Geostrate­gic mis­cal­cu­la­tions are be­hind In­dia’s bor­der tres­pass­ing

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT -

The ten­sions caused by In­dia’s troops tres­pass­ing across the Sikkim sec­tion of the China-In­dia bor­der into Chi­nese ter­ri­tory show no signs of abat­ing. This in­ci­dent has brought back mem­o­ries of colo­nial-era his­tory and trig­gered fresh wor­ries about a loom­ing con­test of will be­tween the two gi­ant Asian neigh­bors.

For China, the tres­pass­ing by In­dian troops was un­ex­pected and it is un­ac­cept­able as it hap­pened in a sec­tion of the bound­ary that has hith­erto been con­sid­ered be­yond dis­pute by both sides in the oth­er­wise long drawn out and ar­du­ous bound­ary ne­go­ti­a­tions. The Sikkim sec­tion of the bound­ary was es­tab­lished by the 1890 Con­ven­tion Be­tween China and Great Bri­tain Re­lat­ing to Ti­bet and Sikkim, which was signed be­tween Bri­tain, the then colo­nial ruler of In­dia, and China’s Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911). The Con­ven­tion clearly marks Donglang as Chi­nese ter­ri­tory.

As is the norm un­der in­ter­na­tional law, the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China in­her­ited the bound­ary line be­tween Donglang and Sikkim. On its part, In­dia ac­cepted the bound­ary as shown in let­ters from prime min­is­ter Jawa­har­lal Nehru to Chi­nese premier Zhou En­lai and through di­plo­matic notes and doc­u­ments.

For 127 years, each side has ex­er­cised ju­ris­dic­tion over its side of the bound­ary as de­lim­ited by the 1890 Con­ven­tion with­out any dis­pute over the spe­cific align­ment of the bound­ary. Th­ese facts are clearly re­counted in a re­cently pub­lished po­si­tion pa­per by the Chi­nese For­eign Min­istry.

The as­ser­tion by In­dia that the 1890 Con­ven­tion merely pro­vides a ba­sis for de­lim­it­ing the bound­ary be­tween the two coun­tries is to­tally un­ten­able. As the Chi­nese po­si­tion pa­per makes clear, once a bound­ary is es­tab­lished by a con­ven­tion, it is un­der the pro­tec­tion of in­ter­na­tional law and shall not be vi­o­lated.

In­dia’s tres­pass­ing amounts to no less than a vi­o­la­tion of China’s ter­ri­to­rial sovereignty, and China has the law­ful right to take what­ever mea­sures it deems nec­es­sary to de­fend its ter­ri­tory.

In­dia’s ini­tial lame ar­gu­ment was soon fol­lowed by an­other, as it claimed that its ac­tion was re­quested by Bhutan, which wanted In­dia’s help in de­fend­ing its ter­ri­tory against China. Yet there has been no Bhutanese state­ment sug­gest­ing this was the case or even that it had prior knowl­edge of In­dia’s in­tent to tres­pass. This was borne out by the fact that In­dian bor­der troops crossed into China from the In­dian side of the bound­ary in the Sikkim sec­tor rather than from Bhutan.

Bhutan’s frus­tra­tion is well-cap­tured by a re­cent blog by a well­known Bhutanese com­men­ta­tor, who wor­ried that In­dia was getting Bhutan to claim ter­ri­to­ries that In­dia it­self had no right to claim.

Bhutan has had to fol­low In­dian guid­ance in its ex­ter­nal re­la­tions since 1949. Although a new treaty signed with In­dia in 2007 nom­i­nally es­tab­lished equal re­la­tions be­tween the two, Bhutan is not re­ally free of In­dia’s in­ter­fer­ence in its ex­ter­nal af­fairs. Us­ing Bhutan as a cover for its tres­pass­ing only re­veals In­dia’s true col­ors as a re­gional bully.

In­dia’s real mo­tive is to make Donglang a dis­puted area. Donglang lies just dozens of miles away from the Silig­uri Cor­ri­dor, a nar­row stretch of land known as the “Chick- en’s Neck”, which pro­vides vi­tal pas­sage be­tween In­dia’s north­east­ern states and the rest of the coun­try. China’s road con­struc­tion in Donglang is seen by some In­dian con­spir­acy the­o­rists as an at­tempt to gain the ca­pa­bil­ity to cut the Chicken’s Neck.

Such zero-sum think­ing has very much colored In­dia’s re­cent per­cep­tions of China. Of late, it has har­bored deep griev­ances at what it per­ceives to be China’s ob­struct­ing of its ambi- tions to be a mem­ber of the Nu­clear Sup­pli­ers Group and on the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. And the fast progress China and Pak­istan have made in ad­vanc­ing their eco­nomic cor­ri­dor is a thorn in its side.

While mis­un­der­stand­ings be­tween neigh­bors are un­der­stand­able, In­dia should en­gage in can­did di­a­logue, not law­less provo­ca­tions.

De­fy­ing an es­tab­lished bound­ary car­ries se­ri­ous risks for In­dia. If a clear bound­ary line bound by a le­gal in­stru­ment can be re­neged on or tam­pered with, what about the hun­dreds of square kilo­me­ters of Ti­betan ter­ri­tory that was lost to Bri­tish Sikkim as a re­sult of the 1890 Con­ven­tion? If the bound­ary be­tween Sikkim and China is no longer rec­og­nized as one be­tween In­dia and China, what would the sta­tus of Sikkim be? Fur­ther­more, if In­dia bends its bor­der treaties at will, how can its neigh­bors be as­sured that their bor­ders can be pro­tected by in­ter­na­tional law and ba­sic norms gov­ern­ing in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions?

When there are any bi­lat­eral dif­fer­ences, China’s pre­ferred ap­proach is con­sul­ta­tions to find a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion. Yet it would be a grave mis­take for In­dia to take China’s good­will as a sign of weak­ness. China’s re­solve to de­fend its ter­ri­to­rial sovereignty is un­shak­able. Time is fast run­ning short for In­dia to pull out from Chi­nese ter­ri­tory and on that ba­sis ex­plore a face-sav­ing so­lu­tion in con­sul­ta­tion with China. In­dia should do well to re­mem­ber that its neigh­bor has the ca­pa­bil­ity to “de­feat all in­vad­ing en­e­mies”.

As is the norm un­der in­ter­na­tional law, the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China in­her­ited the bound­ary line be­tween Donglang and Sikkim. On its part, In­dia ac­cepted the bound­ary as shown in let­ters from prime min­is­ter Jawa­har­lal Nehru to Chi­nese premier Zhou En­lai and through di­plo­matic notes and doc­u­ments.

The au­thor is a Bei­jing-based re­searcher on in­ter­na­tional stud­ies.

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