In 1890 Sheng Tai, China’s imperial representative in Tibet, travelled to Calcutta to meet the British viceroy in India, Lord Lansdowne. The two were tasked with deciding where a troublesome part of their Himalayan border should lie. The boundary in question was the border with Sikkim – then a separate British protectorate, but now an Indian state. Clashes in the area were damaging the “the friendship and good understanding” between their two empires, the two men said, and they agreed that the border should follow the natural division of two river basins.
“The boundary between Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its affluents from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other rivers of Tibet,” their convention decreed.
But that was not the end of the matter, as disputes in the area have plagued post-Raj India and post-Qing China for years. In the latest row Chinese and Indian troops have been facing off in Doklam – an area where Sikkim, Tibet and the tiny kingdom of Bhutan meet. China says the area belongs to it, citing the 1890 Calcutta deal. Bhutan, which was not a party to that conversation, says the 90 square kilometres of high altitude land belongs to its kingdom. India, which has guaranteed Bhutanese security since the British left in 1947, agrees. The Chinese have come too far south, its ministry of external affairs claims, warning that attempts to build a road in the area have “serious security implications for India”.
Delhi’s biggest concern is the threat to the Siliguri corridor – the so-called Chicken’s Neck – a thin strip of land only 20 kilometres wide at its narrowest point that connects India’s eight northeastern states with the rest of the country. The corridor is 50 kilometres away from the point at which the new road would end, giving the People’s Liberation Army much more direct access should there ever be a repeat of the 1962 Sino-Indian War.
India’s ministry of external affairs said it was “deeply concerned” by developments and repeated Bhutan’s request that the Chinese road builders do nothing that alters the “status quo” in the area.
Beijing counters that the frontier issue was settled in 1890 and that what Chinese troops do on their side of the border is their own business. To support its claims, its foreign ministry has been displaying historical documents at briefings with journalists. The 1890 convention was one such exhibit, while letters from independent India’s first leader Jawaharlal Nehru to former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1954 seem to show him confirming the border issue as settled. The foreign ministry even says it has antiquated “grass tax” receipts which prove that Bhutanese nomads paid for grazing rights for their herds in Doklam, the disputed area.
“India has trampled on international law and infringed on China’s territorial sovereignty by illegally entering into China’s territory, citing our normal construction work as security concerns for them. We ask India to immediately withdraw its troops to the Indian side of the China-India border,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang.
Disagreements aren’t uncommon along the 3,500km border as much of it is disputed, but Beijing says this case is different because Indian troops crossed a “settled” frontier. The situation is complicated further by the fact that Bhutan does not have full diplomatic relations with China – something that Beijing has sought to change. Delhi says the Bhutanese government in Thimpu asked it to intervene, but Beijing has accused India of exploiting its relationship with Bhutan as a “pretext” for an “invasion” of Chinese territory.
“Delhi’s regional hegemony is swelling to a tipping point. The country has to pay for its provocations,” fumed a typically fiery editorial in the Global Times, which also argued that if India had the right to intervene on Bhutan’s behalf then China could do the same to support its own ally Pakistan in its dispute with the Indians in Kashmir. The newspaper also pointed out that some of India’s northeastern states have independence movements, which the Chinese could choose to support. Comments like these will keep things hot in the Himalayas over the summer…
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