After completing my first book on Tibet in the 1990s, I looked for a title which could resume the content of my research. At the end of the 19th century, Tibet was a mere pawn in the great game between imperial powers. The 1890 Treaty on Sikkim, today quoted ad nauseam by the Chinese Government, was one of the ‘unequal treaties’ imposed on a smaller nation. Big insects had little consideration for the weak.
The 13th Dalai Lama could grasp the forces at play and was determined to make Tibet an independent State. It did not work. Charles Bell, the British frontier officer, recalled the Lama’s great deception when China invaded the Land of Snows in 1910. After deciding to temporarily take refuge in India, the Tibetan leader cabled the British Agent in Gyantse, Tibet, asking him to inform London that “large insects are eating and secretly injuring small insects.”
The story seems to continue today with China building a road on Bhutanese territory without informing Thimphu. But this time, what Beijing had not expected is that India would come to the rescue and defend the small kingdom. China, which dreams of becoming a ‘big insect’ (without the name!) tried to change the status quo in the Doklam area of the Bhutan-Tibet border.
On June 29, the Royal Government of Bhutan, which had held 24 rounds of talks on the issue with China so far, explained the situation: “On June 16, the Chinese Army started constructing a motorable road from Dokola in the Doklam area towards the Bhutan Army camp at Zompelri. Boundary talks are ongoing between Bhutan and China and we have written agreements of 1988 and 1998, stating that the two sides agree to maintain peace and tranquility in their border areas pending a final settlement on the boundary question. …The agreements also state that the two sides will refrain from taking unilateral action, or use of force, to change the status quo of the boundary.”
Bhutan conveyed to Beijing “both on the ground and through the diplomatic channel,” that the construction of the road inside Bhutanese territory was a direct violation of the agreements and that it would affect the ongoing process of demarcating the China-Bhutan boundary (Beijing and Thimbu have already had a Joint Survey of the area). Beijing was well aware that the area has been under dispute for several decades; some 50 years ago already, letters were exchanged between New Delhi and Beijing using the same language for a similar incident.
Despite the fact that China has no proof to contradict that the pastures in the Dokham area have for centuries been used by Bhutanese nomads (the Chinese were nowhere to be seen before the first years of the 1960s), the Chinese spokesperson has stridently been speaking of ‘Chinese’ nomads using these pastures since immemorial times. But let us come back to the 1966-67 correspondence which appeared in the Volumes 13 and 14 of the Ministry of External Affairs’ White Papers on China.
In January 1966, China was the first to open the hostilities, Beijing complained of Indian troops entering Tibet on September 30, 1965 “four Indian soldiers crossed Toka La (Doka-la) and intruded into Tunglang pasture in Dongnan (Dokham plateau) grassland, and with their weapons intimidated Chinese herdsmen who were grazing cattle there.”
On September 30, 1966, South Block sent a note to the Embassy of China in Delhi to counter the Chinese propaganda; it spoke of a series of intrusions “in the Doklan pasture area which lies south of the traditional boundary between Bhutan and the Tibet region of China in the southern Chumbi area.”
The note pointed out: “It is reported that on the April 13, 1966, a patrol of the Royal Bhutanese Army observed that a Chinese patrol of 13 men had intruded about three miles south-west of Sinchel La. …The Tibetan grazers were informed by the Bhutanese patrol that they were in Bhutanese territory and asked to withdraw.”
The situation continued during the following months. The problem was that the trijunction between Tibet (China), Bhutan and India had never been agreed upon. The situation has not changed today. On October 27, 1966, Xinhua, a news agency, replied to the Indian note on behalf of the Chinese Government: “the Indian Government concocted stories about ‘intrusions’ into Bhutanese territory by Chinese herdsmen and patrols and claiming to be acting on behalf of Bhutan, lodged a so-called protest with the Chinese Government. Following that, with much fanfare (the) Indian Government set its propaganda machine in motion raising a hue and cry about Chinese intrusions into Bhutan and the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi came out in person to conduct the campaign against China.”
It mentioned the ‘Doklam pasture’ where the Chinese intrusions took place, located in the vicinity of the trijunction of the boundaries of China, Bhutan and Sikkim. At that time already, Beijing tried to create a wedge between India and Bhutan: “The King of Bhutan has long since solemnly declared that ‘Bhutan is an independent sovereign state and has the right to conduct her own foreign affairs’ …(but) inheriting the mantle of British imperialism, the Indian Government has all along been pursuing an expansionist policy and bullying its neighbouring countries.”
Like today, the Bhutanese Government had issued a Press statement on October 3, 1966: “The Government of Bhutan have, for some time, been concerned with reports received from its patrols of a number of intrusions by Tibetan grazers and Chinese troops in the Doklam pastures which are adjacent to the southern part of the Chumbi Valley. This area is traditionally part of Bhutan and no assertion has been made by the Government of the People’s Republic of China disputing the traditional frontier which runs along recogniseable natural features.”
Last week, the MEA issued a Press communiqué underlining that “the two Governments had in 2012 reached agreement that the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalized in consultation with the concerned countries. Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine tri-junction points is in violation of this understanding.”
Despite the fact that Beijing loves to refer to the 1890 Treaty, which was an ‘unequal’ treaty signed by the Manchus and Great Britain (without the participation of Bhutan, Tibet and Sikkim, the stakeholders), China has clearly broken its promises given to Bhutan and India.
How can a state, which claims to be a responsible power, unilaterally grab a ‘disputed’ area to build a road on it, especially when it is aware that this road is so strategically located for a neighbour. Only Beijing can answer this question. Some say that it is in Chinese DNA “to first change the status quo on the ground and then later to offer to talk”.
Remember the South China Sea or the Aksai Chin. India has to remain vigilant.
(The writer is a China expert an an author on India-China relations)
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