It took 13 rounds of diplomatic discussions over 6 weeks to defuse the military stand-off, top officials told a parliamentary panel.
New Delhi: About 80 Chinese troops with 12-13 bulldozers and other construction equipment came dangerously close last year to the Siliguri corridor that connects India’s mainland with the northeastern states.
For India, the main concern was to prevent the road construction by Beijing in the disputed southern Doklam region at the trijunction of India-Bhutan-China, according to the first detailed official account of the 72-day standoff between India and China that sparked fears of an armed conflict.
The road would have brought the People’s Liberation Army “closer to our international border” in West Bengal and expose the Jampheri Ridge to the possibility of Chinese presence, “thus creating serious security vulnerability for the Siliguri corridor”.
It took six weeks of persistent communication and persuasion and 13 rounds of diplomatic discussions to defuse the tension and reach an agreement that led to both armies stepping back on 28 August 2017, according to the account.
The account is based on what top government officials told the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs looking into the Doklam standoff. MPs privy to the draft report shared exclusive details with ThePrint.
The draft report titled “Sino-Indian Relations including Doklam, border situation and cooperation in international organisations”, was prepared by a parliamentary committee headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor.
The government had reservations about the details of the depositions of top officials being included in the committee’s report as they would become public once tabled in Parliament. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had a meeting with Tharoor Thursday over including sensitive details of the depositions of top officials in the committee report.
The two sides were reported to have reached an understanding that the entire depositions of officials would not be included in the report.
‘Chinese built many tracks on border in last 15 years’
The PLA entered Doklam on 16 June 2017. Initially, the Bhutanese patrol confronted them. They (the Chinese) turned away that patrol. It was after India watched the inability of the Bhutanese to stop the Chinese advance that Indian troops came down from Dokla post, which led to the face-off situation, Indian foreign secretary at the time, S. Jaishankar, told the panel according to the MPs privy to the report.
His successor Vijay Gokhale told the committee in a separate meeting that over the years there have been “transgressions” by Chinese patrols into Doklam “sometimes in greater and sometimes in lesser numbers”.
“But I would differentiate this episode and its implications. My recollection is this is the first time. It is because the Chinese came in these numbers with that equipment, with that stated intention and given the history of the fact that they have connected road claims to territorial occupation in Aksai Chin,” an MP quoted Gokhale as saying at the committee meeting in February.
The officials have told the committee that as per records, Chinese troops had been intentionally entering Bhutanese area since 1966. In the last 20 years, this has been happening regularly. Chinese troops enter the Doklam area of Bhutan because they consider it disputed. But as far as India is concerned, their entering this area poses concerns for the trijunction point.
The Indian stance is that the trijunction point is to the north at a pass called Batang La. “When they enter Doklam, they try to take the trijunction point towards Gymochen, which is considerably to the south of Batang La. The issue, which arose this year on the Doklam face-off, was that they came with road building equipment with a stated intention of building a road on the Jampheri ridge, which would have brought them absolutely to the Siliguri corridor area,” another MP quoted Jaishankar as having told the committee last October.
Speaking about the frequent transgressions of Chinese troops, he recalled that in 2007, a Chinese patrol destroyed bunkers in Doklam area close to the India-Bhutan border.
“They have built tracks across the Batang La, Merug La, Sinchala ridge line about 20 years ago. They have been improving on those tracks in the last 15 years. Certainly, from 2005, we have seen an increase in their activity and an improvement of their track conditions. In fact, they were able to come to that particular point where we finally had the faceoff because they had built a track up to that point,” Jaishankar was quoted as telling the parliamentary committee.
How the stand-off was resolved
Indian diplomats began negotiating with their Chinese counterparts to try and defuse the tension after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg on 7 July 2017.
Thirteen rounds of diplomatic discussions were held. They were led by the Indian ambassador in Beijing and New Delhi put forth seven main lines of arguments.
One, New Delhi contested the Chinese claim of sovereignty in the Doklam region. As per Indian and Bhutanese maps, the region is part of Bhutan’s territory.
Two, India conveyed to the Chinese side that its action represented a significant change in status-quo on the ground with serious security implications for India and amounted to unilateral determination of the trijunction point.
India also contested the Chinese claim that the India-China boundary in the Sikkim sector had been settled by the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890.
Three, the trijunction point and the India-China boundary alignment in the Sikkim sector were addressed in a written common understanding between special representatives of India and China—Shiv Shankar Menon and Dai Bingo—in December 2012.
Point 13 of the common understanding stated that the trijunction boundary point would be finalised in consultations with the concerned countries.
Four, there are still steps to be covered before the boundary in Sikkim sector is finalised. Point 12 of the common understanding of 2012 stated that there was mutual agreement on the basis of alignment of the India-China boundary in the Sikkim sector as provided by the Convention between China and Great Britain relating to Tibet and Sikkim in 1890.
The word ‘on the basis of’ was critical. Having a basis of alignment was not the same as having a final settlement of the boundary as claimed by the Chinese.
Five, India expressed concern about the Chinese selectively quoting parts of late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s letter of 22 March 1959 to misrepresent the Indian position regarding the 1890 convention. Nehru’s assertion was based on boundary alignment as shown in India’s published maps of 1956, which clearly didn’t endorse the Chinese claim.
Six, New Delhi contended that the boundary question is best left for negotiations by the special representatives of the two countries.
Seven, India reasoned with the Chinese that continuing the face-off was not in the mutual interest of the two countries and prolonging the situation would only give an opportunity to others to take advantage of the situation. It could also create mistrust and friction between the two countries.
After six weeks of persistent communication and persuasion, India got the Chinese side to reach an agreement to resolve the situation with the disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site in Doklam on 28 August 2017.