The Chinese claim that the Sikkim-Tibet border is already settled is disingenuous
The standoff between Chinese and Indian troops in the Doklam area, at the tri-junction with Bhutan, is accompanied by competing narratives: attempts to clarify, justify or rationalize their positions. These are aimed at multiple audiences, especially third countries that know little about the details of the problem. The Chinese have been far more active with a series of official statements, which have been getting progressively tougher towards India.
The nub of the Chinese position, set out at length in their latest statement, is that Indian troops have crossed a settled international boundary and entered Chinese territory. This needs some historical perspective. Is the Doklam area assuredly Chinese territory? Hardly. China claims the area, but it is disputed by Bhutan. And the two sides have had 24 rounds of talks.
The Chinese are right in stating that the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet was defined by the Anglo-Chinese convention of 1890. This is the basis of their claim that India has violated a settled international boundary with China. There are two aspects to this issue. First, since Bhutan was not a signatory to this treaty, is the tri-junction between Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan—which is also the eastern extremity of the boundary between Tibet and Sikkim—binding on Bhutan? Second, how solid is the Chinese claim about their preferred tri-junction?
In 1890, the British government could not presume to speak for Bhutan in the same way that it could for Sikkim. Following the Treaty of Titalia signed between the ruler of Sikkim and the East India Company in 1817, the British government of India assumed the power of paramountcy vis-à-vis Sikkim—a relationship akin to that with other “princely states" of India. Hence, Britain’s ability to negotiate the Sikkim and Tibet boundary with China.
By contrast, the Treaty of Sinchula signed between Britain and Bhutan in 1865 did not lead to a similar relationship. In fact, the Treaty of Punakha concluded in 1910 modified the provisions of the Sinchula Treaty and added the following: “The British Government undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan. On its part, the Bhutanese Government agrees to be guided by the advice of the British Government in regard to its external relations." So, the 1890 Anglo-Chinese convention is not at all binding on Bhutan. The tri-junction remains to be fixed after tripartite negotiations.
The Chinese claim that Gipmochi (Gymochen)—mentioned in Article I of the 1890 Convention as the eastern extremity of the Sikkim-Tibet boundary—should automatically be the tri-junction is problematic for yet another reason. Article I states upfront: “The boundary of the Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the Waters flowing into Sikkim Teesta and its affluents from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other rivers of Tibet." Only then does it identify Gipmochi as the starting point. The principle of defining the boundary therefore was the highest watershed: the highest line of mountains separating the rivers flowing on either side. This is the most logical way of drawing a boundary in mountainous regions.
However, subsequent surveys showed that Mount Gipmochi is not on the highest watershed in the area. The latter is the line running from Batangla to Merugla to Sinchela and then down to the Amo Chu river (known as Mochu in Tibet and Torsa in West Bengal). A glance at survey maps will confirm this. The Gipmochi peak is at 14,518ft above the mean sea level, while Merugla and Sinchela (both passes) are respectively at 15,266ft and 14,531ft. The Batangla-Merugla-Sinchela line is undeniably the highest watershed in the region. Hence Bhutan claims it as the boundary line with Tibet and regards Doklam area as its territory. Hence too, India’s claim that Batangla should be the tri-junction.
Again, if these issues were not in contention, why should the Chinese have entered into negotiations with India on the Sikkim boundary as well as with Bhutan? In May 2006, India stated in a non-paper that “both sides agree on the boundary alignment in the Sikkim Sector," that is, on the principle of the highest watershed. The following month, the Chinese replied in their non-paper that based on the 1890 Convention, both sides may “verify and determine the specific alignment of the Sikkim sector and produce a common record." As the external affairs minister told Parliament, the Chinese subsequently made a proposal to finalize the Sikkim boundary, calling it an “early harvest". After follow-on negotiations, the two sides agreed in 2012 both on the “basis of the alignment" and on the need to fix the tri-junction in consultation with Bhutan. In short, the Chinese claim that the Sikkim border is already settled is disingenuous. Equally untenable is the claim by the Chinese deputy chief of mission in India that the 2012 understanding is immaterial to the current situation.
There are only three facts that matter to the current situation. First, China’s construction of a road in violation of an understanding with Bhutan to maintain status quo. Second, China’s attempt to create facts on the ground about the location of the tri-junction. Third, the presence of Indian troops on territory disputed between Bhutan and China. Restoration of status quo ante will require all sides to undo their actions.
All said, it is in India’s interest to press for an early resolution. The assumption that this could be a prolonged standoff like the one in Sumdorong Chu in 1987 may be dangerous whistling in the dark.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.