India-China Tensions Flare In Border Dispute Between China And Bhutan

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has conducted live firing drills in the Himalayas in a stand-off with Indian armed forces. In early July 2017, Indian troops intervened with PLA operations to build a road through the Dolam Plateau in Doklam, an area contested by Bhutan and China. It is estimated that some 300-350 troops from both sides have moved to the region. The forces have pitched tents approximately 150 metres from one another and show no signs of backing down.

Beijing accuses the Indian military of crossing the border illegally into China, and has demanded that Delhi immediately withdraw its forces before any negotiations can begin. “China’s determination and resolve to safeguard national security and sovereignty is unshakable” said Colonel Wu Qian, a Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman, adding that India should not “cling to any fantasies.” Delhi, however, supports Bhutan’s claim to the territory. Bhutan requested assistance from India, its ally and neighbour; as such India maintains that their troops are in the region legally. China and Bhutan do not maintain official diplomatic ties, communicating instead through Delhi.

The Dolam Plateau sits in the Doklam region of the Himalayas, at an area known as the tri-junction; the meeting point of the borders of Bhutan, China and India. The area in which the road is being built is in territory contested by both Bhutan and China. The dispute revolves around confusion arising from an 1890 convention between British India and the Qing Dynasty. The convention delineated the boundary between the then independent British Protectorate of Sikkim, now a part of India, and Tibet. China relies on Article I which states that the tri-junction border lies at the peak of Mt. Gipmochi, which lies at the “Bhutan frontier.” Bhutan is not a party to the convention, but claims that the tri-junction lies at Batang-la. The peak of Batang-la matches the geographical description of the boundary point in the convention. Moreover, Claude Arpi, a historian specialising in the Himalayan region, claims that according to Sikkimese records, Batang-la and Mt. Gipmochi are one and the same.

Sushma Swaraj, the Indian Minister for External Affairs said “If China unilaterally changes the status-quo of the tri-junction, it becomes a matter of security concern for India.” The Dolam Plateau sits next to an area known as the Chicken Neck; a narrow corridor of Indian territory, some 14 miles wide, that connects the isolated (politically and geographically) North-Eastern states to the rest of the country. India’s lack of free trade agreement with Bangladesh means that the corridor is a vital trade route to supply the states with trade and resources. As such, the area is of strategic importance to India, and China’s actions are perceived as a threat to India’s control of the Chicken Neck.

China and India last engaged in armed conflict in 1962 over their Himalayan border. However, it is hoped that conflict can be avoided when Chinese and Indian diplomats meet in Beijing for a BRICS security forum this week.

Anton Anin