Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

Sikkim-Tibet Convention of 1890 and its significance


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Sikkim-Tibet Convention of 1890

Mains level : India-China border skirmishes

The skirmishes between Indian and Chinese troops at Naku La in Sikkim that is considered settled may be Beijing’s way of attempting a new claim. Defence experts highlighted the historical Sikkim-Tibet Convention of 1890 as proof of India’s ownership of the territory.

Practice question for mains:

Q. China’s actions on dormant areas mask a hidden agenda of broader assertiveness in the entire Asia-Pacific. Comment.

China creates a new flashpoint

  • Referring to a major scuffle that took place at Naku La in May, it was unusual for Chinese troops to open up a part of the LAC that has not been in contention before.

Sikkim-Tibet Convention of 1890

  • Of the entire 3,488km Sino-Indian border, the only section on which both countries agree that there is no dispute is the 220km Sikkim-Tibet section of the boundary.
  • This is because under the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890, the Sikkim-Tibet border was agreed upon and in 1895 it was jointly demarcated on the ground.
  • Not only that but the new government of People’s Republic of China, which took power in 1949, confirmed this position in a formal note to the government of India on 26 December 1959.

Chinese claims

  • Prior to Sikkim’s merger with India in 1975, the Chinese side accepted the Watershed based alignment of the International Border (IB).
  • The Sikkim – Tibet boundary has long formally been delimited and there is neither any discrepancy between the maps nor any dispute in practice.
  • The Chinese reiterate that, as per para (1) of the Convention of 1890, the tri-junction is at Mount Gipmochi.

India’s stance

  • The geographic alignment of the features was so prominent that it could easily be identified and recognized.
  • Even analysing the available Google images of the past, the location of Naku La could be discerned by anyone as the watershed parting line in the area was very prominent. “
  • There exist no ambiguity with respect to the location of the pass, since geographic realities cannot be altered.

How Sikkim came into the picture?

  • Earlier, Sikkim came into the limelight in 1965 during the India-Pakistan conflict, when the Chinese suddenly and without any provocation sent a strongly-worded threat.
  • Then PM Lal Bahadur Shastri neatly sidestepped the issue by stating that if the bunkers were on the Chinese side they were well within their rights to demolish them.
  • The point that the Chinese were trying to make was not military, but political, for they wanted to bolster the Pakistani spirit, which by then was rapidly losing steam.
  • As India stood firm with the backing of USSR and the US, nothing emerged from Chinese threats on the Sikkim-Tibet border.

Series of activity since then

  • In 1967, the Chinese again activated the Sikkim-Tibet border and on 11 September, suddenly opened fire on an Indian patrol party near Nathu La pass. The main point was that India did not lose any position, nor did it yield any ground.
  • The next important episode was in 2003. When PM Vajpayee conceded during his visit to China in 2003 that “the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was a part of the PRC” with the expectation that China would recognize Sikkim as a part of India.
  • This did not materialize then but in the joint statement issued by premier Wen Jiabao and prime minister Manmohan Singh on 11 April 2005.
  • In part 13, the Chinese recognized “Sikkim State of the Republic of India”. Wen even handed over an official map of the People’s Republic of China to Singh, showing Sikkim as a part of India.

Nothing new about the skirmishes over Sikkim

  • History would thus indicate that the present stand-off between India and China over the Sikkim-Tibet boundary is nothing new.
  • The latest episode after a road construction party entered Doklam area, despite Bhutanese attempts to dissuade them.

Ignoring usual behaviour

  • The clearly orchestrated actions on an otherwise dormant area mask a hidden agenda.
  • The Chinese push at several points along the LAC and also the ongoing aggression in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits are testimony to this.
  • The timeline of initiating this incident indicates a high level of pre-planning, possibly at senior levels of the PLA as well as the Chinese government.

Way forward

  • There is no question of India bending to Chinese “demands”, for like in 1967, it must stand its ground firmly.
  • That would be a sufficient lesson for the Chinese that the Indian Army is no pushover and this is perhaps the only way to deal with China that likes to flaunt its economic and military prowess.
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