India ‘deeply concerned’ over China’s construction work, Beijing says neighbour’s troops trespassed
India expressed serious concern on Friday over Chinese construction activities in Donglang area, saying they amount to a “significant change of status quo” even as Beijing insisted the standoff in Sikkim sector could only be resolved by New Delhi recalling its troops to their original positions.
In a riposte to the Chinese military’s warning that India should learn lessons from the 1962 border conflict and not clamour for war, finance minister Arun Jaitley said circumstances had changed over the past five decades: “If they are trying to remind us, the situation in 1962 was different, the India of today is different.”
Jaitley said at a media event that Bhutan had accused China of trying to change the status quo by claiming Bhutanese territory, and this was “absolutely wrong”. He added, “It is Bhutan’s land, close to the Indian border, and Bhutan and India have an arrangement to provide security.”
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang brushed aside questions on Donglang mountain pass being at the centre of a territorial dispute between China and Bhutan, and said the region was an “indisputable” part of China. Indian troops had “trespassed” into the area on June 18, Lu told a news briefing. Bhutan claims the area.
“Yet the crux of the current situation lies with the Indian side. The Indian troops trespassed the recognised and delineated boundary between China and India,” he said.
“So the most pressing issue is the withdrawal of troops into the Indian territory. That is the precondition for any meaningful dialogue,” Lu said.
In New Delhi, the external affairs ministry said in a statement it was “deeply concerned at the recent Chinese actions” as the construction represents a “significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India”.
The statement also acknowledged for the first time since the standoff began on June 16 that Indian troops were acting in coordination with the Bhutan government. It said Indian troops in Doka La area approached a Chinese road construction party and “urged them to desist from changing the status quo” by building the road.
Government sources countered Beijing’s allegation that Indian troops entered Chinese territory, saying the Sikkim-China border alignment was still not settled and was being discussed by their Special Representatives.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been briefed by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and foreign secretary S Jaishankar on the standoff. The two armies are at a distance with no reports of altercations or physical contacts between the troops, the sources said.
The sources dismissed reports that 3,000 troops had been arrayed on both sides. They said footage on social media purporting to show the current standoff was from an earlier incident.
The sources said Sikkim is an integral part of India though its border with China had not been finalised. Since Sikkim and Bhutan are contiguous, there is no question of Indian troops entering Chinese territory as is evident from the 1954 survey maps, they said.
On Thursday, Bhutan too asked China to maintain status quo, saying the construction activity violated two agreements signed by Beijing and Thimphu in 1988 and 1998 to maintain peace and tranquillity along their disputed border.
India also pointed out that under a bilateral agreement of 2012, the two sides had agreed the boundary in the tri-junction area between China, Bhutan and India would be “finalised in consultation with the concerned countries”.
“Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine tri-junction points is in violation of this understanding,” the statement said.
There were also signs that the two sides were working to bring the situation under control. Spokesperson Lu said the diplomatic channel of communication between the two sides remained “unimpeded” while the Indian statement noted that the matter was being discussed in New Delhi and Beijing. The issue was also discussed by border personnel at a meeting in Nathu La on June 20.
Though New Delhi has not decided to raise the matter at the apex level in case of a meeting between Modi and Xi at the G-20 Summit in Germany during July 6-8, India is prepared to wait and watch without ceding any ground.
The Kailash Mansarovar Yatra through Nathu La has been suspended by the Chinese but the pilgrimage through Lipu-Lekh pass and Taklakot is still on. Also, border trade through Nathu La has not been suspended even for a day.
Unlike other disputed sections of the India-China border, the frontier in Sikkim has largely been peaceful. The last Indian fatalities in a border clash were recorded in 1975. The recognition of the borders of Sikkim by China in 2003 had helped improve the situation in the sector.
Though the Donglang or Doklam area is under China’s control, Bhutan has claimed it for long. China and Bhutan do not have formal diplomatic relations and maintain contact through their missions in New Delhi.
China’s foreign ministry sought to reinforce its claim on Donglang, with spokesperson Lu saying: “From historical evidence, we can see Doklam has been a traditional pasture for Tibetan residents and we have exercised good administration over this area. Before 1960s, if Bhutan residents on the border wanted to herd their cattle in this area, they have to get the approval of China.”
He added, “In addition from jurisprudential evidence the historical convention in 1890 has clearly defined Gipmochi snow mountain as the crossing point of China-Bhutan-India boundary.
Lu also attempted to play down the lack of diplomatic ties between Thimpu and Beijing, saying the two sides “always maintain friendship”. However, China’s determination to “uphold our territorial integrity and sovereignty is unwavering”, he added.