A long-running border dispute is once more on the boil after India’s army, on behalf of Bhutan, allegedly tried to stop Chinese road building work on the Donglang or Doklam Plateau.
The incident, which happened at the India-China-Bhutan junction on June 4, sparked a stand-off between troops on both sides.
Strangely enough, a video and reports of the border scuffle came to light only on June 26, hours before India and the US made a joint statement in Washington about maintaining stability and peace in the Indo-Pacific region and announced plans for a maritime exercise, in the Indian Ocean, along with the Japanese navy, in July.
In the past, such border skirmishes between China and India have happened in the latter’s Eastern Ladakh. That the scuffle took place in the Sikkim sector this time raises the question of whether China is trying to create trouble in undisputed border areas as well.
Angry over India’s assertiveness on Bhutan’s behalf, China on June 20 blocked entry to Kailash Manasarovar pilgrims at Nathula Pass.
Nearly 50 pilgrims stranded at the border were forced to return home. China says the Nathula route will be reopened for them only after India withdraws its troops from Donglang.
Beijing views Donglang as its territory and insists neither Bhutan nor India can stake a claim to it. It regards the road construction underway in the plateau as legitimate.
While the sequence of events leading to the standoff between Indian and Chinese troops remains unclear, a video aired by Indian television channels shows a small group of soldiers from both sides blocking each other from advancing further along the border.
The skirmishes between Indian and Chinese troops are all linked to border disputes which remain unresolved despite talks. Not a single bullet has been fired, however, in any flare-ups over the past two decades
Sources in India say that after the border scuffle, Chinese soldiers entered the Indian side and destroyed two bunkers near the tri-junction.
So far, India has not responded to China’s accusations. New Delhi has likely been awaiting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s return from a three-nation tour. Indian army chief General Bipin Rawat maintained a discreet silence after visiting north Sikkim on Thursday to take stock of the security situation.
Indian officials are viewing the border standoff as China’s attempt to start a confrontation in Sikkim.
Bhutan, which enjoys special relations with India, has issued a demarche over China’s road construction, asking it to halt the work immediately.
Bhutan regards Donglang as a disputed area and is concerned over the road work progressing towards its army camp in the Zomplri area. India too has security concerns as the road, once completed, will come near the Siliguri Corridor in West Bengal that connects north-eastern states to the rest of India.
Bhutan has no diplomatic ties with Beijing. Indian soldiers train the Royal Bhutan Army, build roads and bridges and conduct joint patrols at the border since Bhutan is under its protection.
China does not appreciate a third party interfering in its border issues with Bhutan, which became complicated after the PLA occupied the Chumbi Valley near Donglang in 1988.
Chinese incursions into India have almost doubled after New Delhi allowed spiritual leader Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh, refused to join China’s Belt and Road initiative and expressed security concerns over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The skirmishes between Indian and Chinese troops are all linked to border disputes which remain unresolved despite talks. Not a single bullet has been fired, however, in any flare-ups over the past two decades.
In November 2008, Chinese troops destroyed Indian army bunkers at Donglang, near the tri-junction.
Chinese intrusions happened four times in Eastern Ladakh between April 2013 and March 2016. Troops occupied Indian posts for hours, even weeks, before matters were resolved through diplomacy.