External Affairs

Doklam, Gipmochi, Gyemochen: It’s Hard Making Cartographic Sense of a Geopolitical Quagmire

While India has been assertive in protecting interests it considers vital to its security posture in the region, New Delhi remain cagey when it comes to drawing lines on a map.

Screenshot of satellite image of disputed area near India-Bhutan-China tri-junction

To start at the very beginning: the Sikkim-Tibet border was defined in 1890 through the Anglo-Chinese Convention that was signed in Kolkata on March 17, 1890.

Article I of the convention said that the boundary of Sikkim and Tibet would be “the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta…from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu.” The beginning point of the boundary line would be “Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier….”

As is evident, Bhutan played no role in this, nor did Sikkim or Tibet; the agreement was between two empires – the British and the Qing. The Tibetans refused to implement the convention and for this they were punished when the British stormed Lhasa and later signed a convention with the Chinese in 1906 and 1910 recognising the authority (suzerainty, they said) of China over Tibet in exchange for a number of rights.

In the recent exchanges between India and China, it would appear that while Beijing stands by the 1890 convention, India’s position is somewhat ambiguous.

In its sole formal statement of June 30, 2017, the Indian spokesman  said that there was an agreement between China and India in 2012 that “tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalised in consultation with the concerned countries.”

More important, he added that the 2012 understanding was merely a reconfirmation of their “mutual agreement on the ‘basis of alignment’.” Further discussions would have to take place to actually finalise the boundary. Parsing this, it suggests that while the two sides had agreed that the watershed, indeed, is the boundary, there is need for more work to actually finalise it as such.

An exasperated Chinese spokesman underscored this on July 3, when he complained: “As to the statement issued by India’s Ministry of External Affairs last Friday (i.e. June 30), we have noted that this statement completely left out the Convention Between Great Britain and China Relating to Sikkim and Tibet (1890), none other than which clearly defined the China-India boundary alignment in areas where the incident happened.”

Is India, then, interpreting the 1890 Convention unilaterally? If so, then it is a dangerous game. Something similar happened when the MEA in 1959 “interpreted” the McMahon Line which, as per treaty, terminated on the Bhutan border at 27°44′30″ N. But when Indian patrols went there, they found that this was not the highest ridge of the watershed – that was at Thag La ridge, some 4 kms north of where McMahon had drawn the line on the map. The Indian side decided on its own that Thag La ridge was the boundary, and the Indian Army was asked to throw the Chinese off that ridge in an ill-considered operation that triggered the disastrous war of 1962.

In Part I of the Henderson Brooks report on page 54, section 33 noted “DHOLA post was established NORTH of the McMAHON Line as shown in maps prior to October/November 1962 edition. It is believed the old edition was given to the Chinese by our External Affairs Ministry to indicate the McMAHON Line. It is learnt we tried to clarify the error in our maps, but the Chinese did not accept our contention.”

With regard to the issue on hand – the China-India-Bhutan tri-junction –  there certainly are differences. Both India and Bhutan put the tri-junction near Batang La (N 27°19′48″ & E 88°55′04″).  A record of the 68th session of the Bhutanese National Assembly in 1989 noted that the border would go from Batangla to Merugla to Sinchela along the ridge and then down to Amo Chhu river.

The Chinese, however, insist, that the tri-junction is at Mount Gipmochi. As the Chinese spokesman noted on July 5, “the 1890 convention stipulates that the Sikkim section of the China-India boundary commences at Mount Gipmochi.”

1. Detail of 1861 British map showing Gipmochi within Bhutan.

The problem is locating Gipmochi. An 1861 British map shows Gipmochi near the tri-junction but within Bhutan. (Map 1) Many old maps show the beginning of the border from a place called Gyemochen.

Indeed, the Bhutanese, themselves noted as the records of the 82nd session of their National Assembly reveals, that “the Chinese had been going from Gyemochen and Chela to Amo Chhu.”

Gyemochen is mentioned in a 1937 Survey of India map (Map 2) and a US military map (Map 4). A British map of 1923 mentions the same feature of 14, 518 ft as “Gipmochi” (Map 3). And a 1910 map also mentions a place called Giaomochi of  14518 ft. (Map 5­­).  But it does show the tri-junction roughly at Batangla.

