas’ (Article IX).[2]


Chinese Violations

Several points then are clear from this. One, Mt. Gipmochi cannot be taken as the final trijunction point since the Indians and Bhutanese believe the trijunction point according to the watershed lies further north at Batang La and therefore, this dispute will have to be settled through modern cartographic methods. Two, the Chinese cannot have been unaware that their road-building through disputed territory threatened Indian security and thereby also violated the agreement to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas – it can be no one’s case that the tiny patch of disputed territory between China and Bhutan does not also have implications for ‘the border areas’ of India and China.

Three, the Chinese action violates a similar injunction in their agreements of 1988 and 1998 with the Bhutanese themselves as per the official statement of Bhutan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs of 29 June.[3] Four, if the Sikkim-Tibet boundary was as settled as the Chinese claim, then there should have been no reason for several clashes between the armies of the two countries over the decades along the Sikkim-Tibet border, including the major confrontation in 1967. While there is agreement on the broad principle of the watershed as the bassis of alignment between India and China, there are clearly differences on the alignment itself.

Five, the Chinese action and claims subsequently about Mt. Gimpochi as the settled trijunction runs contrary to the 2012 understanding reached between then Special Representatives Shivshankar Menon on the Indian side and Dai Bingguo on the Chinese side ‘that tri-junctions will be finalised in consultation with the third country concerned.’ This understanding was part of a kind of progress report on the negotiations thus far between the two sides on the eve of Dai’s retirement from his post and has been revealed by no less than Menon himself.[4]


Impact on India-China Relations

As to the impact the present situation in Doklam will have on India-China relations, one must note that in the big picutre one border incident does not constitute the full picture of the bilateral relationship. Both sides must resist the temptation to take their soundings from the current heated rhetoric in the media and the Indian side especially must desist from jeremiads based on English language columns in China’s Global Times. If Indian observers were to look at the whole gamut of China’s external preoccupations in the weeks of June and July, the Bhutan standoff is just one of the many security and foreign policy issues that China has had to deal with – Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia, his participation in the G-20 summit, and Chinese concerns over the US’ THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system in South Korea, all took up attention.

The travel advisory that the Chinese Embassy put out for its citizens to be cautious while in India is part of standard practice and not nearly as strong as it could have been or is, with respect to say, the several advisories on Pakistan.[5] Further, visits of Chinese political leaders to India have continued. For instance, leaders from both Guizhou and Guangxi provinces were were in India in late June[6] and earlier in July[7] respectively an this is an important sign of the state of the relationship.

Still, while the official Chinese rhetoric is cooling down, the cold vibes, will not disappear easily. This is a function of the nature of international relations – India and China will constantly challenge each other as a way of validation of their importance in their neighbourhood and in the global order.

Any pullback of troops on both sides in the Doklam area is unlikely or if it happens at all unlikely to be permanent.

In fact, it is more than likely that the Chinese will pick up from where they left off at some later date, possibly right after the September 2017 BRICS summit in China, which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to attend. And this will happen despite the fact that China will be entering a very sensitive period domestically with the Communist Party’s 19th Congress expected sometime in October or November. There is, in fact, precedent for such Chinese actions as it was practically on the eve of the 18th Party Congress in 2012 that the Sino-Japanese spat over the Senkakus escalated with anti-Japanese violence in China – including protests in front of the Japanese embassy[8] – and frequent intrusions into the waters of the Senkakus by Chinese civilian fishing vessels with the latter continuing through the Congress.[9]

It should not surprise Indian defence planners if the Chinese test and prod the Indian military by opening up road-building, patrolling and other forms of activity in areas along the disputed boundary that have hitherto remained dormant or not seen any such activity at all. And the most likely venue for such increased activity will be the Eastern Sector given India’s greater difficulties of access and in maintiaining logistics supplies there.

A version of this article was published as, ‘Doklam: India-China Cold Front to Continue’, Gateway House, 21 July 2017.











Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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