China demands India withdraw from disputed Himalayan plateau

The Doko-La plateau is claimed by both China and Bhutan, with India supporting Bhutan's claims to it. And after China began building a road in the plateau earlier this year, India — at Bhutan's request — sent troops to the area early last month to obstruct the project

Right-wing Hindu activists angry at China for stopping Indian pilgrims from crossing the border burn posters portraying Chinese president Xi Jinping and the Chinese national flag during a protest in New Delhi on July 4, 2017. Rajat Gupta / EPA

CHENNAI // China on Wednesday repeated its demand for India to withdraw its troops from a disputed plateau in the Himalayan mountains on Wednesday, as a weeks-long border standoff between the two countries continued unabated.

Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang insisted Indian withdrawal was a precondition to any talks to settle the standoff, saying it would demonstrate New Delhi's "sincerity".

His remarks came ahead of an expected meeting between Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg on Friday. The spat may well cool once the two men have spoken. But for now, with the standoff due to enter its fourth week on Saturday, neither side appears willing to step down.

Since the beginning of last month, each country has moved at least 3,000 troops to the Doko-La plateau in the Sikkim region, which lies near a junction where Indian, Chinese and Bhutanese territory meets.

The plateau is claimed by both China and Bhutan, with India supporting Bhutan's claims to it. And after China began building a road in the plateau earlier this year, India — at Bhutan's request — sent troops to the area early last month to obstruct the project.

China claimed Indian troops blocked the “normal activities” of construction crews on the Chinese side of a de facto border that runs through the plateau. India, however, maintains its troops only joined Bhutanese soldiers in blocking construction of the road when it intruded into territory on the Bhutanese side of this border .

A skirmish subsequently broke out between Indian and Chinese troops, during which China demolished two army bunkers in the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim in a cross-border strike. No lives were lost, but a standoff between the two forces in Doko-La has continued ever since.

India is a longtime ally of Bhutan, but it also had its own reasons for wanting to stop construction of the Chinese road: once completed, the road will bring China closer to a narrow land corridor in the state of West Bengal, known as Chicken’s Neck, which connects India's northeastern states to the rest of the country.

The Chinese road endangers Indian defence positions in Sikkim state, which sits above Chicken's Neck, and thus "threatens Indian security", Sushant Singh, a former lieutenant-colonel in the Indian army, told The National.

India and China have a fractious history and the current row in Doko-La has highlighted chronic disagreements over other parts of the Line of Actual Control, the 3,488-kilometre border shared by the two countries. China claims about 90,000 square kilometres in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, while India says Beijing is occupying 38,000 square kilometres of its territory on the Aksai Chin plateau.

The latest standoff escalated on June 19 when, in apparent retaliation for the situation in Doko-La, China refused 47 Indian pilgrims entry through the Nathu La mountain pass, preventing them from reaching Mount Kailash, a site holy to Hindus and Buddhists in the region of Tibet.

Since then, China has sent a Yuan-class submarine and at least a dozen other naval vessels to the Indian Ocean, even as India, Japan and the United States are scheduled to begin military exercises in the Bay of Bengal on Monday next week.

The spat has also erupted into a public war of words between officials from both countries.

On Thursday last week, Lu Kang, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, said India had to withdraw its troops from Doko-La for dialogue to proceed, and that New Delhi ought to learn “historical lessons” — a reference to a border war that India lost against China in 1962.

In response, Indian defence minister Arun Jaitley said on Friday: “The situation in 1962 is different, and the India of 2017 is different.”

On Wednesday, the Global Times, a newspaper run by China's Communist Party, took the hardest line yet on the dispute.

“If New Delhi believes that its military might can be used as leverage in [Doko-La], and it’s ready for a two-and-a-half front war, we have to tell India that the Chinese look down on their military power,” said an editorial.

“Jaitley is right that the India of 2017 is different from that of 1962 — India will suffer greater losses than in 1962 if it incites military conflicts.”

Whether the standoff will escalate further remains unclear. But both governments have taken rigid stances on the issue and India in particular is determined to stave off completion of the Chinese road in Doko-La, Mr Singh said.

“This is going to take some diplomatic effort to de-escalate,” he added. “The earlier it happens, the better.”

* Additional reporting by Associated Press