So, the conclusion could well be that Gipmochi and Gyemochen are the same place. But that’s where we run into trouble. A modern data base, the one created and maintained by the US shows Gipmochi/Gyemochen to be at least 5 kms east of where the earlier Gipmochi/Gymochen are designated:     

Geonames data base search

Geonames data base search

So clearly, what emerges is the difficulty of relying on an 1890 convention, based on possibly flawed surveys, that may have taken place in the early part of the 20th century in a mountainous and inhospitable region, for modern day boundaries. India and China have clearly indicated their intention of following the watershed principle for following their border. But to do it by relying on maps alone would be an imperfect process. It has to be done on the ground.

Then, of course, there is the matter of Bhutan. It was not party to the original convention and therefore cannot be held to its definition of what and where the border should be.

The first map of Bhutan was prepared with the help of India in 1961 and subsequently a Bhutanese agency mapped the country in the early 1980s, prior to engaging China and India on border talks. In the 68th session of the National Assembly, the king outlined the border which he said should go from Batangla to Merugla and Sinchela and then down to the Amo Chhu river. But according to the record, it was during the 14th round of border talks with China in 2000 that “the Bhutanese delegation had further extended the claim line in three areas in Doklam, Sinchulumba and Dramana” as per the decision of the council of ministers.

As for the Chinese, they are always cagey about putting their claims to paper. They follow the practical method of taking them over. So far all they have done is to provide a sketch map (Map 6). More extensive Chinese claims are visible through some maps in the internet, though their official provenance cannot be established. (Map 7) 

Of course, Chinese official maps of Yadong – the Tibet Autonomous Region administrative unit that juts in between Sikkim and Bhutan – show the entire Doklam region as part of the country. (Map 8)

8. Yadong county claims

As the 82nd session of the Bhutan National Assembly records in June 2004 note: “During the 16th round of China-Bhutan boundary talks, it was decided to exchange 1:500,000 scale maps with the respective claim lines…. The Chinese delegation to the 17th Round of Border talks in Thimphu did not bring the map with claim lines.”

As for India, it is not claiming anything, so all the officials have done is to have come out with some sketch maps.(Maps 9 and 10)

On the ground, however, the Indians have moved in from Doka La to block the Chinese building a road to the Zomperi or Jampheri ridge which is clearly visible in Map 3 above (the US military map) below the wording “Gyemo Chen”. This ledge-like structure overlooking the low-lying hills of Bhutan, gives a clear overview to the Siliguri Corridor.

On June 29, Bhutan had put out its press release which was quite terse, noting that on June 16th, “the Chinese Army started constructing a motorable road from Dokola in the Doklam area towards the Bhutan Army camp at Zompelri. Boundary talks are ongoing between Bhutan and China and we have written agreements of 1988 and 1998 stating that the two sides agree to maintain… status quo on the boundary as before March 1959.”

Beyond the issue of maps and their interpretations, there is also the clear violation by the Chinese of their 1998 agreement with Bhutan not to disturb the status quo as of 1959. The Chinese have, in any case, violated this agreement to build a motorable track to a point below Doka La which is some 2 kms north of Gymochen.

While the Indians have been assertive in protecting interests that they consider vital to their security posture in the region, they remain cagey when it comes to the cartographic game. According to the Survey of India website, the map of Sikkim is still under preparation. 

There is a bottom line here, though not a very comfortable one. Which is that international agreements are merely worth the paper they are written on, unless there is some interest amongst the parties concerned to uphold them. The Chinese are upset at India’s attitude towards the 1890 Convention. But they should introspect about their own attitude to the UNCLOS arbitration award on the South China Sea in 2016 which they have spurned, just because it did not suit their interests.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

  • ashok759

    89 square kilometres of an Alpine meadow, grass covered in summer, for the yak to graze upon, icy cold in winter. Whether Asia’s two foremost powers, to whom the century belongs, should go to war over it, that is the question …

