By Pratheeksha Gopinath
Avowing to resolve the conflict at the Doklam tri-boundary or Doklam tri-border area, a disputed territory along the borders of India, China and Bhutan, the Chinese Government on 9th of February, 2018 offered an olive branch by confirming the resumption of the Kailash Manasarovar Yatra via the Nathula Pass in Tibet. After being entangled in a long-standing deadlock, the Chinese Government heralded a new chapter of India-China ties by retracting their decision to obstruct the passage of `Kailash Manasarovar Yatra’ pilgrims via the Nathula Pass. Throwing open the second land crossing in Tibet, China facilitated the secure pilgrimage of the yatris, who could now refrain from the arduous journey via the Lipulekh pass in Uttarakhand.
The Yatra and former issues
The Kailash Manasoravar Yatra is one of the most revered pilgrimages undertaken by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. It is a trek to the high altitudes of Mount Kailash and involves a picturesque journey offset by intense cold. Perceiving it to be the holy abode of Lord Shiva (Hindu God), thousands of devotees embark upon this tedious journey with the sole purpose of attaining salvation. The Chiu Gompa Monastery, a Buddhist monastery on one of the steep hills of Mount Kailash, is treasured by the Buddhists as the sojourn of penance of Lord Buddha. Legend has it that Queen Maya conceived little Siddhartha (maiden name of Lord Buddha) on the banks of Lake Manasarovar, attributing divinity to the pristine waters of the lake.
The obstruction of the holy expedition via the Nathula pass by the Chinese government last year, under the pretext of unfavourable conditions, left a batch of pilgrims stranded in Sikkim. The pilgrims had no alternative but to undertake their holy crusade via the Lipulekh pass in Uttarakhand, which involved the ordeal of laborious trekking and perilous pony rides. This decision of barring the yatra via Nathula Pass came in the aftermath of the military skirmish at the Doklam plateau.
Doklam gridlock: India and China at crossroads
The strategically important Himalayan plateau of Doklam has been the bone of contention between India and China, resulting in the strategic placement of both the countries’ troops at this stand-off point. The dispute arose in June 2017, when engineers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army began a road construction on a contentious territory near the Indian border, posing a threat to the security of India. Admonishing the change in the status-quo, the Indian government, in the face of severe security threats, allowed its troops on the 16th of June 2017 to obstruct the further road construction by the Chinese contingent.
The Chinese Government unabashedly defended its actions, claiming the construction to be legal, as being undertaken on Chinese territory. It lambasted the Indian Government for international trespass and served an ultimatum to withdraw its troops from the Doklam plateau. India, however, stood steadfast in its resolve and refused to comply with the Chinese orders. Obdurately declining to budge, both the armies had reached an impasse in the major face-off.
Doklam tri-boundary area dispute resolution
The Doklam Triboundary area dispute has been one of the lower–profile boundary disputes between Bhutan and China. Bhutan claims Batang-la, four kilometres to the north of the Doka La pass (the place of action), as the location of the tri-boundary point. Meanwhile, China claims the tri-boundary point to be located at Mount Gipmochi or Gyemochen (some two-and-a-half kilometres south of the Doka La pass). Mount Gipmochi, regarded as the strategic deadline by India, marks the terminus at the Indian border. The strategically vulnerable Siliguri Corridor can be accessed from the Jampheri ridge, which extends from the Indian border descends into the foothills of southwestern Bhutan.
Late in August 2017, the Chinese president Xi Jinping at the BRICS Summit in Xiamen waved a White flag with its decision of `mutual disengagement’ at Doklam. In concurrence with the resolution, the Indian and Chinese military troops retreated from their respective stand-off points by 150 meters each. India for the very first time had efficaciously managed to terminate the further aggression of the Chinese troops without any diplomatic intervention. The Indian army stood its ground and through negotiations came to the consensus with the PLA for a ‘mutual disengagement’.
Repercussions of the Doklam dissension
India’s strength as a growing world power was established with its assertive stance on the issue. It also showcased the qualitative and quantitative shortcomings of the PLA when pitted against the Indian army in the perilous terrain of Himalayas. However, the Chinese retraction of troops from `the point of stalemate’ could not be hailed as a tactical victory for India. The foreboding presence of the PLA, just 60 km farther from the Indian Border, is a harbinger of doom. The Doklam tussle generated angst and mistrust amongst the Indians, having severe implications on the bilateral agreements. The spill-over effects of the Doklam dispute would debilitate the trade relations between India and China. The new-found proximity of China to India’s Chicken Neck (Siliguri Corridor), a highly vulnerable geographic choke point between the north-eastern states of India and the rest of the country, is certainly a matter of grave concern.
Though the mutual disengagement alleviated the escalating tensions pro tem, there lingers the trepidation of perturbed incursions by the Chinese troops in the regions of Eastern Ladakh and Uttarakhand. The Doklam contention also had a bearing on the diplomatic ties of Bhutan and China. Bhutan being the sole neighbouring country without any diplomatic ties with China, engaged in a round of 24 talks with the Communist nation.
India, having shared an amicable bond with Bhutan, expects to exercise its influence in this border dispute. Standing true to the terms of the 1949 Treaty of Friendship, both Thimpu and New Delhi commit to serving each other’s interests in the best possible manner. India`s permanent military presence in parts of Western Bhutan is an exemplification of the privileged defence relations between New Delhi and Thimpu. Refuting the allegations of an international law violation, India justified its military transgression across the Bhutanese border as one undertaken in consensus with Bhutan, in the wake of external aggression. For the time being, India appears to have the upper hand and intends to intensify its diplomatic ties with Bhutan.
Ushering in a new chapter of renewed friendship
China paved the path towards an amicable relationship with India, with its decision to throw open the Nathula Pass for the yatris. In an attempt to mitigate the hostility between the two countries, China took the first step towards restoring the lost trust among Indians. One should hope that the move permanently diffuses the tensions between the hostile nations and reinvigorates the trade and diplomatic ties of India and China.
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