The Sikkim pa­trol clash BROADSWORD

In­dia’s new as­sertive­ness on China border nudges Beijing to­wards a set­tle­ment but man­ag­ing each pa­trol con­fronta­tion re­mains tricky

Business Standard - - OPINION - AJAI SHUKLA

The ter­ri­to­rial and bound­ary dis­pute be­tween In­dia and China is a com­plex, his­tor­i­cal, multi-lay­ered wran­gle across a sprawl­ing 3,500 kilo­me­tre-long border. Yet, a rel­a­tively sim­ple dis­agree­ment has brought pa­trols from both armies eye­ball-to-eye­ball on the Sikkim-Ti­bet border since June 16 and led to China block­ing the travel of In­dian pil­grims to Kailash Mansarovar through the Nathu La border pass. At issue is sovereignty over a scenic, 4,000-me­tre­high pas­ture called Dok­lam — less than 100 square kilo­me­tres in spread. In­dia claims that the Chumbi Val­ley, a dag­ger­shaped wedge of Chi­nese ter­ri­tory pro­trud­ing south­ward from the Ti­betan plateau, ends north of Dok­lam at the Batang La pass. China as­serts own­er­ship of Dok­lam, too, claim­ing the bound­ary runs south of the pas­ture, along the dom­i­nat­ing Gyemo Chen moun­tain, which China calls Mount Gip­mochi. Com­pli­cat­ing this oth­er­wise straight­for­ward dis­pute is Bhutan, since the tri-junc­tion of the SikkimTi­bet-Bhutan bound­ary falls here. Bhutan’s claims are sup­port­ive of In­dia’s.

Ex­cept for Ladakh, which lies north­east of the Hi­malayas, the de facto Sino-In­dian bound­ary, called the Line of Ac­tual Con­trol (LAC), broadly fol­lows the Hi­malayan wa­ter­shed. The com­mon­est form of dis­pute — and there are 14 sep­a­rate dis­putes along the LAC — is whether one ridge­line, or the neigh­bour­ing one, con­sti­tutes the wa­ter­shed. The 1962 war was sparked off near Ziminthang by dis­agree­ment over whether the bound­ary ran along the Thagla Ridge, as In­dia claimed, or along the Hathungla ridge­line to its south, as China con­tended. The 1986 Sum­dorong Chu con­fronta­tion, which saw In­dia mov­ing tens of thou­sands of troops to the trou­ble spot, was over the tiny Thang­drong graz­ing ground near Tawang, with In­dia claim­ing the wa­ter­shed ran north of that meadow, and China claim­ing it was to the south. At Wa­long, too, at the east­ern end of the Sino-In­dian bound­ary, dis­agree­ment cen­tres on which ridge­line con­sti­tutes the wa­ter­shed. Th­ese small dis­putes over the align­ment of the LAC are sub-sets of a ma­jor over­ar­ch­ing ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute — in which China claims all of Arunachal Pradesh (South­ern Ti­bet); and In­dia claims the Ak­sai Chin plateau.

Many of the 14 sub-dis­putes on the LAC are over rel­a­tively in­con­se­quen­tial graz­ing grounds and mead­ows. How­ever, the on-going stand­off at tri-junc­tion, at the south­ern tip of the Chumbi Val­ley, is over ter­ri­tory that both Beijing and New Delhi re­gard as strate­gi­cally im­por­tant. In­dian military plan­ners worry that let­ting Beijing ex­tend the bound­ary south­wards to Mount Gip­mochi would bring China closer to the Silig­uri cor­ri­dor — a nar­row sliver of In­dian ter­ri­tory be­tween Nepal and Bangladesh — which con­nects In­dia’s seven north­east­ern states with the Indo-Gangetic plain. In fact, ad­vanc­ing to the Silig­uri cor­ri­dor would re­quire Chi­nese troops to break through strong In­dian de­fences in Sikkim and ad­vance south­wards more than a 100 kilo­me­tres through dif­fi­cult jun­gle ter­rain — a tough military task. The be­lea­guered Chi­nese units that do make it to Silig­uri would have to beat back in­evitable In­dian counter at­tacks. Even as­sum­ing that China ob­tained con­trol over the Silig­uri cor­ri­dor, In­dia could sim­ply by­pass the cor­ri­dor, mov­ing through Nepal or Bangladesh.

