China, India in dispute over strategically important Bhutan border road

A Chinese road building project in the Himalayas has become the center of an escalating border dispute between India and China, with both sides accusing the other of territorial intrusions.

It’s been four weeks since the two countries have been involved in the stand-off along part of their 3,500km (2,174-mile) shared border.

The two nations fought a war over the border in 1962 and disputes remain unresolved in several areas, causing tensions to rise from time to time.

Since this confrontation began last month, each side has reinforced its troops and called on the other to back down.

It erupted when India opposed China’s attempt to extend a border road through a plateau known as Doklam in India and Donglang in China.

The plateau, which lies at a junction between China, the north-eastern Indian state of Sikkim and Bhutan, is currently disputed between Beijing and Thimphu. India supports Bhutan’s claim over it.

Beijing accused Indian troops of intrusion across their border calling it betrayal of a colonial era agreement on boundary alignment it said to have been endorsed by Jawaharlal Nehru.

India has not denied its troops were present in the area. According to a statement released by the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Indian personnel “approached the Chinese construction party and urged them to desist from changing the status quo.”

In response, China blocked religious pilgrims from India from visiting the Manasarovar shrine, accessible only via the Himalayan Nathu La that runs alongside the border between the two nations, “out of security concerns.”

The moves come at a time of steadily deteriorating ties between the two countries, say analysts, who point to Chinese investment in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and Chinese frustration with India’s unwillingness to join its One Belt One Road development initiative as points of contention.

Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Ely Ratner told CNN the current dispute was an indication of the challenges China faces as a global leader.

“It goes to show how hard it’s going to be for China to lead the region when core elements of its foreign policies are so ideological, uncompromising, and irreconcilable with its neighbors and other major powers.”

Though not a part of Indian territory, the plateau holds immense strategic importance for Delhi and is vital to its geopolitical interests.

“The area in contention is extremely close to a very vulnerable stretch of Indian territory that effectively connects the bulk of India to its northeastern states,” Shashank Joshi, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London told CNN.

“Additional construction could skew the local balance of power in China’s favor, essentially leaving India more vulnerable to invasion in case of a military confrontation with Beijing.”

Indian government described the development as a “significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India.” The controversial road runs through the disputed Doklam Plateau, on the unmarked border between China and Bhutan.

The Hindu (Indian paper) quoted a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson as responding sharply to a barb from Indian Defense Minister Arun Jaitley who said on Sunday that India was better prepared than it was in 1962 when it suffered a defeat in the short war with its neighbor.

As the war of words escalated, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang responded to Mr Jaitley’s remarks that “India of 2017 is different from what it was in 1962”, saying “China too is different and will take all necessary measures to safeguard its territorial sovereignty.”

The Chinese allege that Indian troops have breached New Delhi’s well recorded position of abiding by the 1890 British era convention defining the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet, The Hindu said.

Besides, the boundary between China and Bhutan has not been settled, despite 24 rounds of negotiations that began in the 1980s between Beijing and Thimpu, which is Delhi’s closest ally in South Asia.

Asked to comment on breaching an understanding with Bhutan on maintaining the status quo in areas of dispute, Mr Geng denied that there was a dispute between Beijing and Thimpu in the Doklam area, on the tri-junction of China, India and Bhutan.

“Chinese side has been stressing that Doklam belongs to China. It is under the effective jurisdiction of China and it is without any dispute. The boundary between the two countries is yet to be defined but the two sides have a consensus on the alignment of the boundary. Regarding that Doklam belongs to China, the two sides have no dispute over that. Doklam has always been under the effective jurisdiction of China,” he said.

Mr Geng’s remarks sharply contradict the assertion by Vetsop Namgyel, Bhutan’s Ambassador to India, The Hindu said. It quoted the envoy as saying: “Doklam is a disputed territory and Bhutan has a written agreement with China that pending the final resolution of the boundary issue, peace and tranquility should be maintained in the area.”

Mr Geng stressed that China would work with Bhutan on the bilateral track, without the interference of any “external forces”— an obvious reference to India.

Official sources told the paper that China’s moves in Bhutan were in tune with its growing political profile in South Asia that included Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

India is concerned that if the road is completed, it will give China greater access to India’s strategically vulnerable “chicken’s neck”, a 20km (12-mile) wide corridor that links the seven north-eastern states to the Indian mainland.

Indian military officials told BBC’s regional analyst Subir Bhaumik that they protested and stopped the road-building group, which led Chinese troops to rush Indian positions and smash two bunkers at the nearby Lalten outpost.

Media reports say the two sides are in an “eyeball to eyeball” stand-off.

Relations between the Asian giants, however, may not slide further as China has now allowed 56 Hindu pilgrims, who entered through the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, to visit the Manasarovar site.

“They are heading for the lake and they are safe,” India’s senior tourism official Dheeraj Garbiyal told BBC.

This, experts say, shows that the Chinese are not raising tensions on the border.

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