August 9, 2017

Why Are China and India in a Border Standoff?

The following post appeared on August 9, 2017 as part of a conversation on China File. It can be accessed here

The standoff between Chinese and Indian forces near the trijunction with Bhutan is a live, and sensitive, issue for all three countries. It has also given rise to considerable misinformation. The facts of the matter are that on June 16, Chinese forces attempted to extend a road southwards in territory that China disputes with Bhutan, immediately adjacent to India. This extension traversed a narrow gap between an Indian military outpost in Sikkim and a steep gorge in the disputed territory. Confronted by a Royal Bhutan Army patrol, the Chinese construction party attempted to push forward, involving Indian forces stationed only a few hundred meters away. On June 20, Bhutan protested officially to the Chinese government. An unarmed military standoff between Chinese and Indian forces has since continued.

The legal and diplomatic basis for China’s actions is flimsy. It rests on Beijing’s claim that the China-Bhutan boundary lies about two kilometers south of the site of the stand-off. As supporting documentation, China cites the 1890 Tibet-Sikkim Convention between the British and Qing Empires. But Beijing conveniently overlooks the fact that the same document states that the boundary “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 Thibetan Machu and northwards” or about four kilometers north of the stand-off’s location. Second, Beijing ignores the fact that Bhutan was not party to the 1890 arrangement. Third, China has violated written agreements with Bhutan from 1988 and 1998 to “maintain status quo on the boundary as before March 1959,” and “refrain from taking unilateral action, or use of force, to change the status quo on the boundary.” Fourth, China has also violated an agreement with India from 2012 that “tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalized in consultation with the concerned countries.” Fifth, Indian forces have not crossed a settled international boundary, as has been widely reported. In fact, both sides in 2012 agreed only on the “basis of alignment” and China had also previously indicated that the boundary with Sikkim was not entirely settled. Finally, China ignores India’s longstanding defence arrangements with Bhutan, including the two countries’ 2007 treaty. The last three facts mean that, far from being solely a bilateral China-Bhutan issue, India very much has a stake in the matter.

To date, analysts can only speculate about the motives for China’s action and its subsequent response. But what is clear is that it sets a poor precedent for Chinese leadership. Not only is Beijing attempting to ride roughshod over prior written agreements with two neighbors, it has proceeded to heighten belligerent rhetoric rather than try to create space for a mutually acceptable diplomatic solution. A peaceful resolution could yet be found, but Beijing should not underestimate the extent to which this episode undermines its bona fides—certainly in India, but also elsewhere.