Sino-Indian Border Dispute in Bhutan’s Backyard
In the latest attempt, the Chinese government declared to “standardize” the names of 11 locations in Arunachal Pradesh as part of its most recent effort to assert its ownership over land inside of Indian territory. In December 2021, the Chinese Ministry of Civilian Affairs announced a list of 15 places it planned to rename after publishing a list of six locations with a similar designation in 2017. Additionally, China has established two villages along the contentious border in Arunachal Pradesh, an eastern province and integral part of India. India, on the other hand, sharply denounced China’s efforts to unilaterally alter the status quo along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
These two separate incidences of renaming locations and constructing villages on Indian soil, along the eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh frontier), can be interpreted as an effort to alter the status quo and assert Chinese authority in the disputed area. India reiterates its position in response to China’s recent renaming of various locations in Arunachal Pradesh by stating, “This will not affect the status of Indian sovereignty over the region.”
Is it merely symbolic?
Chinese actions could be interpreted as a symbolic attempt to stake a claim to Arunachal Pradesh. However, it is unlikely to be purely symbolic because it appears to be part of a Chinese strategy to maintain tensions around the contentious border disputes with India. Additionally, China has strengthened its efforts to create or alter evidence to support its claims in the event of any disputes over sovereignty before any international court by establishing a permanent human habitation on disputed area. While resolving the dispute over the two group islands of Minquiers and Ecrehos between the British island of Jersey and the coast of France, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) placed a strong emphasis on direct evidence of possession and the actual exercise of sovereignty. Therefore, these Chinese actions, especially developing villages in disputed territory, may provide Beijing an advantage over its neighbor in the event that the Sino-Indian border dispute goes to the International Court of Justice.
Does Chinese Actions Undermines International Law?
China’s renaming initiative goes against the established principle of claim to a territory, the principle of “Uti possidetis juris,” which holds that newly independent states’ borders should correspond to those of their former colonies. China does not acknowledge the McMahon line, which was established as the border between British India and Tibet in 1914 at the Anglo-Tibetan Shimla Conference by British colonial authority. In its earlier ruling, the ICJ gave precedence to the principles of Uti possidetis juris, which gives legal title primacy over effective possession as a foundation for sovereignty, and the intangibility of boundaries inherited from colonization. Therefore, China blatantly undermines the internationally established principle by disputing the existence of the McMahon line.
In addition, China makes an effort to support its maritime and territorial claims through maps. But from the viewpoint of a global court or tribunal, does the map make the claim more compelling? Cartographic materials do not by themselves have any legal value, according to the international jurisprudence and doctrinal debates. The Border Dispute is the prominent instance on this subject. According to the ICJ’s ruling, maps “merely constitute information” when it comes to frontier delimitations and “cannot constitute a territorial title by virtue of their mere existence.” As a result, the Chinese decision to include Arunachal Pradesh on its official map violates international law.
India made the decision to strengthen its border security infrastructure in reaction to the escalating hostile actions at the border. A component of that strategy is the idea of a vibrant village. In an effort to stop migration out of border regions, the Indian government chose to include approximately 3,000 villages across four states and one federally managed territory. The program’s key areas include enhancing road connectivity, giving access to potable water, power, mobile, and internet networks, and developing tourist and multipurpose centres as well as healthcare and wellness facilities.
These villages situated on the border are of strategic importance for the Indian Army. The locals serve as the army’s first source of intelligence. They are referred to as the army’s eyes and ears. In addition, they assist in delivering necessities to the border. The main goals of this programme are to prevent migration for those who are currently residing in these areas along the LAC. In quest of work, people left the countryside and moved to the city. The issue of deserted villages is increasingly severe in this circumstance. To revitalise these abandoned settlements, the Central Government launched the Vibrant Village Programme.
India’s response included this long-term measure as well as a symbolic act that served as a signal. The government intends to send a clear message to China by holding its upcoming G-20 engagement group meeting (Youth-20 Summit or Y-20 gathering) in Leh, an area that is a region under Indian territory but disputed by China, from April 26 to 28, 2023.
However, India should make more than just symbolic gestures in response to stronger and more overt attempts to tackle this Chinese aggression.
A Race to ‘Embrace’ Bhutan
Bhutan is a tiny landlocked nation sandwiched between India and China, the two largest military powers in Asia. Because of its distinct geographic location, Bhutan has greater geopolitical significance for both nations. As a result, Bhutan is desired by both India and China.
Bhutan and India have maintained a special affinity ever since they signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1949. Bhutan is seen by India as a “buffer” state against Chinese military aggressiveness and misadventures. On the other hand, there was a point beyond which relations between Bhutan and China could not develop further. China blames India for this because it perceives Bhutan’s China policy as a by-product of India’s dominance and control. Thus, to resolve its territorial conflicts with Bhutan, China has used both persuasion and pressure. This policy explains why China has repeatedly included a Bhutanese area on its official map.
The course of events, however, seems to indicate otherwise. China’s approach aimed to settle the boundary issue with Bhutan in view of the considerable upheaval in Sino-Indian relations, notably in the wake of the Doklam Conflict. China is of the opinion that settling the border conflict will help to strengthen its position in Bhutan. China intended to gain a strategic advantage over India by doing this.
Beijing has claimed three parts of Bhutan since the 1950s; Pasamlung and Jakarlung in the north, close to Tibet, and Doklam in the west, close to India. Bhutan and China have never had diplomatic relations, but China has occasionally pressured the matter in order to begin direct border negotiations with Bhutan. Since the process started in 1984, 11 expert group meetings and 24 rounds of discussions have been held.
The recent Negotiations in the 24 rounds have focused broadly on two areas of dispute – Doklam and areas along the western borders of Bhutan and near the India-China-Bhutan trijunction, and the Jakarlung and Pasamlung valleys along Bhutan’s northern borders. However, China has recently appeared to broaden the scope of the dispute by also bringing in areas along Bhutan’s eastern borders in Sakteng wildlife sanctuary, which borders India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh. Some observers viewed that move as a pressure tactic to push Bhutan to accept China’s earlier reported offer of a swap of Doklam in the west, which Beijing views strategically, in exchange for Bhutan to retain its northern territories. The Chinese policy makers willing to sacrifices their claims on northern territory to get hold on The Doklam plateau. Control over the remote Doklam plateau would potentially give China greater access to the adjoining “Chicken’s Neck” area, a strategic strip of land that connects India to its North-eastern region. This Chinese strategy significantly raises security concern in India.
Since Bhutan’s geographical importance is immense to India for maintaining its territorial sovereignty, it need to be more cautious while dealing with Bhutan. It should avoid the mistakes done in 2013 in which India withdrew all subsidy on cooking gas and kerosene being provided to Bhutan. India must refrain from taking any action that would incite animosity against it in Bhutan. Because, in a contemporary fragile security environment, India needs Bhutan to be on his side more than ever.
Overall, the Sino-Indian border conflict appears to be intensifying daily as a result of shifting geopolitical contours in South Asia. The Chinese aggression strategies, which include renaming locations, constructing villages, and engaging the Indian army in a military standoff, appear to be motivated by the quote “what is ours is ours, but what is yours is negotiable’” Hence, Indian government have to be cautious and prepared while tackling with this expansionist neighbour.
[Header image: Line of Actual Control between China and India (map by the CIA)]
*Rahul M. Lad is a Research Scholar at the Department of Geography, Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.
*Ravindra G. Jaybhaye is a Professor at the Department of Geography, Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.