Sikkim standoff: India-China border disputes aren't new; why is Beijing raising Kashmir issue this time?

Media reports indicate that Chinese position on the Sikkim standoff is hardening on a daily basis. On Wednesday, China once again reacted hotly to a non-controversial stance from India — expressed the day before by Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar — that India and China have settled many such disputes in the past and there is no reason why they can't do so again.

During the daily foreign ministry briefing in Beijing, spokesperson Geng Shuan said the situation this time is "utterly different in nature from the previous frictions between the two sides at the undefined sections of the China-India boundary."

Not stopping there, China went on to poke India on Kashmir. To a question raised ostensibly by a Pakistani journalist, the foreign ministry official said the situation in Kashmir "has attracted a lot of global attention" and that China was ready to mediate in a "constructive" way. This marks the first official statement where China has deviated from its stated line on Kashmir being a bilateral issue — and is a clear indication that it is not ready to respect 'One India' policy unless India unilaterally withdraws its troops.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

With each day, Beijing is opening new fronts against India and ramping up psychological pressure. It is merrily crossing all red lines and trampling upon New Delhi's core concerns. This is a curious departure in Chinese behaviour from earlier conflicts on border disputes (except 1962) when both sides shunned rhetoric and worked behind the scenes to stabilise the situation.

In the vast, undefined, un-demarcated Chinese-Indian border stretching from Arunachal Pradesh in the east to Ladakh in the west, stability has been frequently threatened due to China's bottomless territorial hunger. Sometimes, as in the Sumdorong Chu crisis of 1986-87, it has taken several years to restore status quo. The key question is, what is so different this time to have sparked such an extraordinarily rigid and inflammatory stance from China?

The previous skirmishes were ultimately settled through dialogue. This time, however, China has made troop withdrawal a precondition. Why is China trying to change a policy that has ensured that not a single bullet has been fired across the LAC since 1962?

The answer may lie in a 19th Century cartographic error.

China has been claiming that the situation this time "is different" because India has apparently violated its sovereignty by trespassing into 'Chinese territory' across a boundary line that is delimited and settled, unlike the undefined boundary line that loosely represents the LAC. China is basing its claim on the 1890 Sikkim-Tibet Convention signed between the British and China.

There are two problems with this. One, India contests the claim. An Indian official, involved in the crisis, told Raj Chengappa and Ananth Krishnan of India Today that the treaty was more for trade between the British and Chinese than boundary delineation and "neither has India agreed on the alignment nor have we agreed to what China calls the specific alignment. It has never been delineated and demarcated. There are no border posts or maps that we have produced, as we commonly do in such cases. China is clearly attempting to change the boundary at a certain sector by unilateral action, and that is why it is a problem for us."

The second point is even more important and explains the crisis. Due to poor surveying capabilities of mountain terrain in 19th Century, the Sikkim-Tibet boundary line as defined by the 1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention is geographically incorrect, as many analysts have noted.

The first sentence of Article 1 states: "The boundary of 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."

The second sentence states: "The line commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier, and follows the above-mentioned water-parting to the point where it meets Nepal territory."

These lines are mutually incompatible and the so-called boundary, as described, is a topographic impossibility.

As Centre for Policy Research senior fellow Srinath Raghavan points out, later surveys prove that Batang La is the tri-junction (as claimed by India and Bhutan) and not Mount Gipmochi (as claimed by China). India and Bhutan, therefore, go by "sentence 1 of Article 1 in 1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention" that follows the watershed principle, while China insists on "sentence 2" of the article which appears to be an erroneous representation of ground reality.

It is to be noted that Bhutan, the third party in the 1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention, did not agree on Mount Gipmochi as the boundary line and it has been locked since in 24 rounds of discussion with China.

It is not at all difficult to see what China is trying to do here. It is pressing ahead with building roads in the disputed spot by trying to exploit a cartographic error. This is a time-tested Chinese tactic. A similar script unfolded in 1986 when China took advantage of an error in McMahon's original line and occupied an Indian patrol point in Sumdorong Chu Valley.

Once again, due to poor surveying capabilities existent during that time, Henry McMahon had drawn his line showing Sumdorong Chu on north, "even though it was south of the high watershed, the principle his line claimed to follow". (Shivshankar Menon, Choices, page 19). That impasse took seven years to settle.

To sum, the very mention of Mount Gipmochi in Anglo-Chinese convention (a geological error) gives China the opportunity to cry foul and feign outrage. From this assumption it has sought to alter the status quo in violation of the 2012 tri-junction agreement (which called for a final settlement involving India, China and Bhutan) and has proceeded to issue threats against India. Its designs are clear and must be exposed.

Updated Date: Jul 14, 2017 07:08 AM

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