The territorial and boundary dispute between Indo-China is a complex, historical, multi-layered wrangle across a sprawling 3,500-kilometre-long border.
What is the current Indo-China issue?
- 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 dagger shaped 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 Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan boundary falls here. Bhutan’s claims are supportive of India’s.
History of border disputes between Indo-China
- 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 Indo-China boundary, disagreement centres on which ridgeline constitutes the watershed.
Concerns of India
- 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.
- Assuming that China obtained control over the Siliguri corridor, India could simply bypass the corridor, moving through Nepal or Bangladesh.
Chumbi Valley – China’s vulnerability
- 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.
- 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.
Chinese argument over Doklam plateau
- 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 border lands peopled by nomadic herders. Both China and India use it to back their territorial claims in other disputed sectors.
Current position of India
- Although Beijing has made Indian withdrawal a precondition for de-escalating the Doklam faceoff, Indian forces are showing no sign of blinking.
- 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.
There has been no shooting on the Indo-China LAC since 1975, a peace bolstered by the successful “Peace and Tranquillity Agreement” that New Delhi and Beijing signed in 1993. Paradoxically, India’s pro-active Indo-China LAC stance is creating incentives in Beijing for a LAC settlement. Yet, calibrating the aggression and managing each patrol confrontation remain tricky balancing acts. Until a Indo-China LAC agreement comes about, New Delhi must develop the instruments and expertise needed for managing such crises.
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