Riled by India’s Roadblock, China Turns the Screws in Sikkim

China’s recent aggression along the border could be a result of India backing Bhutan and cosying up to the US.

5 min read
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As Indian Army chief Gen Bipin Rawat is set to inspect the preparedness along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on Thursday, it's assured that the PLA’s aggression along the otherwise peaceful frontier is meant cut short New Delhi’s dominance in Bhutan and make insecure the fragile northeast.

Gen Rawat is scheduled to land at Bagdogra, and then take a helicopter ride to one of the strategic locations to get a first-hand sense of the stand-off between the Indian and Chinese soldiers. Senior officials of the 33 Corps will accompany him to the eastern frontiers of Sikkim, sources said.

Also Read: Roads in Doklam Will Change Security ‘Status Quo’: India to China

China’s recent aggression along the border could be a result of India backing Bhutan and cosying up to the US.

China’s Sudden Aggression

Over the last one week, there were several rounds of high-level review meetings in the North and South Blocks to assess the reasons behind China’s sudden antagonism along the eastern Sikkim frontier.

The 220-km stretch of border between Sikkim and China is considered to be largely settled. The last incident of any military standoff along the LAC in Sikkim was in November 2008 when the PLA had destroyed some makeshift Indian Army bunkers.

Though defence officials have described Gen Rawat’s trip to Sikkim as routine, New Delhi will probably take a bolder step along the frontier following it. During the two-day visit, the Army Chief will travel to a number of other forward posts in the northeast and review operational preparedness. The region shares most of the 3,488-km long border with China.

Also Read: ‘Ghost of Tibet’ Back to Haunt India as China’s Sikkim Incursion


Tension at the border

  • Several rounds of high-level review meetings take place in the North and South blocks following China’s sudden aggression
  • PLA’s recent activities at the trijunction between India, Bhutan and China is meant to put military and diplomatic pressure on Delhi
  • India’s opposition to China’s attempts to construct a road on the Doklam plateau has emerged as the major flashpoint
  • China has alleged that the Indian Army crossed the LAC to interfere with their road construction
  • Experts believe that China’s action in Sikkim is a knee-jerk reaction to India getting cosy with the Donald Trump administration

‘Teach New Delhi a Lesson’

Some experts who closely monitor the subject are of the opinion that the PLA springing into action at the strategic tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China was primarily “to teach New Delhi a lesson, and to constantly keep it under military and
diplomatic pressure.”

Firstly, Beijing was not at all pleased when Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 26 May inaugurated the 9.15 km long Dhola-Sadiya bridge (the longest bridge in India) in Upper Assam, and described it as “a strategic move to militarily counter China.”

Secondly, India’s opposition to China’s attempts to construct a road on the Doklam plateau, close to the strategic tri-junction, has now emerged as the major flashpoint in the ongoing face-off along the LAC in eastern Sikkim.

Thirdly, Beijing is also upset with the Dalai Lama’s last visit to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.

China’s recent aggression along the border could be a result of India backing Bhutan and cosying up to the US.
The strategic tri-junction between India, Bhutan, and China.
(Infographic: Rhythum Seth/ The Quint)

Bhutan’s Objection

To make known its displeasure, the PLA used heavy earth movers to dismantle two Indian Army bunkers close to the Lalten post during the first week of June, allegedly in retaliation to the Indian Army crossing the LAC to interfere with the construction of China’s Doklam plateau road.

It is certain that China is convinced India’s objection to the construction of the new road was at the behest of Bhutan. Beijing is of the opinion that Thimphu had requested help from India to stop PLA’s construction of the new road, which was too close to one of its tiny cantonments at Zom Pelri in western Bhutan.

For several decades, China has accused India of forcing Bhutan not to allow opening of its diplomatic mission in Thimphu. At present, only India and Bangladesh have embassies in Bhutan, and Bhutan maintains contacts with China through the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi.

Now Beijing is trying to take total military control of the Chumbi Valley to “cut short India’s diplomatic and military dominance in Bhutan,” one of the experts said. 

PLA’s military supremacy in the strategic tri-junction is sure to multiply with the construction of the new road – that is definitely not good for India.


Chumbi Valley: The Bone of Contention

The Chumbi Valley, which is a dagger-shaped landmass, separates a major portion of northeastern Sikkim from Bhutan, and is practically dangling over the plains of North Bengal.

The two main passes between India and China – Nathu La Pass and Jelep La Pass – open up along the stretch. The new road in Chumbi Valley will give China a massive advantage in being able to cut off the entire northeast from the rest of India in the event of a war. Mobilisation of forces from other parts will also be made difficult.


Building Pressure on India

To tighten the noose, China sent back all 50 Indian pilgrims who were on their way to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet from the Nathu La border immigration point on 20 June. The route through Nathu La to Kailash Mansarovar was opened on 18 June 2015. The new route via Sikkim is shorter, safer and more comfortable.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang claimed that the suspension of the pilgrimage route through Nathu La was “an emergency response to the situation there”. Surprisingly, there has been no official communication so far from the South Block on the issue.

“The PLA mischief along the eastern frontiers is a part of China’s greater game plan,” Dr Rajesh Dev, a professor at the Political Science Department in Delhi University said. “China always eyed the northeast as a hotspot of natural and mineral resources”.

Dr Dev said China would always continue to irritate New Delhi with its mischievous activities along the LAC. “If you can keep your neighbour busy along the difficult frontiers, half the battle of diplomacy is won, and Beijing is good at doing that,” he said.

Dr Dev and a few other experts feel the roguish Chinese actions along the Sikkim frontier is nothing but a knee-jerk reaction to India getting too cozy with the Donald Trump administration on future military cooperation.


(Anirban Roy is a Guwahati-based journalist, and has worked in the northeast, Nepal and Bhutan. He is author of the book, Prachanda: The Unknown Revolutionary. He can be reached @anirban1970.)

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