By Claude Arpi
Soon after independence, when the question arose whether or not to defend a weaker neighbor, India decided to not intervene …for the sake of ‘world peace’.
Between 1947 to 1950, a British ICS officer, Hugh Richardson was Indian Mission-in-Charge in Lhasa; on June 15, 1949, in a communication addressed to the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi, he suggested that India might consider occupying Chumbi Valley up to Phari ‘in an extreme emergency.’ The Chumbi Valley is the highly strategic ‘finger’ sandwiched between Bhutan and Sikkim.
Sixteen months later, Chinese troops invaded Eastern Tibet and Harishwar Dayal, who had replaced another Britisher as the Political Officer in Sikkim, made again the same suggestion: “[Richardson’s] suggestion was NOT favoured by Government of India at the time. It was however proposed as a purely defensive measure and with NO aggressive intention. An attack on Sikkim or Bhutan would call for defensive military operations by the Government of India,” he wrote to the Prime Minister.
The proposal was again rejected by the Indian Government, though many in India thought that, for its own security sake, the government should have been more proactive to support Tibet.
On June 16, 2017, when Chinese troops tried to build a road on a stretch of Bhutanese territory at the southern tip of the same Chumbi Valley, India did what it had not done in 1950, it came to the rescue of a friendly neighbor; this time it was Bhutan.
China’s sharp reaction to India’s move is probably due to Beijing’s surprise; it did not expect Delhi to militarily defend Thimphu. It is also true that the trijunction is a strategic hotspot for Delhi, and by occupying it, the Chinese would have a ‘view’ not only on the Chumbi Valley but also on the Siliguri corridor, which is strategically crucial for India in case of a military conflict. Having been caught on the wrong foot, Beijing decided to go full-swing for propaganda and psychological warfare.
China’s legal position invalid
Beijing’s position is based on the 1890 Convention between the British and the Manchus, which was never recognized by the Tibetans and the Bhutanese as they had not been consulted by the ‘Great Imperial Powers’. Tsepon WD Shakabpa, the Tibetan historian explained: “The British were aware that China exercised no real power in Tibet at that time.” The need to bring the Tibetans onboard eventually resulted in the Younghusband’s military expedition in 1904 and ten years later, the Tripartite Simla Conference.
Further, the 1890 Convention mainly dealt with Northern Sikkim, where two years earlier, an armed conflict had taken place between the British and the Tibetans. Though Article 1 mentions “The line commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier,” the trijunction area had not been surveyed. The first survey of northern Sikkim dates 1895; and some maps published more than a decade later, did not show a demarcated border beyond Jalep-la in the South.
India’s position today
On June 30, 2017, the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi clarified that, in 2012, it had been decided with China that the status quo would be maintained: “The two Governments had in 2012 reached an agreement that the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalised in consultation with the concerned countries.” Probably upset with the delay in finding a solution, Beijing decided to take the matter in its own hands, as it had done earlier in the South China Sea. Beijing has a tendency to believe in the principle that it is better to first be ‘in possession’ and then start negotiating.
Other angles to the standoff
Most of the aspects of the standoff have been extensively covered, however one angle which is not often discussed (for lack of historical reference) is the fact that China did not claim the Doklam plateau before the mid-1960s.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokesperson Hua Chunying can continue to daily rant about India’s presence in Bhutan, accusing the Indian troops of having “illegally crossed the delimited boundary which has been recognized and abided by for nearly 130 years by both China and India,” but the fact remains that the so-called disputed area has never been Chinese territory; and for decades Bhutan and India have patrolled this area and set up camps.
Interestingly, a map published by the CIA in 1965 clearly shows the reality of the situation on the ground: Batang La is the trijunction; this is the logical boundary as it follows the watershed principle and when the report which contained the map was released by the US agency in 2003, China did not protest.
China’s internal dynamics
Another factor is the internal dynamics in China. Though one can only hope that reason will prevail in Beijing, a solution is bound to take time, due to the Chinese leadership change during the Communist Party’s 19th Congress at the end of the year. The Party always goes through a period of great confusion at the time of leadership changes.
A railway to Yatung
Another issue which might have decided Beijing to suddenly change the status quo is the arrival of the railway in Chumbi Valley.
In August 2016, The China Daily reported today that a new ‘Himalayan rail route’ has been ‘endorsed’ by Beijing. According to the Chinese official publication: “A Himalayan train ride at more than 100 kilometers per hour at the foot of the world’s highest snow-capped mountains and oldest glaciers is no longer just a dream.” The map accompanying the article shows the rail line reaching two places near the Indian border, namely Purang (Taklakot for the Nepalis,) north of Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand and Yatung in the Chumbi valley, adjacent to Sikkim.
Beijing was probably keen to enlarge its territory before the arrival of the train in 4 or 5 years time.
Will China start a war for such a small issue?
A question remains, is it worth starting a war, just because India has stepped in and defended Bhutan?
In this context one can recall an amusing event.
On September 26, 1965, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing complained to the Embassy of India in China: two days earlier “a mob of Indian hooligans went to the gate of the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi to make provocation led by Indian officials and Congress leaders and driving a flock of sheep before them. They made a huge din, yelling that China had ‘invented absurd pretexts for threatening and intimidating India’ that ‘China wants to start a world war over some sheep and a few yaks’, and so on and so forth. This ugly farce was wholly instigated and staged by the Indian Government. The Chinese Government hereby lodges a strong protest with the Indian Government.”
Though soon after the Indo-Pakistan war, tensions were high, the incident can make one smile today. What had happened? A young MP named Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided to show the futility of China threatening to go to war for a few ‘grazing grounds’ in Sikkim.
The Indian Government answered the Chinese allegations a week later: “when some of the citizens of Delhi took in procession about 800 sheeps. The Government of India had nothing to do with this demonstration. It was a spontaneous, peaceful and good-humoured expression of the resentment of the citizens of Delhi against the Chinese ultimatum and the threat of war against India on trumped-up and trivial issues. In India, as the Chinese Government is, no doubt, aware, citizens have the right of peaceful assembly and of peaceful demonstration. There is no reason for the Government of China to protest against this. The demonstration was not only peaceful but the demonstrators kept themselves more than 50 yards away from the gate of the Embassy building.”
This historic example should remind China of the futility of risking to spoil the relations with India for a few kilometers of road …on the neighbour’s territory.
(The author is a well know Tibetoloigist, China expert, columnist and author who has lived in India for over four decades)