India, China Stand-Off At Border Tri-Junction With Bhutan Continues

The incident is significant since the India-China boundary in Sikkim is not disputed and both sides have taken pride in not allowing border incidents to affect other aspects of the bilateral relationship.

New Delhi: While India has yet to issue an official statement on the border incidents with China at Sikkim that have led to the cancellation of the Mansarovar Yatra pilgrimage through the Nathu-la route, a high level meeting was held here on Wednesday and the Army chief is set to visit the border state on Thursday to get a first-hand sense of the stand-off between Indian and Chinese soldiers.

Representatives of the home ministry, Indian Army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police took part in the “high-level meeting” where they “took stock” of the tense situation on the India-China border in the Sikkim region.

Quoting unnamed official sources, PTI said that in first week of June, China had bulldozed an old bunker of the Indian army at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan in Sikkim. The Indian army had refused to remove the structure after being asked to do so by China. China, on its part, has alleged that Indian soldiers crossed the boundary into China to interfere with the construction of a road.

The incident took place in the Doko-La (or Donglong) tri-junction area, where India had earlier objected to the  road that China is building towards Bhutan. The Chinese claim that they were constructing the road within their territory, which led to jostling between the two sides and demolition of the bunker.

Source: Google Maps

The crisis came in to the public domain once China sent Indian pilgrims on their way to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet back from the Nathu-la border post last week.

Curiously, while the Chinese foreign ministry has been active in giving its side of the story, there has been no official response from India so far, despite the situation lingering for the past one week.

The second pilgrimage route had been started after a request from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Chinese President Xi Jinping three years ago. Therefore, the curtailment of the pilgrimage is being seen as a major escalation from the Chinese side, especially since both countries have insisted all these years that the border dispute has never been allowed to spill over into other aspects of the burgeoning bilateral relationship. The decision to stop the movement of pilgrims was announced by Chinese PLA officers in their meeting with the Indian army on June 20.

The incident was also significant as it takes place in the Sikkim sector, where the border is settled. The earlier stand-offs between soldiers from the two sides have usually taken place in the western and eastern sectors, where the status of the boundary remains unresolved.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said on Wednesday that the suspension of the pilgrimage route was “an emergency response to the situation there”.

“I want to stress that Indian pilgrims’ trip to Xi Zang [the Tibet Autonomous Region] requires necessary atmosphere and conditions. The Indian side is to blame for the trip not being able to take place as scheduled. As for when the pilgrimage route will reopen, it totally depends on whether the Indian side can correct its mistake in time,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said in response to a  question that delineation of China’s boundary with India at Sikkim was based on a 127-year-old treaty signed between the Qing empire and Great Britain – the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890.

“Both China and the successive Indian governments recognise that the Sikkim section has been delimited. It has been confirmed by the Indian leader, the relevant Indian government document and the Indian delegation at the special representatives’ meeting with China on the boundary question that India and China share [a] common view on the 1890 convention’s stipulation on the boundary alignment at the Sikkim section. To observe the relevant convention and document is the inescapable international obligation of the Indian side,” said Lu.

On this question, there is no disagreement from the Indian side. According to Ranjit S. Kalha, a former Indian secretary of the external affairs ministry and one of South Block’s old ‘China hands’, “the Sikkim-Tibet sector of the boundary has already been negotiated under the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 and demarcated in 1895.”

“The Chinese ministry of foreign affairs, in its note of 26 December 1959 addressed to the embassy of India, confirmed the position by stating that ‘the boundary between China and Sikkim has long been formally delimited and there is neither any discrepancy between the maps nor any disputes in practice,” Kalha wrote last month in Mint, responding to media reports about the Chinese ambassador in Delhi’s “strangest” proposal for “early demarcation of the Sikkim-Tibet boundary.”

Bhutan faults China

Lu repeated China’s assertion that Donglang – which he called Doklam – was part of Chinese territory “since ancient times and it doesn’t belong to Bhutan”.

He accused India of impinging on Bhutan’s sovereignty by attempting to fight its battles. “We hope that all countries can respect Bhutan’s sovereignty. Although the boundary between China and Bhutan is yet to be demarcated, the two sides have been working on that through peaceful negotiation. Any third party must not and does not have the right to interfere, still less make irresponsible moves or remarks that violate the fact,” he said.

Currently, Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with China, but maintains contacts with periodic visits by the Chinese ambassador based in Delhi.

Meanwhile, Bhutan’s ambassador to India, Major-General V Namgyal told The Hindu that “the road construction by the Chinese Army was ‘progressing toward’ a camp of the Royal Bhutan Army at Zom Pelri” and that his government had told the Chinese side that this construction “is not in keeping with the agreements between China and Bhutan [on resolution of their boundary],” Ambassador Namgyal was quoted as saying. He added that Bhutan has asked China to  “stop and refrain from changing the status quo.”