7 July 2017

Sikkim Stand Off – Saner Voices Need To Prevail

A lot has been said and written about the present stand-off in Sikkim. Many of the writings have been far from truth. As an example, the incident of a bunker broken in 2008 by the Chinese in this sector has been referred to in many writings. Actually it happened in 2007. The shrill of war mongering in the visual and print media leaves one astounded. Well, this has been the trend with every stand-off either in the India – Pakistan or India – China context. The need of the hour is to deal with the issue with maturity and patience and for the saner voices to prevail.

Before we move on further to look at the present stand-off, we need to know and understand a few issues.

One, India and Bhutan stand out for not being able to resolve their boundary disputes with China. Same can be said about China. One of the tri junctions that is along the Line of Actual control lies in the area of Chumbi Valley. The perception of the tri junction in Chumbi valley has two connotations. Firstly, India and Bhutan perceive the Tri Junction; the point at the boundary between India, Bhutan and China to be at a point near Batangla (marked as ‘Tri-Junction on the map). This perception is based on the Watershed principle on which the boundary between India and China has been orchestrated. Secondly, China perceives the tri junction to lie at Gyemochen. The Chinese spokesman released a map of this area. That map is given below. Her perception is based on a 1890 Agreement between the Great Britain and China.

The dotted line in the map that goes through Sinchela shows the Indian and Bhutanese perception of the Tri Junction and Boundary. As per China the Tri Junction lies at Gyemochen. The present stand-off is in the area in between these two lines.

Two, China keeps constructing roads and tracks all along the Line of Actual control. One such track that they are trying to construct is the track being objected to now by India and Bhutan. Though the Chinese spokesman evaded the answer to the question that as per an Agreement in 2012, any issue regarding the tri junctions will have to be arrived at after consulting all the three parties. The present effort at road construction in the area of Doka La violates that agreement and therefore the protest from India and Bhutan.

Third, China has blamed India of violating the 1890 agreement mentioned above. She seems to be applying this analogy selectively. Going by the premise that 1890 agreement should hold good, then the 1914 Shimla Agreement between Great Britain, China and Tibet also should hold good. China has not been adhering to the Shimla Agreement on the premise that she was not a party to it. What she largely glosses over is the fact that the Chinese representative initialled that agreement which implies ‘agreement on behalf of China’. Moreover, China has refused to accept the verdict on the South China Sea by Principal Court of Arbitration based on United Nations Convention on the Laws of Seas because it did not suit her interests.

Fourth, in 2014, China tried to construct a track in Chumar area in Jammu and Kashmir which was opposed by India. Chinese side objected to it. Such incidents have been happening in the past also.

Fifth, China’s behaviour with regard to contentious issues involving other countries leaves much to be desired. When she says that the issues must be properly handled and resolved, the implication is that, the issue should be resolved in favour of China.

Having placed the above issues in perspective, let us come to the present stand-off. China has been trying to gain depth in Chumbi Valley. As can be seen in the map above, any deployment of China’s forces in that valley makes them vulnerable. Therefore, they have been claiming areas in West Bhutan to increase the depth. One such effort by the Chinese is to gain territory in the area that has been explained above. One needs to keep in mind that such incidents are not one off. They happen in the border areas and are resolved amicably. There have been such instances in the past and there will be such instances in future also.

What is the difference this time around? Firstly, such activities are informed to the other side, just prior to their commencement, in either border personnel meetings or flag meetings so that the other side can either convey their reservations or if benign, take note of it quietly. It appears that this practice was not followed in the present issue. Secondly, in a first, Chinese spokespersons of both Ministry of National Defence and Ministry of Foreign Affairs have been following two approaches. They are, (a) Justifying their action through photographs and maps (which is a first) and (b) threatening India of dire consequences. The threatening behaviour has been displayed by China in the South China Sea issue, and while reacting to President Trump’s campaign speeches also. See below for the photograph displayed by the Chinese Spokesperson:

This photograph says that the two dozers shown are Indian vehicles that have crossed into Chinese Territory and the red line along the ridgeline is the line of actual control. What this photograph does not say is that the area shown in the lower slopes is Bhutanese territory and China is unilaterally trying to alter the status quo.

The reaction to this incident from the media in India has been very strong. As has been the case with earlier incidents, at the drop of the hat, they start imagining war and start dictating what needs to be done. Everybody knows a war or conflict does not help anybody and it pushes development of countries involved in it back by a couple of decades. Neither India nor China can afford to get involved into one.

The people who are dealing with the issue and know what is happening, have been reticent and mature in responding to the event. The response from the Ministry of External Affairs has been balanced. One is confident that discussions between the governments and the ministries are on and an amicable solution to the present crisis will be found. One such solution could be to maintain status quo ante to this incident and agree to deal with the area in tripartite consultations. All eyes are on the meeting between Mr Narendra Modi and Mr Xi Jinping on the side-lines of the G 20 summit this week.

As one who has served in this sector extensively, the author hopes and wishes peace and tranquillity prevails along the Line of Actual Control.

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