Beijing’s game of goal-post shifting meets its climax


China’s excuse for snuffing out the independence of Tibet in 1950 through a military invasion is well-known, to protect the so-called backdoor of the Chinese empire. The satraps of the Communist Party of China claimed they wanted to keep India out, so also the communist Soviet Union; and also wanted to ensure that no “imperial power” could spread its influence in Tibet.

When it came to India trying to secure its backdoor in the Chumbi Valley, in an effort to protect its soft underbelly the Siliguri corridor from predatory swoops by the People’s Liberation Army of China, hell-bent on restoring the lost glory of the ancient Qing dynasty, Beijing tried to shift the goal-post and accuse New Delhi of sending troops to Chinese (read Bhutanese) territory. But the attempts by China as late as in December 2022 to bully India in the Doklam sector have been effectively met with.

Beijing is adept at this game of shifting the goal-post to suit its requirements. Similar attempts had been made in the past in the Ladakh section of the China – India border also, first preparing a map in 1956, then revising it in 1960 to include more areas and in 1962 occupying even more areas; the latest being in 2020 to occupy disputed areas, taking advantage of the Covid-19 situation and in violation of protocols signed between the two countries for the management of these areas. This exposes the double standards of the communist rulers of China.

Addressing the seventh central symposium on Tibet Work in Beijing in August 2020, President Xi Jinping stressed on the need to secure the borders in Tibet and ensure peace and stability in the plateau for the sake of national security.

The significant point to note is that China did not invade Tibet as long as there was British presence in the plateau, in the form of trade representatives and a military garrison. The Chinese invasion came in 1950 after the British had left the sub-continent and then Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru had trusted the communist leaders of China under the spirit of the Panchsheel agreement, believing that China would grant Tibet real autonomy.

The real intention of China, however, in occupying Tibet, as later developments have confirmed, had been to exploit the natural resources of Tibet in the interest of mainland China and to use the plateau as the launching pad for military moves in the Indian Himalayan region; and also in Bhutan. One may recall that Chinese leader Mao Zedong had described Tibet as the “palm of China;” Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh being its five fingers. 

On assumption of office as the general secretary of the Communist Party of China for the first time in 2012, Xi Jinping declared in a speech while on a visit to the National Museum of China that his goal was the “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation. One of the manifestations of this rejuvenation was the move by the Chinese army to build a road from Chumbi Valley into the Bhutanese territory of Doklam Plateau, along the course of the river Torsa Nullah.

It became clear in 2017 that the real intention behind the move to construct the road was to take it up to Zompelri Ridge, a high ground on the southern fringe of the Doklam plateau, from where the Chinese army could pose a threat to the Siliguri corridor and also the tri-junction of Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. In the process, Beijing did not think twice about trampling the sovereign rights of Bhutan over its territory, the Doklam plateau.

The Chinese move was foiled, however, in a joint move by India and Bhutan. At the request of Bhutan, on June 18, 2017, the Indian army, which had a strong presence in the tri-junction area, intervened in Doklam and stopped the Chinese army from extending the road to Zompelri Ridge, where the Royal Bhutan Army had a post.

A note issued by Beijing on August 2, 2017, however, spilled the beans. It accused India of violating China’s territorial sovereignty and at the same time also of challenging Bhutan’s sovereignty and independence. Obviously, the two could not be true at the same time. Rather, this note was a tacit admission by Beijing that Doklam was Bhutanese territory and the Chinese army had trespassed into it.

On June 20, 2017, Thimphu lodged a protest with Beijing through its mission in New Delhi against the Chinese move in Doklam. The Bhutanese ambassador in New Delhi, too, went on record on June 28 in a published interview that the construction of the road was not in keeping with agreements with China and Bhutan and Beijing should refrain from changing the status quo with Bhutan. He did not make any mention about the Indian move, thus knocking the bottom out of the Chinese allegation that the Indian army had violated Bhutan’s sovereignty. Rather, it confirmed that Indian troops had moved into Doklam at the request of the Bhutan government and had later stepped back.

Beijing’s claim that the Doklam plateau is a part of Chinese territory is based on a distorted interpretation of the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 on the border between Sikkim and Tibet. The text of this convention, as available in Sir Francis Younghusband’s book ‘India and Tibet,’ lays down that “The boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the water flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its affluents from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other rivers of Tibet.”

It is the other sentence in this clause of the treaty (Article 1) that Beijing zeroed in on; the clause which stated that: “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.”

As available maps show, however, Mount Gipmochi is to the north of Zompelri ridge. Even by this standard, thus, Zompelri ridge is a part of Bhutanese territory and China had no right to extend a road to this strategic piece of ground; violating the sovereignty of Bhutan 

Besides, as Manoj Joshi of Observer Research Foundation has pointed out in his recent book ‘Understanding the India China Border,’ published in December 2021, the treaty of 1890 was not accompanied by any map; nor was it backed by a field survey. “The intent of the treaty was to have the border along the watershed.” Subsequent actual surveys have shown that “the true water-parting between the Teesta and the Mochu runs from Batang La to Merug La, Sinche La and then down to the Amo Chu or Mochu river,” known in India as river Torsa.

Batang La is, however, to the north of Mount Gipmochi. Going by the true watershed, the whole Doklam plateau is a part of Bhutanese territory and continued Chinese attempts to build a road along the plateau amounts to violation of Bhutan’s sovereign rights. In fact, as has been pointed out in Manoj Joshi’s book, subsequent maps printed by the British themselves in 1907 and 1913 showed the border beginning from Batang La.

In any case, Thimphu asserts that Doklam plateau is a part of Bhutanese territory. Since Bhutan was not a signatory to the treaty of 1890 it is not bound to accept the clause that the tri-junction of Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan begins at Mount Gipmochi. Francis Younghusband himself, a key British policy maker in those days, has said in his book: “This Convention (of 1890) proved in practice to be of not the slightest use; for the Tibetans never recognized it, and the Chinese were totally unable to impress them.”

The continuing Chinese attempts to build roads in the Doklam plateau also violate the agreement reached between India and China in talks at the level of special representatives that the India – China boundary adjacent to the Doklam plateau is no longer determined by the Convention of 1890 and that China and India should sign a new boundary convention in their own names, in consultation with Bhutan, to replace the Convention of 1890.

China has been setting up infrastructure and settlements in disputed areas in the Ladakh sector it occupied in 1962 and has since refused to vacate. This has again been a glaring instance of double standard on the part of China to secure positions of advantage; conveniently rejecting the map of 1956 for the Ladakh sector. Indian External affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said in an event in Delhi on November 25, 2022: “When people write about a bridge that is coming up or a village that is coming up, please remember these were areas that you lost in 1962.”

The way Delhi has foiled the Chinese move in Doklam to gain a vantage point to threaten the Siliguri corridor of India goes to show that the Chinese ploy of practising double standards with impunity is over. India appears to have left behind the baggage of 1962. In all the subsequent confrontations, be it in Nathu La and Cho La in Sikkim in 1967, in Sumdorong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh in 1986 or in Galwan in Ladakh in 2020, the Indian army had the upper hand over the Chinese. Beijing’s days of bullying its way through to a position of advantage are over.   

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