India- China Standoff in Doklam Plateau – A Review | Security Risks Asia Made with Humane Club

India- China Standoff in Doklam Plateau – A Review

Published May 22, 2020
Updated May 22, 2020

Sequence of Events

         In an incident that was a repeat of the India – China standoff in the Ladakh Sector in 2013 and 2014, another jostle [literally as unarmed troops on both sides attempted to push back each other] broke out in the Sikkim sector. Of the 3,488-km-long India-China border from Jammu and Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, a 220-km section falls in Sikkim.   

         The sequence of events seems to have been something like this. China removed an old bunker of the Indian Army located at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan in Sikkim by using a bulldozer after the Indian side refused to accede to request to dismantle the same. The incident occurred in the first week of June in Doka La general area in Sikkim. Bunker construction on the international border is approved by higher HQs and local troops are not allowed to undertake the same on their own nor can remove the same.

         A week later the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) patrol entered the Doklam area in Bhutan and attempted to construct a road which was dissuaded by the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA). Doklam is a disputed area which is under negotiations in the boundary talks between China and Bhutan. Bhutan took up the issue diplomatically issuing a demarche and also sought assistance from the Indian army troops located in the sector under Article 2 of the Indo Bhutan Treaty o f 2007. 17 and 27 Mountain Divisions of the Indian Army are in Sikkim located in Gangtok and Kalimpong respectively. The area falls under the responsibility of 17 Mountain Division.

         China on the other hand alleged that India troops had entered its area and demanded their withdrawal. Chinese defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said, “The China-India boundary in Sikkim has delineated by historical treaty. After the independence of India, the Indian government has repeatedly confirmed it in writing acknowledging that both sides have no objection to Sikkim border.” “For China to build the road was completely an act of sovereignty on its own territory and the Indian side has no right to interfere,” Ren said. “We hope that the Indian side will meet China halfway, and do not take any actions to complicate the boundary problem, and jointly maintain momentum of good development of bilateral relations”. Thereafter a series of statements were issued by the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Affairs in Beijing separately.

            The first Indian response came in a Press Release on 30 June 2017, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) which had been silently observing developments on the ground as well as the series of statements by the Chinese Ministry of Defence and Foreign Affairs came out with own explanation of events that formed the back drop of the Doklam Standoff between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops as well as the Royal Bhutan Army.  The MEA Press release stated –

         The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a statement on 26 June 2017 alleging that Indian border troops crossed the boundary line in the Sikkim sector of the China-India boundary and entered Chinese territory. This has been reiterated since then in other Chinese official briefings.  The facts of the matter are as follows:

i.       On 16 June, a PLA construction party entered the Doklam area and attempted to construct a road. It is our understanding that a Royal Bhutan Army patrol attempted to dissuade them from this unilateral activity. The Ambassador of the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB) has publicly stated that it lodged a protest with the Chinese Government through their Embassy in New Delhi on 20 June. [See Bhutan Section for Statement of the Ambassador of Bhutan]

ii.      Yesterday, [29 June] the Foreign Ministry of Bhutan has also issued a statement underlining that the construction of the road inside Bhutanese territory is a direct violation of the 1988 and 1998 agreements between Bhutan and China and affects the process of demarcating the boundary between these two countries. They have urged a return to the status quo as before 16 June 2017.

iii.     In keeping with their tradition of maintaining close consultation on matters of mutual interest, RGOB and the Government of India have been in continuous contact through the unfolding of these developments.

iv.     In coordination with the RGOB, Indian personnel, who were present at general area Doka La, approached the Chinese construction party and urged them to desist from changing the status quo. These efforts continue.

v.      The matter has been under discussion between India and China at the diplomatic level in the Foreign Ministries since then, both in New Delhi and Beijing. It was also the subject of a Border Personnel Meeting at Nathu La on 20 June.

         India is deeply concerned at the recent Chinese actions and has conveyed to the Chinese Government that such construction would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India. In this context, the Indian side has underlined that the two Governments had in 2012 reached agreement that the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalized in consultation with the concerned countries. Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine tri-junction points is in violation of this understanding.

         Where the boundary in the Sikkim sector is concerned, India and China had reached an understanding also in 2012 reconfirming their mutual agreement on the “basis of the alignment”. Further discussions regarding finalization of the boundary have been taking place under the Special Representatives framework. It is essential that all parties concerned display utmost restraint and abide by their respective bilateral understandings not to change the status quo unilaterally. It is also important that the consensus reached between India and China through the Special Representatives process is scrupulously respected by both sides.

         India has consistently taken a positive approach to the settlement of its own boundary with China, along with the associated issue of the tri-junctions. India cherishes peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas. It has not come easily. Both sides have worked hard to establish institutional framework to discuss all issues to ensure peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas. India is committed to working with China to find peaceful resolution of all issues in the border areas through dialogue – said the MEA Statement.

         China commenced the public debate on the standoff in Doklam almost a week before the statement of the Indian MEA. China’s approach has been to underline sovereignty over the area while seeking a “meaningful dialogue” with India. “Diplomatic channels are unimpeded between India and China for talks on the standoff in Sikkim,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said. “We urged the Indian side to withdraw troops back to the Indian side of the boundary immediately. This is the precondition for the settlement of this incident and also the basis for us to conduct any meaningful dialogue,” he said.  