  • Deshaabhimaani Damodardas Subo

    ” The line commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier” does not leave scope to move the Sikkim Tibet boundary tri-junction point to any point other than the stated Mount Gipmochi, either by china or by India.what mistakes any surveyors made, what errors occurred, what was in the mind of the guys who wrote the text of the treaty become matters of no consequence, if there is no doubt at any given point of time which point is Mount GIpmochi. where Mount Gipmochi stands, the line commences! this area being specially around a plateau where people have grazed cattle for long time before and after the 1890 boundary convention, the identity of Mount Gipmochi does not appear to be in doubt between the three countries now involved.
    if that identity is certain, then India and china are both precluded under international law to dispute that point with any convoluted reasoning or argument. it is an irrevocable point as between them.
    however the position of Bhutan is different. technically it can dispute that point as against china with china, and arrive at any other point as tri-junction if it can reach an agreement with china. 1890 Calcutta convention was inked when great Britain was a pahelwan big boss of the world, and Chinese empire at it’s weakest period! so any mischief or advantage was to the benefit of Britain which as we all know was never shy of mischief and deceit!
    what would Bhutan and china do with their dispute is left to them both. but under no circumstances can India dispute the point. and china and Tibet have been talking about all their borders for more than two decades. they will talk more.the tricky thing is what basis India has to cross Sikkim-Tibet boundary line of 1890 convention and walk to Chinese troops involved with road construction?
    the Chinese have been repeatedly stating that India did not go into Bhutan and come to confront them from Bhutan side. and minutest examination of this whole saga does not point to at least one person of royal Bhutanese army or Bhutan government being with Indian troops, or of Bhutan having in any manner invited or requested the Indian troops or government to come into Bhutan and go with them to confront the Chinese.
    this is where Indian generals and Babsus blundered, and this is where china is taking advantage of our blunder!
    many make blunders, including nations! the solution lies in sorting it out in peace as we seem to have done now, and ensuring that we do not rpeat same or similar blunders! can we that assurance? having had 1962 and Henderson brooks report to guide us, how did we make the present blunder?

    i am seriously disturbed when sri Joshi says”There is a bottom line here, though not a very comfortable one. Which is that international agreements are merely worth the paper they are written on, unless there is some interest amongst the parties concerned to uphold them. The Chinese are upset at India’s attitude towards the 1890 Convention. But they should introspect about their own attitude to the UNCLOS arbitration award on the South China Sea in 2016 which they have spurned, just because it did not suit their interests.”
    while super powers or rogue strong powers like Hitler’s Germany did not care, in the present nuclear armed world it is extremly dangerous to refuse to fallow provisions of conventions and treaties agreed and signed between countries.
    India has been insisting acceptance of McMahon line as boundary by china, though china did not sign and approve that.
    while insisting on acceptance of a not agreed line, not accepting an agreed and accepted line becomes a very serious matter.

    it is a bit too far fetched to bring in the matter of ” UNCLOS arbitration award” into doklam and 1890 convention, as they are not of comparable nature.

    and in any case china and Philippines have jointly declared that they are sorting out the matter bilaterally.
    we in India do not like china.because our British masters and their American successors did not want us to like china. so fallowing British and American(USA) policy we have never settled our boundary issues with china even though it is clear that china and Britain/India never settled the boundaries mutually, except for the 1890 boundary convention.
    the only solution is to sit down with china and sort out all boundary disputes, adopt a give and take mutually beneficial strategy and go for demarcation of the entire boundary.once the boundary issue is settled, there could not ever be any other issue between India and china. both are nuclear armed and there is simply no possibility of anyone of them invading the other.talk of salami slicing etc is amatuer gibberish! it is simply talk of bull!

  • Deshaabhimaani Damodardas Subo

    neither china nor India have any interest in this useless patch of territory! the fight between them is about principles to be applied and worked out to have a boundary demarcation, which was never done before!
    by now both have agreed over the principles!
    but India has messed up having been thrust multiple conflicting and unconfirmed claims by the British and some rogue babus of the British thinking about their big empire, about Russia and so on! Britain never bothered about India!
    and since the Indian leaders who technical fought with British, but in heart respected and cohabited(no pun intended) with them, failed to recognize that the strategies of bygone colonialism and imperialism and freshly emerging neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism do not offer a bright future for a newly born, divided country like india! the new Indian leaders felt more British than the British and even retracted from the British records and acknowledgements!

    and those opposed the new Indian leaders had nothing to fight them politically with as everyone involved in the fight with British were all basically in Indian national congress. having been left without identity of any kind they chose jingoism and xenophobia, literally, and cornered Nehru, kaul and company pushing them into 1962 war!
    having been humiliated in a war initiated by them, they had no face to settle the boundary anytime then or later! so whoever comes to power, the one in opposition will challenge and humiliate and call names and abuse as cowards, not men and so on!
    smt. Indira Nehru Gandhi worked out and signed India -Bangladesh border enclaves exchange agreement around 35 years ago but could not get it ratified by the parliament effecting constitutional amendments, for this simple reason!
    somehow shri Modi manged the show and we are improving our relations with Bangladesh!
    having abused the congress endlessly, all recorded in black and white on paper and on film and tape video, shri Modi or bjp have no face or guts to work out any rational or possible solution to India china boundary or to the Kashmir issue.
    so congress and bjp and the in between ignorant assorted parties will all move our great country and our great people through many blunders made and to be made.
    it is going to take time for Indian people to recognize the mischief and pressure them to sit and talk and act with sanity and wisdom!