Sikkim in India-China Relations

Defending against martial arts

After Arunachal Pradesh, China is testing Indian defences in Sikkim

Brahma Chellaney

Hindustan Times, June 6, 2008

After Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim has become a symbol of China’s hardening stance on territorial disputes with India. The only portion of the 4,057-kilometre Himalayan frontier with India that Beijing accepts as settled is the small 206-kilometre Sikkim-Tibet border, defined by the 1890 Anglo-Sikkim Convention. Yet, that has not prevented China from seeking to drag Sikkim into its boundary disputes with India. Consider the following developments:

One, Chinese forces last November destroyed some makeshift Indian army bunkers near Doka La, at the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction. Two, China now has laid claim to the “Finger Area”, a 2.1-square-kilometre tract that protrudes like a finger over the Sora Funnel valley, at Sikkim’s northernmost tip. Three, it has coupled a threat to destroy the Finger Area’s stone demarcations with a surge in cross-border forays. And four, it has objected to India’s move to beef up defences in the vulnerable Siliguri Corridor — the chicken neck that connects mainland India with the northeast.

Leverage, not soundness or legitimacy, has always defined China’s claims. Take the 1914 McMahon Line, which set the border between the then-independent Tibet and the northeastern stretch of the British Indian Empire extending into Burma. Beijing has accepted the McMahon Line with Burma but not with India, finding it more profitable to rail against that colonial-era line. While playing the Tibet card against India by laying claim to Arunachal on the basis of its putative historical ties to Tibet, China has employed its non-recognition of the McMahon Line to deter New Delhi from utilizing the Tibet card against it.

Before Sikkim merged with the Indian Union in 1975, Beijing had publicly accepted the 19th-century border line between Sikkim and Tibet. That is how Beijing got saddled with contradictory positions: rejection of the McMahon Line with India as a colonial imposition but acceptance of the Anglo-Sikkim Convention of older colonial vintage, even though the convention had been imposed on the Manchu Qing dynasty when it was unravelling. But given its revisionist craving against a status-quoist India, China is not the one to allow any contradiction to tame its primordial territorial urge.

India’s lamb-like approach has only been grist to the Chinese leverage-building mill. From Nehru’s grudging acceptance of Chinese suzerainty on Tibet to Vajpayee’s blithe recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, India has incrementally shed its main card — Tibet — and thereby allowed the aggressor state to shift the spotlight from its annexation of Tibet and Aksai Chin to its claim on Arunachal and assertiveness on Sikkim. Not surprisingly, India has failed to persuade China to agree even to a mutually defined line of control.

Take Sikkim. It is New Delhi that turned Sikkim into a bilateral issue, arming Beijing with leverage. Although Beijing had declined to accept Sikkim’s change of status from an Indian protectorate to an Indian state, no PM until Vajpayee attempted to raise that issue with China. The Sino-Indian disputes involve large chunks of territory, while Sikkim is not only a tiny state, but also Beijing has neither laid claim to it nor disputed its boundary. So China’s insistence on ploughing a lonely furrow on Sikkim was of little consequence.

If Beijing’s depiction of Sikkim as independent was germane to any issue, it was to its own oft-thrown bait of a “package settlement” with India. Sikkim, and the trans-Karakoram tract in occupied Kashmir that Pakistan ceded to China in 1963, do not fall in any of the three Chinese-identified sectors with India — eastern, middle and western. It was to probe whether the “package settlement” idea was a diversionary ruse or a plausible proposal that Indian negotiators, from the time the ongoing border talks began way back in 1981, quietly sought clarity on China’s Sikkim stance. The steadfast Chinese refusal to enter into a discussion either on the specifics of a possible package or on the gaps, as on Sikkim, showed that the ostensible offer was little more than rhetorical bait.

India’s China policy, however, was steered into uncharted waters in June 2003, when Vajpayee visited Beijing, two months after he had reversed course on Pakistan. Desperate in the twilight of his political career to fashion a legacy as a peacemaker, Vajpayee kowtowed in Beijing. He shifted India’s long-standing position on Tibet from it being an “autonomous” region within China to it being “part of the territory” of China. He linked his Tibet concession with supposed Chinese flexibility on Sikkim. Having turned Sikkim from a non-issue into a bilateral issue, he claimed credit for beginning “the process by which Sikkim will cease to be an issue in India-China relations”.

Five years later, China is seeking to ensure Sikkim will not cease to be a bilateral issue. After all, it has got what it wanted, including the Vajpayee-initiated reopening of the ancient Tibet-Sikkim trade route. It even got Vajpayee to accept a new border-talks framework focused on the illusive “package settlement”, allowing it to renege on its commitment to present maps showing its version of the frontline. That the border talks today have run aground is no accident: the new mechanism was intended to take India round and round the mulberry bush.

India’s diplomatic naïveté can be astonishing. During Premier Wen Jiabao’s 2005 visit, one of his officials handed a new Chinese map showing Sikkim in the same colour as India. Promptly, then Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran displayed that map before the media to triumphantly claim that Beijing had “recognized” Sikkim as part of India. He was followed by Manmohan Singh, who told the Lok Sabha on April 20, 2005: “During my meeting with Premier Wen, he stated that China regarded Sikkim as an ‘inalienable part of India’, and that Sikkim was no longer an issue in India-China relations”.

But has Beijing itself made any such statement to date unequivocally recognizing Sikkim as part of India? The answer is no. The clever practitioner of diplomacy that it is, Beijing has broken the Sikkim issue into umpteen parts, doling out two morsels to get New Delhi to open trade through the strategic Nathula Pass — a one and only reference to the “Sikkim state of the Republic of India”, found in a trade-related paragraph in a 2005 joint statement; and its cessation of cartographic aggression without any formal statement recognizing Sikkim’s present status, thus leaving open the option to resume the cartographic mischief at a later date if circumstances warrant. Also, the trade-related reference to the Sikkim state of India is as empty as the 1954 Panchsheel Agreement’s reference to specific mountain passes and posts, which Nehru misconstrued as Chinese recognition of the Indo-Tibetan frontier despite Beijing saying it had signed a border-trade accord and not a border accord.

Contrast this wily approach with the callow way India has forfeited its bargaining chips. The more India has stripped itself of leverage, the more emboldened and hardline China has become. The government conceded in the Lok Sabha on April 22 that Chinese forces have stepped up “regular cross-border activities” in the past “three years”. More than three dozen Chinese forays into Sikkim alone have been reported so far this year.

Today, as China aggressively probes Indian defences in Sikkim and keeps New Delhi under psychological pressure, India ought to realize its own contribution to encouraging such assertiveness. The newly opened army memorial near Nathula to the 267 martyrs who laid down their lives defending Sikkim against attacking Chinese forces in 1958, 1962 and 1967 is also a cenotaph to India’s reluctance to learn from the past.

(c) Hindustan Times.

Map courtesy The Economist, May 1999

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