It is a fact that in early 2017, everyone in New Delhi thought the Sikkim border was a settled issue.
A couple of months before the beginning of the Doklam episode in 2017, Luo Zhaohui, the Chinese ambassador in New Delhi, was invited to deliver a talk at a well-known think tank in the national capital. In the course of his speech, Luo mentioned some “early harvest”. When the moderator, a senior Indian diplomat, asked him what he meant by “early harvest”, Luo enigmatically said it was related to Sikkim. The knowledgeable audience did not really understand what he was trying to convey. It is a fact that in early 2017, everyone in New Delhi thought the Sikkim border was a settled issue.
But on June 16, the Doklam episode started; and we know what happened during the following 73 days.
The border in northern Sikkim nonetheless remained “undisputed”; and Hua Chunyin, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, kept reminding everyone about the importance of the 1890 treaty between the Manchus and British India and asserting the northern border was settled for good.
In these circumstances, it was rather surprising that Indian and Chinese soldiers exchanged blows south of Naku La (pass) in northern Sikkim last week. Defence expert Rahul Singh, writing in a national newspaper, said: “Scores of Indian and Chinese soldiers were involved in a tense face-off along the India-China boundary in north Sikkim.” In the scuffle several jawans were injured. The confrontation took place south of Naku La, the border pass in the sector and north of Muguthang, a place that China has tried to capture for some time.
One Army officer was quoted as saying: “Four Indian soldiers and seven Chinese troops suffered injuries during the confrontation that involved around 150 soldiers.” The incident is said to have later been resolved at the local commanders’ level.
It is true that such incidents took place previously too; one remembers that during the Doklam standoff, Indian and Chinese soldiers exchanged blows in the “Fingers” area, north of the Pangong Lake in Ladakh. One, however, thought that these types of confrontations were a thing of the past.
Wing Commander Mandeep Singh Hooda, the spokesman of the Army’s Eastern Command, oddly equated the two sides, saying: “Aggressive behaviour by the two sides resulted in minor injuries to troops. It was stone-throwing and arguments that ended in a fistfight.”
But can the behaviour of the Indian and Chinese troops be put at the same level? Naku La has been the accepted border pass since the beginning of the last century at least; it was previously never contested by China.
Let us look more closely at the issue.
The boundary with Tibet (now China) in northern Sikkim can be roughly divided in two parts -- the eastern part is delineated by 23 cairns that were built in 1905 by Claude White, the British political officer in Sikkim; there is no real difference of perception between India and China in this sector. The second part, the western part of Sikkim’s northern border, has remained peaceful as it follows the watershed and is of extremely difficult access (at least for India).
Naku La and Muguthang, a few kilometers south of the pass, are between the western and eastern parts of the boundary.
It is here that Beijing is picking a fight.
The Chinese say that a couple of kilometres south of Naku La, the Tibetans had built a wall to protect their pastures in the 19th century; a process often used in the Himalayan region. The wall was five feet high and some 800 meters in length. Now China is claiming the wall was the customary border, neglecting the watershed principle used elsewhere.
The problem for India is that access to these places is extremely difficult; Muguthang for example is still not connected by road. For several years, the Chinese have tried to “realign” the border; but their claims clearly violate the 1890 treaty, which they swear by, and are based on the watershed principle. However, when Beijing wants to put pressure on India, the pass is a convenient acupuncture point and if India gives up, more puncture points will be activated in Ladakh, Barahoti (Uttarakhand), Asaphila (Arunachal Pradesh) and other remote places.
While the terrain is extremely hostile on the Indian side, particularly in the western part of this sector, on the Tibetan side, Kampa Dzong (county) is on a flat plateau; it is where heavy Chinese PLA deployment is taking place.
According to the website China Defense Blog, the Chinese-made ZTQ-15 light tank is used by the 54th Heavy Armour Combined-Arms Brigade in the Tibet Military Area Command: “The new light tank was unveiled to the public during the Zhuhai Air Show in China in November 2016.”
Another specialised website armyrecognition.com said the Type 15 tank “was designed… as a lighter, mobile modern tank that can effectively operate in China’s plateaus, forests, and water-heavy regions in which heavier tanks have difficulties traversing”. The new tank is said to have arrived in Kampa Dzong; if true, this could be a game-changer.
One could ask, while the issue has been simmering for a few years, why such renewed aggressiveness now?
One of the reasons is that post-Covind-19, the PLA, which played a decisive role in controlling the pandemic, is keen to continue to have a visible role in the Middle Kingdom, even if its budget is bound to get serious cuts. To be aggressive in the South China Sea or in the Himalayas is a way to remind Beijing’s leaders that the PLA should not be forgotten.
Another motive is the coming meeting of the World Health Organisation. On May 22, India’s nominee is expected to be appointed chairperson of the WHO’s executive board, which is responsible for executing decisions and implementing policies of the organisation. India will replace Japan, which completes its one-year-term.
The Wion website explained: “It implies that the WHO director-general will have to get the chairperson -- India -- on board for all important decisions.”
One can understand the stakes for China, which wants to avoid any serious enquiry into the origin of the dreaded virus.
The Naku La incident is a way to tell New Delhi: “You behave, or we shall press other painful points.” Australia was similarly threatened by the Chinese ambassador in Canberra: “If you push for an inquiry into the Wuhan lab, we will stop buying your wine”.
It is a bit gross, but it often works.
One thing is sure: “Early Harvests” are not for tomorrow.
The Himalayan summer that lies ahead is bound to be a hot one.