Tiny Bhutan should take the lead in China-India dispute

July 25, 2017 12:10
File photo of a Chinese soldier and his Indian counterpart at a border crossing between the two countries. Photo: AFP

The disputed Sino-Indian border, long a source of intermittent clashes, is once again the focus of a confrontation that sees Chinese and Indian troops facing off, this time in an area claimed by Bhutan.

Interestingly, China’s territorial claim to the contested area rests on an 1890 treaty, the Convention between Great Britain and China Relating to Sikkim and Tibet. At the time, Sikkim was a British protectorate and India was a British colony. Today, Sikkim is part of an independent India. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge and yet China pins its claim on this relatively ancient treaty.

The latest conflict began after a People's Liberation Army construction party entered the Doklam area and attempted to upgrade or extend a dirt road. An Indian account of the incident said: “It is our understanding that a Royal Bhutan Army patrol attempted to dissuade them from this unilateral activity.” This was followed by the intervention of Indian troops, triggering a stand-off between Chinese and Indian troops, the first time on territory not claimed by India.

According to China, “the area where the construction activities are underway is totally under the jurisdiction of China because it is completely located on the Chinese side of the China-Bhutan customary line”. China demands the withdrawal of Indian troops.

On June 30, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman asserted that “the boundary convention signed in 1890 explicitly stipulates that Mount Gipmochi is the junction of China, India and Bhutan, and Doklam is situated on the Chinese side of the China-India and China-Bhutan boundaries”.

It is interesting that China should put so much emphasis on this 1890 treaty, especially since, on the same day, the foreign ministry spokesman referred to another treaty with Britain, the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, signed in 1984, as a “historical document that no longer has any realistic meaning”.

The Chinese announcement was made despite the fact that the Joint Declaration spells out policies regarding Hong Kong for 50 years beyond 1997 and says, “The Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of the People’s Republic of China agree to implement the preceding declarations and the Annexes to this Joint Declaration.”

So, on one hand, a treaty that is meant to run at least until 2047 is already irrelevant, while one signed in 1890, when the world was very different, is still binding. China is picking carefully – and unilaterally – which treaties it considers relevant.

Actually, the 1890 treaty is by no means clear. While the treaty says that the line between Sikkim and Tibet “commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier”, it also says that the boundary “shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters” that flow southward into Sikkim and northward into Tibet.

Unfortunately for China, Mount Gipmochi is not at “the crest of the mountain range separating the waters”. That location, it turns out, is Batang La.

M. Taylor Fravel, an expert on China’s border issues, explained the problem. “The convention contains a contradiction that allows each side to claim it supports its own position,” he said. “Article 1 states that the border begins at Mount Gimpochi, roughly 3 km south of the Chinese road and the western point of the Jampheri Ridge. Article 1 also states that the boundary will follow the watershed. Unfortunately, however, Mount Gimpochi is not the start of the watershed, and the convention did not explain how to square this circle.”

“Sometime between 1907 and 1913,” he said, “Britain published a map of the area showing the border starting at Batang La, 6 km north of Mount Gimpochi, effectively changing the terms of the convention.”

So, if Gimpochi is the starting point, Doklam is in China but if Batang La is the real starting point, then Doklam is in Bhutan and China has no right to build a road there.

India says that it reached agreement with China in 2012 that “the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalized in consultation with the concerned countries”. China is silent on this agreement.

But this is excellent moment for the two countries to consult Bhutan on the tri-junction boundary point. Bhutan needs to act on its own behalf rather than relying on India. Other countries, very much including Britain, should speak up.

Once Bhutan decides to talk to China directly, the world will see this as a David versus Goliath situation, with puny Bhutan resisting a domineering neighbor used to getting its way.

This is a better scenario than a faceoff between two giants.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.