Contacted for verification, army spokespersons declined to comment. The ministry of external affairs, too, at a briefing on Thursday on the prime minister’s impeding visit to Israel and the G-20, declined to answer questions.
While pushing and shoving is routine during patrol confrontations between Indian and Chinese patrols, no shots have been exchanged since India and China signed an “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity on the Line of Actual Control (LAC)” in September 1993. The last fatal battle casualties on the LAC occurred in 1975, when four Assam Rifles jawans were shot dead by Chinese troops in the Mago area of Tawang, in Arunachal Pradesh.
The patrol clash took place in the disputed “Tri-junction” area, where the borders of India (Sikkim), Bhutan and China join together. This is the high-altitude Dolam Plateau (Sinicized to “Doklam” by the Chinese), on which all three countries have territory. The incident reportedly took place on the Doko La ridge in the area.
The Indian Army chief, General Bipin Rawat, visited Sikkim on Thursday to personally assess the situation.
The war of words gathered steam on Thursday, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) spokesperson, Colonel Wu Qian, was asked for a response to General Rawat’s statement earlier this month that India was “fully ready” for a simultaneous war against China and Pakistan.
Qian responded: “We hope [that] particular person in [the] Indian Army could learn from historical lessons and stop clamouring for war.”
For India, the Sikkim border, including the Tri-junction, is extremely sensitive since a Chinese breakthrough here could reach, and block, the Siliguri corridor – a narrow, 27-kilometres wide strip of Indian territory that connects the entire north east with the rest of India. Chinese control over the Siliguri corridor could cut off the entire northeast.
To prevent this, India guards Sikkim heavily with two mountain divisions. A third division remains ready in wartime to guard Bhutan’s western border with China, so that Chinese troops cannot outflank Sikkim’s defences through Bhutan.
If China extracts more territory in the Tri-junction area, that would shorten the distance to Siliguri. It would also widen the mouth of the Chumbi Valley – a dagger-shaped salient of Chinese territory that protrudes southwards.
While the Indian army has safeguarded the Sikkim border, even through a major firefight in nearby Nathu La in1967, Chinese forces have systematically encroached into Bhutanese territory. This is done through a time-tested method of first sending in yak graziers with their herds, building temporary shelters, then military bunkers, and then citing those to claim ownership over the entire areas. Finally, a road is built to that area.
While the Indian army has remained silent over the recent incident, Beijing has been unusually vocal. On Monday, its foreign ministry spokesperson, while announcing the suspension of the Kailash Mansarovar yatra pilgrimage through nearby Nathu La, revealed: “Recently, the Indian border troops crossed the China-India boundary at the Sikkim section and entered the Chinese territory, obstructing Chinese border troops' normal activities in Doklam. The Chinese side has taken proportionate measures in response.”
On Tuesday, Beijing put out a detailed rationale for its claim over Dolam, basing it on the “Convention Between Great Britain and China Relating to Sikkim and Tibet”, dated 1890. Beijing claimed that India had accepted this rationale during the Special Representatives Dialogue.
On Wednesday, the Chinese foreign ministry noted that this clash was substantially different from clashes elsewhere on the LAC, in that the Sikkim boundary was clearly delineated. He said: “The Indian border troops overstepped the mutually recognized boundary line at the Sikkim section and crossed into the Chinese territory. That is essentially different from previous fictions (frictions) between the two troops (sic) in the border areas where the boundary is yet to be delimited.”
On Wednesday, Bhutan entered the fray. Since it does not have diplomatic relations with China, Bhutan’s envoy to India, Vetsop Namgyel, declared: “Doklam is a disputed territory and Bhutan has a written agreement with China that, pending the final resolution of the boundary issue, peace and tranquillity should be maintained in the area.”
China, which has been long irked by Bhutan’s closeness to India on matters relating to China, responded “The Donglang area belonged to China since ancient times and it doesn't belong to Bhutan. India wants to raise an issue with this part. I should say it doesn't belong to Bhutan, nor it belongs to India.”