         China also released photographs to show that Indian troops trespassed into what was claimed as Chinese territory.  “Photographs released on our website were taken at the Doka La mountain pass at Sikkim section after the Indian border troops trespassed into Chinese territory on June 18,” Lu said on 29 June. “The Indian troops tress passed the recognised and delineated boundary between China and India. So the most pressing issue is the withdrawal of troops into the Indian territory. That is the precondition for any meaningful dialogue,” he said. China also blocked the Nathu La route for Indian pilgrims travelling to Kailash Mansarovar because of the border standoff. 

         On 29 June the POA also raised the bogey of 1962 War stating that the Indian Army should learn “historical lessons.” Col Wu Qian speaking for the Ministry of Defence said this in reference to the remarks by General Bipin Rawat that India is prepared for a two front war. Wu said, “Such rhetoric is extremely irresponsible”. “We hope that the particular person in the Indian Army could learn from historical lessons and stop such clamouring for war,” he told the media.

         China’s Defence spokesman Col Wu Qian also rejected Bhutan’s allegation that PLA soldiers violated its territory in Donglong area, saying its troops operated on “Chinese territory” and also asked India to “correct” its “wrong doing”. “I have to correct when you say Chinese personnel entered Bhutan’s territory. Chinese troops operated on Chinese territory.”  “The Indian border troupe personnel have entered the Chinese territory in the Sikkim sector of the India-China borders. They tried to stop the normal activities of the Chinese border defence forces in the Donglong region. We carried out appropriate responses to halt these actives to safeguard our national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Wu said.

Why Doklam?

         Selection of the Doklam plateau North of the tri-junction which is a part of Bhutan for raising the ante and persisting with a standoff is not surprising. The area falls on the Eastern watershed of the Chumbi Valley which juts towards Siliguri Corridor – the 23 kms chicken’s neck that connects North East with rest of India. Doklam dominates the S 204 the road axis through Chumbi Valley which links Xigaze in the North to Yatung (Yadong) the last point in the dagger pointing towards the Siliguri Corridor. China wants to remove this domination and construct a road to the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction further to the South. China is thus highly sensitive to the Bhutan’s occupation of Doklam, which Beijing is convinced will be in times of a hot war occupied by the Indian Army. Indian Army has two division deployed in Sikkim with a division in reserve in the plains. In addition the India Bhutan Treaty binds both countries to commit themselves to each other’s national security interests though no Indian troops are presently in Bhutan except an Indian Military Training Team.

         Doklam is a part of the ongoing negotiations between China and Bhutan, with a series of boundary talks having taken place. (See Bhutan Section). China has been trying to swap this with the disputed areas in Central Bhutan but given Indian sensitivities it is apparent that Beijing has not been able to make any headway. Chinese graziers have been coming to Doklam for years to be shooed away by the Bhutanese but this has provided Beijing a rationale to claim sovereignty. This is the creeping approach that China adopts to establish legality over claimed areas. In the assertive strategy adopted under Chairman of the Central Commission Xi Jinping, road building has been undertaken now.

Why Now?

         The timing of the incident has also assumed salience especially since Sikkim is more or less a settled boundary while the disputed area is under negotiation. Analysts are linking this issue with a number of factors – recent tensions in India China relations [Refer to China Section of SAST from February to June 2017], the Modi Xi Jinping meet in Astana on the sidelines of the SCO Summit, the Modi Trump Summit in Washington amongst other events. This is based on the past trend when a border incident has preceded or bridged a major summit in 2013 and 2014.

         Global Times the official mouthpiece of the Chinese government and the communist party combined on international issues came out strongly against the bonhomie at the Modi Trump Summit. Calling India an outpost of the United States in the Asia Pacific it has warned that the overall aim appears to be to contain China which it claims is not likely to succeed given Beijing’s strengths and India’s vacillations in an uncertain World.

           Some have sought this to be an escalation of tensions to local factors, but this is unlikely as mechanisms to resolve issues that occur locally are available such as Flag Meetings.

            China’s objective of keeping the India China boundary alive, expand claims, open partially settled issues and so on is part of the larger game of containing India’s rise. In May PLA helicopters violated the air space in Uttarakhand in the Central Sector of the Sino Indian boundary.  Two helicopters of the People’s Liberation Army of China hovered over Chamoli district, triggering concern in India’s security establishment being fourth such incursion into Indian airspace since March 2017.  External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said, “For the first time, a matter of airspace violation has taken place. We will 101 per cent raise this issue with China, but it has not been decided on how we will go about it,” at a briefing in New Delhi. With the weather in the area being most favourable from June – October, the PLA possibly sought to further the agenda of asserting claims over an area to which India is highly sensitive.

What Next?

         Both countries having gone thus far, what next? Clearly there is no physical escalation likely. Troops on both sides are unarmed – hence use of the word jostle before which best describes the standoff. Having made their positions amply clear, India and China would resolve the standoff on mutually acceptable terms for which it is believed that diplomacy is at work. There are existing mechanisms as Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) for confidence-building however the issue will have to be raised to Foreign Secretary or the National Security Adviser equivalents on both sides and a temporary resolution may be in the offing. The longest standoff has been for 21 days in 2013, counting from 16 June, on 02 July 17 days have passed, so will Doklam set a new record remains to be seen?

The Long View

            Clearly India and China will remain competitors if not adversaries in the long term. With India’s foot firmly in the United States- Japan camp and China backing Pakistan to the extent of even non state actors propped up by Islamabad as Masood Azhar, there is a balance of power which will dictate events ahead. India should prepare for the long haul by building comprehensive national power, for the Chinese respect intrinsic national strength. Till then balancing but not bandwagoning with Beijing’s competitors will remain the way ahead. The Long View is however what India’s leadership finds most difficult to adopt.