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18 July, 2017

Confrontation on the Himalayas

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Memories of the border war of 1962 came alive briefly during the past month as armies of India and China faced each other at Doklam, at their trijunction with Bhutan, nestling at a height of 8,000 feet in the Himalayas.

The standoff has not ended but after some acerbic exchanges, mostly through the media, the two sides have toned down the rhetoric and voiced readiness to resolve the issue through talks. However, the talks may not come any time soon as China, which has settled its border disputes with all other neighbours, appears to be in no hurry to demarcate its borders with India and Bhutan.

The India-China border is about 4,000-kilometres long. Of this, only the 220-km Sikkim-Tibet segment is free from dispute. While rejecting the McMahon line that separated Tibet from India’s northeast as a British imposition, China had accepted the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 which defined the Sikkim-Tibet border.

In an agreement concluded in 1996 India and China committed themselves to peaceful resolution of the border dispute. So far there have been 18 rounds of talks, with little to show.

Bhutan, the world’s only remaining Buddhist kingdom, is a small country with an area of 38,394 square kilometres and a population of less than 800,000, which took to the path of democracy a decade ago.  While other nations seek to raise their gross national product, it seeks to boost gross national happiness.

Bhutan has an undemarcated 470km-long border with China’s Tibet region. Kuomintang China had claimed a part of Bhutan’s territory and Communist China chose to keep the claim alive. After more than 20 rounds of talks the border dispute remains unresolved.

When Britain ruled India, Bhutan and Sikkim were its protectorates. After gaining freedom India readjusted its ties with them.

Sikkim was made a state of India in 1975 at the instance of the Sikkim National Congress which came to power in the elections held the previous year.

Under an agreement with Bhutan in 1949 India virtually took over the role performed by the colonial regime and undertook to assist it in foreign relations. A friendship treaty signed in 2007 recast the relations on a new basis. In it the two countries pledged to cooperate closely on issues where their national interests are involved and not allow the use of their territories for activities harmful to each other’s national security.

While Bhutan has maintained close ties with India since the colonial period, it has avoided establishing diplomatic relations with China. After joining the United Nations in 1971 it established diplomatic relations with more than 50 countries but it has not allowed China and the four other permanent members of the Security Council to establish missions in its capital Thimpu.

It hurts Beijing’s pride that this tiny neighbour rebuffs its pleas for diplomatic relations. Also, along with India, it has kept out of China’s One Road, One Belt scheme.

Doklam, the scene of the stand-off, is a plateau which the People’s Liberation Army occupied as it swept through Tibet after the Revolution. In 2000 Thimpu belatedly pointed out that the place belongs to it.

The standoff is the result of the Indian army’s stepping in to challenge the building of a new road which will give China easy access to the miniscule Bhutan army’s base and – from New Delhi’s standpoint, more importantly – to the Siliguri Corridor, the chicken’s neck that connects India’s northeastern states with the mainland.

When Chinese troops poured down through the mountain passes in 1962, India had feared they would cut off the northeast, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had voiced his anguish on that score in a broadcast.

In the recent past India and China had made a series of moves leading to cooling of the ardour witnessed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s early meetings with President Xi Jinping. China is wary of India’s growing relations with the United States and India is wary of China’s hegemonic ambitions.

At one point the Chinese side reminded India of its painful 1962 experience. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley said India of 2017 was not India of 1962. The remark invited a retort from Beijing that China of 2017 was not China of 1962.

After Chinese troops swooped down the hills in 1962, forcing Indian soldiers to retreat, Beijing had announced a quick unilateral withdrawal of forces. The pullout was dictated not so much by altruistic factors as by logistical considerations. The Himalayas are no place to fight a prolonged war but offer pressure points that can be activated in case of need. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 18, 2017.

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