Dilemma of Early Harvest Proposals Balancing Space versus Vulnerability
Multiple media sources have indicated that China has proposed to resolve the boundary issue in Sikkim claiming the same as an “Early Harvest,” option. India, in turn, has offered a package deal for the Central Sector of the India China boundary covering Uttarakhand. India and China had exchanged maps of the Central or middle sector in March 2002. Notionally the Central Sector is seen as vulnerable due to the crow’s flight distance to the National Capital being approximately 400 km. China submitted the “early harvest” proposal to external affairs minister S Jaishankar when he met Wang Yi in Beijing in August.
The Working Mechanism on the Boundary headed at the Joint secretary level will work on code of conduct to maintain peace along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). A hotline between the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army will also be set up.
The framework proposed by China is claimed to be in sync with the ‘Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for Settlement of Boundary Question’ the two sides had agreed on in 2005. Indian experts believe that the 2005 agreement had called for a package deal and not a piecemeal approach that is now intended by the Chinese.
The Chinese statement on the 22nd boundary talks said the two sides should “promote early harvest consultations”; the Indian statement was silent on the issue. “The early harvest of the border negotiations between China and India is an important measure to promote the settlement of the border issue, the maintenance of peace and stability in the border areas and the promotion of cooperation in the border areas,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in the statement. “The two sides are actively exploring the specific contents of realising the early harvest,” it added.
China and India are now likely to discuss the proposals put forward during the talks and come up with options. For India, the Sikkim boundary was expected to be settled. Still, new wounds opened up after the Doklam incident of 2017 when Indian troops blocked the Chinese patrols from extending into the trijunction area.
India and China are sensitive to the boundary in this sector as the same impacts vulnerability of the Chumbi Valley in Tibet and the chicken’s neck of the Siliguri Corridor connecting the Indian mainland with the North East of the country.
The two countries also share the boundary with Bhutan in this sector, which has added to the complexities. Indian military experts believe that the Chinese are interested in gaining access to the Jhampheri Ridge, which can ease the approach to the Siliguri Corridor.
A report in the Hindustan Times dated 31 December 2019 states that four areas of differences have emerged in the Central sector – Kaurik (250 sq km), Shipki la (64 sq km), Pulan Sumda (1,336 sq km) and Barahoti Plains (750 sq km).
In case the Early Harvest proposals are pursued it is believed that India will gain by settling the disputes in the Central Sector (space) but may lead to creation of a vulnerability to the Siliguri Corridor while settling the boundary in the Sikkim trijunction.