Doklam Dispute: Part-II

Understanding the Tri-Junction Question

05 Sep, 2017    ·   5354

Amb (Retd) VP Haran sheds light on the history of the border in the context of the India-China military standoff in the second part of the series

Bhutan’s 470 km-long border with China has been mostly agreed upon with the exception of 2 sectors which together measure 764 sq km. In the north, there is disagreement over 495 sq km in the Jakarlung and Pasamlung areas. The remaining 269 sq km is in the western sector. Of this, 89 km km is in the Doklam area and 180 sq km to the east of Chumbi Valley, in the Dramana, Shakhatoe and Sinchulung areas. While Doklam is not inhabited through the year, there are some permanent residents in the rest of the disputed areas in the western sector. Bhutan had a few enclaves in the Kailash and Manasarovar areas, but these were claimed by China when it annexed Tibet. Sometime ago, Chinese maps had shown parts of eastern Bhutan as within China, but it has since given up its outrageous claim.

Doklam is a plateau on the western side, gradually becoming a valley near Amochu on the eastern side. Torsa Nala, starting from the west near Doka la and going south east and draining into Amochu, divides the Doklam area. The Nala is a mini gorge and difficult to cross. China was trying to extend the road from the northern side of the Nala to the southern side when they were physically interrupted by the Indian Army. Bhutan had conveyed its objection to the road project on the ground and through diplomatic channels. If the road reaches the southern side, China can occupy Jampheri ridge, gaining strategically vis-à-vis Bhutan and India. Chinese actions in Doklam have to be seen in the larger context of what could be called their forward policy. Their efforts in the South China Sea (SCS) to aggressively reinforce claims by changing ground realities is another example of their forward policy. Given the current stage of boundary talks with Bhutan, China was clearly attempting to alter the ground situation to strengthen its claim on Doklam.

Border talks between Bhutan and China commenced in 1984. In 1988 and 1998, they agreed to maintain peace in border areas pending a final settlement on the boundary question, and to maintain status quo on the boundary as before March 1959. The countries also agreed not to take unilateral action to change the boundary's status quo. Despite this agreement, China has, on many occasions, tried to change the status quo while Bhutan has scrupulously adhered to its commitments. One blatant Chinese violation was their extension of the road from Yatung to Sinche la (pass) to the south of the pass into the Doklam area, which they completed in 2004-5. The recent Chinese activity in Doklam was to extend that road to the south of Torsa Nala, to Jampheri ridge.

The 24th round of border talks was held in China in August 2016. A joint field survey was carried out in the disputed western sector, including Doklam, in the summer of 2015. Differences in the disputed sectors remain. China’s attempts to change the status quo through aggressive actions are not contributing to an early and amicable resolution of differences. On 28 August, China said that it continues to exercise sovereignty, overlooking the fact that Doklam belongs to Bhutan or at best can be called an area where China disputes Bhutan’s sovereignty. Till the early 1960s, China was mostly present beyond Sinche la, that is on the Tibetan side of the ridge to the north of Doklam. In 1965, the year in which Indian forces got the better of the Chinese forces in Nathu la, China lodged its protest against alleged violations in Doklam by Indian forces. In 1966, Bhutan, through India, sent a long list of incidents of Chinese herders, people and soldiers entering Bhutanese territory of Doklam. These exchanges indicate that Doklam is at best a disputed area and not Chinese territory. A further joint field survey was carried out in this area only because it is disputed. China's claim of sovereignty over Doklam is thus misplaced.

During the standoff, China questioned India’s locus standi on this issue. In doing so, China ignored the 2012 agreement between the Special Representatives that tri-junctions would be decided in consultation with the third country concerned, and to maintain status quo until then. Doklam is a disputed area as the tri-junction has not been agreed upon, and China was seeking to alter the status quo by extending the road. China said that it had informed India in May and June 2017 about the road project out of goodwill. It is silent on whether it informed Bhutan, to whom Doklam belongs. If India has no locus standi would China have shown this goodwill? If indeed they wanted to show goodwill they should have emulated Pandit Nehru, who unilaterally gave up the Indian enclave of Minsar near Mansarovar in the 1950s.

The standoff is over and both sides are understandably claiming victory. The Bhutanese and Indian objective was to halt the road extension and restore status quo ante. This has been achieved. The status quo will be hopefully be maintained till the tri-junction is agreed upon and the boundary issue is resolved. China is unlikely to take this setback easily and may pose challenges in places where the People's Liberation Army (PLA) holds advantage. The Governments of Bhutan and India should be congratulated for handling the issue maturely, despite intemperate provocations. The focus should now be on finalising and demarcating the boundary in this sector so as to avoid the future recurrence of such standoffs.