Confusion at Doklam—The Treaties that Guide the Tri-junction

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With the meeting of National Security Advisers of India and China on the sidelines of the BRICS summit, there is a growing expectation that a viable solution could be worked out for the current stand-off at Doklam. This opportunity becomes all the more valuable because, while diplomatic channels have been open between both the countries, Beijing has maintained that the stationing of Indian troops in Doklam (which China claims to be its own and refers to as Donglang) precludes any meaningful discussion.

In this respect, it would ease the understanding of the issue to look at the complex framework of the treaties, agreements and other documents that underscores the impasse.

Premise

On 8th June, 2017, Chinese forces have removed Indian Self Help Bunkers (SHSBs) that were parked in Doka La. Doka La falls in the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction. About a week later, Indian troops resisted a Chinese road construction party that was advancing from Yadong with the plans to extend the highway S-204 further into territory that China claims as its own.

China wants Indian troops out of ‘its’ territory. However, India, in the wake of the statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Bhutanese government, maintains that it is treaty-bound to come to Bhutan’s aid in matters regarding Bhutanese national security. Neither country is willing to budge, and Beijing has made it clear time and again that Indian exit from the tri-junction is a precondition to any meaningful discussion.

The Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 & Nehru’s Letter

To support its claim on the tri-junction, the single document that Beijing clings to is the convention signed between Great Britain and Qing China in 1890. Of particular relevance is the first article of the treaty that says:

“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 line commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier, and follows the above-mentioned water-parting to the point where it meets Nepal territory.” (italics mine)

Gipmochi, also known as Gamochen or Gyemo Chen falls to the south of Doka La. Going by this treaty, almost all of the ‘tri-junction’ would fall under China’s Tibet. To buttress its stand, China also quoted a letter written to Zhou Enlai by Jawaharlal Nehru, in which, Beijing says, Nehru agreed to the Sikkim boundary as defined by the 1890 convention. However, as India Today’s Ananth Krishnan reported, China chose to conveniently ignore Nehru’s mention of boundaries in Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. India is at odds with this conclusion on the demarcation of Sikkim boundary. Moreover, Bhutan was not a party to the 1890 convention and Chinese assertions on the tri-junction could be seen as impositions on Bhutan without reaching a bilateral agreement.

China-Bhutan Bilateral Agreements to Maintain Status Quo, 1988 & 1998

On 29th June, 2017, Bhutan’s MFA issued a statement accusing China of violating the agreements, signed in 1988 (Guiding Principles on the Boundary Issues) and 1998 (Agreement on Maintenance of Peace & Tranquility) by trying to alter the status quo in the tri-junction. These agreements were signed to ensure that peace and tranquility would be maintained along the border until the boundaries would be settled between the two countries.

Bhutan and China have been engaged in boundary talks since 1984, despite not having any direct diplomatic relations (Bhutan’s policy is such that it won’t maintain diplomatic relations with any country in the UN Security Council), recently concluding the 24th round of Boundary Talks. In these decades, China made several overtures to Thimpu in a bid to acquire territory in Bhutan’s north-west. These include trying to create a ‘Confederation of Himalayan States’, offering 495 sq. km of territory on the north of Bhutan for the 269 sq. km area in the north-west. Beijing’s attempt to court Thimpu was for specific geostrategic gains. With Doklam under China, Beijing can pose a threat to India’s security as this territorial gain will put the Siliguri Corridor under China’s artillery range, thereby enabling it to separate all the Northeastern states from India in the event of war.

Indo-Bhutanese Treaty of Friendship, 2007

From even before India became an independent country, Bhutan was an Indian-oriented state. In 1949, India and Bhutan signed a treaty of friendship, the second article of which stated that “Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations.”

In 2007, the same article of the treaty was updated to convey that both the nations would “cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests” and that their wouldn’t allow territory to be used for “activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.”

India believes that Chinese road-building in the tri-junction is a security threat to its northeastern region. Moreover, the resolution of the boundary dispute has direct implications to the tri-junction, and thus, to India’s security.

While Bhutan has condemned Chinese actions in the tri-junction, there is no trace of Bhutan publicly calling for Indian troops to be stationed in Doka La. However, India’s stationing of troops rests on the logic that New Delhi doesn’t recognize the tri-junction as Chinese territory and the presence of the troops is to ensure its own national security.

Of all the three bilateral agreements, the ones shared by China and Bhutan (1988 & 1998 agreements) are the least cumbersome and would help enable de-escalation in a stepwise manner. While the Anglo-Chinese convention of 1890 is one exhumed from history of imperialism, where none of the nations are anything like they used to be, the 2007 Treaty of Friendship between India and Bhutan doesn’t clearly specify the terms of engagement. And with Bhutan vying more independence and neutrality in South Asia, respecting its engagement in boundary talks and assisting, not dictating, its foreign policy would serve well for Beijing and New Delhi respectively.

Speaking on the issue of Doklam stand-off, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had pointed out that in order for there to be a meaningful dialogue, both India and Beijing must remove troops from the tri-junction and hold dialogue. Moreover, as per the 2012 Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs signed between India and China, both the countries are almost duty-bound to de-escalate the current stand-off—by removal of troops by both sides, Beijing toning down its abrasive issuance of threats and considering this as a multilateral issue—and work towards a peaceful solution.