If In­dia’s sense of vul­ner­a­bil­ity over Silig­uri is overblown, Beijing’s wish to ex­tend the Chumbi Val­ley south­wards is in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. Of all China’s border vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, the Chumbi Val­ley is per­haps the great­est. It is a nar­row salient over­looked by In­dian de­fences, which can cut off the val­ley from Ti­bet by wheel­ing east from north Sikkim, cap­tur­ing it at leisure. Strate­gists re­gard the cap­ture of the Chumbi Val­ley as an ob­vi­ous wartime tar­get for In­dia’s “moun­tain strike corps”, when it is op­er­a­tional. By ex­tend­ing the Chumbi Val­ley south­wards, there­fore, China would only be ex­pand­ing a key vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

Why then is Beijing press­ing its case for the Dok­lam Plateau so de­ter­minedly? The an­swer is prob­a­bly that, un­like many claims else­where, Beijing has an ar­guable case here. As China’s for­eign min­istry spokesper­son spelt out in te­dious de­tail last week, the 1890 An­glo-Chi­nese Con­ven­tion Re­lat­ing to Sikkim and Ti­bet specif­i­cally men­tioned Mount Gip­mochi as tri-junc­tion of China, In­dia and Bhutan. True, Beijing re­jects as “colonial im­po­si­tions” other Bri­tish era agree­ments, like the 1914 Simla Con­ven­tion that birthed the McMa­hon Line. But, there is a dif­fer­ence — China ac­tu­ally signed the 1890 agree­ment, and not the 1914 one. Beijing also ar­gues that Jawa­har­lal Nehru en­dorsed the 1890 agree­ment in a 1959 let­ter to Zhou En­lai.

Beijing also cites a pas­ture­land claim over Dok­lam, ar­gu­ing that the yak gra­ziers of Yadong have long held graz­ing rights over Dok­lam, and that gra­ziers from Bhutan paid a “grass tax” to Yadong gra­ziers if they wanted to herd there. China’s for­eign min­istry claims the Ti­bet Ar­chives still pos­sess “grass tax” re­ceipts from ear­lier times. The gra­zier ar­gu­ment is a pow­er­ful one in bor­der­lands peo­pled by no­madic herders. Both China and In­dia use it to back their ter­ri­to­rial claims in other dis­puted sec­tors.

Al­though Beijing has made In­dian with­drawal a pre­con­di­tion for de-es­ca­lat­ing the Dok­lam face­off, In­dian forces are show­ing no sign of blink­ing. This firm­ness fol­lows a pat­tern seen in ear­lier pa­trol con­fronta­tions in Ladakh, like in Daulet Beg Oldi in April-May 2013; and in Chu­mar in Septem­ber 2014. Over the pre­ced­ing decade, In­dia’s de­fen­sive pos­ture has been greatly stiff­ened by rais­ing two new di­vi­sions in the North­east; an ar­moured brigade each for Ladakh and the North­east; a moun­tain strike corps cur­rently be­ing raised and ma­jor im­prove­ments in In­dia’s air de­fence and air strike ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Whereas once, China bul­lied In­dia on the LAC and — as it is at­tempt­ing in Dok­lam — built roads, tracks and bunkers as “facts on the ground” to con­sol­i­date its po­si­tion in any fu­ture ne­go­ti­a­tion; today the In­dian Army is rightly will­ing to, and ca­pa­ble of, phys­i­cally block­ing such at­tempts.

The ques­tion then is: Does the army’s new as­sertive­ness risk a pa­trol clash es­ca­lat­ing into shoot­ing and pos­si­bly skir­mishes on a wider front? There has been no shoot­ing on the LAC since 1975, a peace bol­stered by the suc­cess­ful “Peace and Tran­quil­lity Agree­ment” that New Delhi and Beijing signed in 1993. China has pressed for ad­di­tional agree­ments, most re­cently a “Work­ing Mech­a­nism for Con­sul­ta­tion and Co­or­di­na­tion” in Jan­uary 2012; and a “Border De­fence Co­op­er­a­tion Agree­ment” in Oc­to­ber 2013. Yet, in­ex­pli­ca­bly, Beijing con­tin­ues to re­sist In­dian calls to for­malise the LAC’s align­ment — an im­por­tant first step to­wards re­solv­ing the larger ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute. A clear LAC align­ment, recog­nised by both sides, would end the im­per­a­tive to “cre­ate facts on the ground”. This would also greatly re­duce pa­trol clashes — and tamp down the na­tion­al­ism sen­ti­ment in stands in both coun­tries in the way of a com­pre­hen­sive set­tle­ment. Para­dox­i­cally, In­dia’s pro-ac­tive LAC stance is cre­at­ing in­cen­tives in Beijing for an LAC set­tle­ment. Yet, cal­i­brat­ing the ag­gres­sion and man­ag­ing each pa­trol con­fronta­tion re­main tricky bal­anc­ing acts. Un­til an LAC agree­ment comes about, New Delhi must de­velop the in­stru­ments and ex­per­tise needed for man­ag­ing such crises.

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