The incident following the relatively shallow and bloodless one that happened in early June of this year in an area located on one of the disputed sections of the Chinese-Indian border has this time resulted in a serious situation that has seen mutual demarches being organized along the lines of diplomatic and defense departments. In both countries, the press has been hyperactive, resuscitating phantom historical pains that are incomparable in scale with the incident itself.
In particular, the so-called “Tibetan problem”, which one hundred years ago was at the center of the contradictions in the relations between the Chinese authorities and British India, is again being called out of non-existence. This problem manifested itself during the period of the emergence of China and India as independent states, as well as during the movement of both Asian giants to the current status of the world’s leading players.
During the development of the incident, some of the “Tibetans in exile”, who compactly settled in the northeast of India, performed some anti-Chinese acts to remind the world of their own existence. It is worth noting here that this time, the Indian government had not yet taken any restrictive measures against the “Tibetan activists”.
The time and place of the incident are noteworthy. The incident originated a short time before and developed already during the trip of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US, which had been announced in advance. During the visit, top-level talks were held that culminated in the adoption of a very substantial Joint Statement.
The incident occurred on June 6 on the Doklam plateau (which is the subject of territorial disputes), located between the Indian state of Sikkim and the Kingdom of Bhutan. The space occupied by this plateau is relatively insignificant (about 100 square kilometers), compared, for example, with the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (an area of about 100,000 square kilometers), on which the People’s Republic of China lays claims.
It is appropriate to note here that the modern configuration of the political and geographical map in the areas of Tibet and the Himalayas developed as a result of a long-standing internecine struggle of local princes, and also, and we will repeat, between the Chinese authorities and British India and its successor, which the present Republic India is increasingly perceived to be.
Today this maps somewhat looks like this:
- Sikkim (until 1975 a quasi-independent principality) is now a tiny Indian state with an area of 7 thousand square meters and a population of less than 100 thousand people;
- The independent Kingdom of Bhutan adjacent to Sikkim occupies an area of about 40 thousand square meters and is home to about 800 thousand people. According to the 1949 Treaty (which actually reproduced the agreement with Britain at the beginning of the last century), India recognized the state sovereignty of the Kingdom, which, however, pledged to coordinate its foreign policy with it.
In general, Indian-Bhutanese relations look quite friendly, as evidenced by the enormous (on the part of Bhutan) financial assistance provided to Bhutan by Delhi totaling close to USD 1 billion.
Strictly speaking, the parties to the dispute over the ownership of the Doklam Plateau are the People’s Republic of China and Bhutan. It is difficult to say with any certainty who actually controls it, since there are road works being conducted by China, but at the same time, Indian and Bhutan border guards are building some “reserve bunkers”. In actuality, the June 6 demolition of two such “bunkers” by Chinese bulldozers served as an occasion for the military confrontation of these two Asian giants here.
The parties began to build up their strength rapidly. In particular, it was reported that India had deployed three thousand of its soldiers to the Doklam Plateau area to help the Bhutan border guards. Allegedly, there had been problems with the movement of Buddhist pilgrims between Sikkim and Bhutan. This was followed by mutual demands “to remove troops from our territory.”
In connection with this, we once again note that the peak of this incident occurred during the visit of Narendra Modi to the US. The Chinese are asking whether this was the result of the “mistakes” of local commanders at the lowest levels, or whether the initial stage of a certain strategic plan is actually being implemented.
A more or less similar question is being asked in India, because, as always in such cases, there is no objective information about “who started and who answered and why exactly this happened at the time it did.”
It is noteworthy that the comments of the press of both countries on the relatively minor incident in the Indian-Chinese relations quickly remind of very serious historical episodes and serve as an excuse for no less serious conclusions. For example, the 1962 Sino-Indian War in Tibet is immediately recalled, while proposals are made to “reconsider” the People’s Republic of China’s attitude to the current status of Sikkim and Bhutan.
The Chinese Global Times Newspaper found it possible to remind India that its GDP is fourfold, defense spending is three times less than that of China, and the US support is “superficial”. In these conditions, the newspaper continues, “the best choice for India would be to maintain friendly relations and cautious behavior around the bilateral border”.
Of course, the aggravation of the situation “somewhere in the Himalayas” on a small stretch of the Sino-Indian border (total length of four thousand km) is in no way connected with the next (but unprecedented in scale) Malabar Naval Exercises scheduled for July 10 at the Bay of Bengal that will see the participation of carrier groups of the USA, India and Japan. However, this kind of coincidence in terms of the time of occurrence cannot but cause concerns.
Once again, we emphasize that the scale and speed of the development of the consequences of relatively small incidents, such as that which occurred on the Doklam Plateau, serve as an extra sign of a serious illness of the entire body of relations between the two Asian giants.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”