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Mainstream, VOL LV No 34 New Delhi August 12, 2017

India‘s Response to China’s Doklam Game Plan

Saturday 12 August 2017

by Jajati K. Pattnaik

China’s Doklam game plan at the tri-junction of India-Bhutan-China has created a stalemate between the two Asian giants. Much to the chagrin of New Delhi, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China has made inroads into the Doklam plateau of Bhutan on June 16, 2017 to construct a motorable road to connect Doklam with the narrow Chumbi Valley in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. The Indian forces entered into Doklam to prevent the Chinese brinksmanship over Doklam as per the existing bilateral/trilateral agreements. The Indian political establishment is quite clear that Beijing’s unilateral action by flouting the existing documents has not only posed a threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of this Happiness Kingdom, but it has also risked the peace and stability of the Himalayan frontier.

Moreover, Indian strategic think-tanks are of the view that the unilateral Chinese decision to change the tri-junction between India, Bhutan and China would give Beijing a deeper strategic depth, and facilitate it to expand its hegemonic doctrine in the trans-Himalayan region thereby putting fresh challenges to the Indian territory at the narrow Siliguri Corridor.

India-Bhutan Agreement: 2007

India is committed to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bhutan as per the Indo-Bhutan agreement of 1949 which was succeeded by the Indo-Bhutan agreement of 2007. The treaty of 2007 explicates: “The Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan reaffirm their respect for each other’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity; and desire to clearly reflect this exemplary relationship as it stands today; and decided, through mutual consent, to update the 1949 Treaty relating to the promotion of, and fostering the relations of friendship and neighbourliness between them.”1

Article 2 of the 2007 treaty spelt out that “In keeping with the abiding ties of close friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and India, the Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Government of the Republic of India shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither Government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.”2 Thus, in this context, the Indo-Bhutan Treaty allows both India and Bhutan to work closely to secure their national interests without using their territory to the detriment of the other. Hence, Beijing should respect international treaties and obligations and should not escalate tension at the tri-junction.

India is ready for a diplomatic solution to the Doklam standoff. As the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, said in a statement to the media, “We will continue to engage with the Chinese side through diplomatic channels to find a mutually acceptable solution. Government remains prepared. It is the country’s responsi-bility to ensure security of its citizen and its territory.”3


1890 Convention

China cites the 1890 treaty to justify her claim over Doklam. Article 1 of the treaty said: “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.”4 The Foreign Ministry of China also reiterated: “In terms of jurisprudence, the boundary convention signed in 1890 explicitly stipulates that Mount Gipmochi is the junction of China, India and Bhutan, and Doklam is situated on the Chinese side of the China-India and China-Bhutan boundaries.”5

However, the watershed principle agreed upon by the 1890 convention clearly showed that Batang-la as the tri-junction point, not any point beyond towards the south, but the Chinese demarcation of Mount Gipmochi as the tri-junction is purely unilateral and hegemonic in nature. The Foreign Ministry of Bhutan has also said that the road construction inside the Bhutanese territory directly flouts the 1988 and 1998 agreements reached between Bhutan and China. As a result Thimphu has urged Beijing to maintain the status quo as before June 16, 2017.

Rebutting the Chinese claims, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) also issued a letter saying that “the Indian side has underlined that the two Governments had in 2012 reached agree-ment that the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalised in consultation with the concerned countries. Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine tri-junction points is in violation of this understanding. It is essential that all parties concerned display utmost restraint and abide by their respective bilateral understandings not to change the status quo unilaterally. It is also important that the consensus reached between India and China through the Special Represen-tatives process is scrupulously respected by both sides.”6

Siliguri Corridor

The Siliguri Corridor—a narrow piece of landmass, called Chicken’s Neck, is situated in the north of West Bengal giving passage to India’s eight North-Eastern States (Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura) with the rest of India. The corridor is the nucleus of road and rail networks that provide link to all the capitals of the eight sisters and vital military posts/ installations along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). It could also be a potential shield to thwart any aggressive Chinese military design in India’s eastern sector.

Beijing very well knows that India enjoys these geo-political/strategic advantages over China in the Bhutan-Tibet sector and can spoil any kind of perilous Chinese design from across the border. Thus, it seeks to expand its strategic orbit towards the south of Doklam at a point called Gimochin to change the strategic equations vis-a-vis the Siliguri Corridor. At present, its strategic depth is only confined to Yadong in the Chumbi Valley.

It is pertinent to mention here that China has already encircled India in the western sector through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). So any kind of Chinese infrastructure build-up at Doklam might lead to similar Chinese encirclement in India’s eastern sector. In the event of any Chinese misadventure, it would also choke the narrow corridor and cut off the supply lines in India’s North-East, especially in Assam, Aruncahal Pradesh and Sikkim.

On the contrary, the experts working in this field mentioned that “China’s road and rail network in the Chumbi Valley will be very vulnerable to artillery shelling and air attacks from either Sikkim or Bhutan. Therefore, if China blocks the Siliguri Corridor by sending its army on the road it plans to construct in Doklam, it may not be able to sustain itself for too long. Also, the force levels that China will have to commit for operations in this sector will be at the cost of operations in other sectors.”7

The Way Out

Notwithstanding China’s game plan, the way out is to maintain peace and tranquillity at the tri-junction through the disengagement of troops. Moreover, the current situation demands China should first withdraw its troops from Doklam following which India would start retreating its forces from the stand-off area to preserve the status quo as before June 16, 2017. As we know, the success of India and China lies neither in war nor in military conflict, but rests on peace and economic development of both the nations. Instead of armed preparedness or hiking of defence budgets, India and China should tap their soft power resources in health, education, agriculture, industry, energy, hydro-logy, environ-ment, space, tourism, innovative research and cross-border collaborative projects to steer the destiny of 21st Century, Asia through harmony and shared prosperity.

As Deng Xiaoping said, “Only when China and India develop well, can one claim that the century of Asia has come. If China and India strengthen cooperation, Asian unity, stability and prosperity will be very hopeful; the world will be in peace and make more progress.”8


1. “India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, 2007”, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi

2. Ibid.

3. “Sikkim Standoff: India’s Objective is to Achieve Peace, Tranquillity through Diplomacy: MEA Reiterates”, Indian Express, August 4, 2017,

4. Ananth Krishnan, “China Says 1890 Treaty Backs Claims to Doklam Plateau at Tri-junction“, India Today, July 2, 2017.

5. Ibid.

6. “India Issues 11 Point Letter to Bust China’s Incursion Allegations”, The Economic Times, June 30, 2017.

7. Shaurya Karanbir Gurung, “Behind China’s Sikkim Aggression, a Plan to Isolate Northeast from Rest of India”, The Economic Times, July 3, 2017.

8. Cited in Pattnaik Jajati K., “Can India and China Rekindle Bhai-Bhai in the 21st Century?” in Gurudas Das, C. Joshua Thomas and Nani Bath, Voices from the Border: India’s Response to Chinese Claims over Arunachal Pradesh, Pentagon Press, 2015.

Dr Jajati K. Pattnaik is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Jomin Tayeng Government Model Degree College, Roing, Arunachal Pradesh. He was formerly a Visiting Scholar at the Gulf Studies Programme, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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