Sir Charles Bell, Britain’s Political Officer in Gangtok with additional responsibility for Tibet and Bhutan, called the Chumbi Valley – where the Indian and Chinese armies are engaged in a tantalising minuet – “a dagger aimed at the heart of India”. Vincent Coelho, independent India’s much later official in the same position, claimed “that India’s frontier with China is the Chumbi valley and the crest of the Himalayas along Sikkim’s northern border with Tibet”.
Strictly speaking, India is not involved in today’s dispute over the Doklam plateau where the Chinese are said to claim 269 sq km of Bhutanese territory. But Jawaharlal Nehru’s warning in the Lok Sabha in 1959 “We have publicly, and rightly, undertaken certain responsibilities for the defence of Sikkim and Bhutan, if they are attacked. It is very necessary for us to understand that if anything happens on their borders, then it is the same thing as an interference with the border of India” still shapes policy. Doklam is one of the four disputed areas in Haa and Paro in western Bhutan. Haa Dzong (Castle) is the family seat of the once powerful Dorjee clan of the half-Sikkimese Ashi Kesang Wangchuck, whose grandson, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is the current “Dragon King”. Haa is also the headquarters of the Indian Military Training Team in Bhutan and, therefore, an object of Chinese suspicion. India’s southernmost military post is at Dokola on the China-Bhutan-India tri-junction.
The kings (Chogyals) of Sikkim had their traditional seat in the Chumbi Valley. It was the subject of prolonged Anglo-Chinese negotiations in the late 19th Century when Sheng Tai, the Manchu envoy, not only had to contend with Lord Lansdowne, the viceroy, who himself argued Britain’s case, but was also under the influence of his British secretary. The crumbling and corrupt Celestial Empire was in no position to resist such high-powered pressure and the negotiations ended in the Anglo-Chinese convention of 1890 which affirmed Britain’s protectorate over the kingdom of Sikkim and gave the Chumbi Valley to China.
Neither of the two principals—Sikkim and Tibet – was consulted. The protesting Tibetans announced they did not recognise the Convention, as did Sikkim which clung to her title to the Chumbi valley. Legally, the Convention was of doubtful worth. In practical terms, it was irrelevant, for the exercise of British power mattered far more than fudged legality. With or without the benefit of Chinese acknowledgement of British pretensions, the viceroy did as he pleased in the Himalayas. It was an age when all Asia deferred to the white man. Stirring events including the only major engagement the British ever fought in Sikkim preceded the Convention. The Tibetan army was finally pushed back through Jelap-la in September 1888, and the Derbyshire regiment poured into Chumbi to ransack the “large three-storied rambling building… rich with valuable and curious china, costly arms, and all sorts of quaint curiosities” that was the chogyal’s palace.
It suited British strategy to act on the assumption that Tibet was subject to China. That way, the Tibetans could not threaten British actions in the Himalayas while an enfeebled China was no threat at all. The British again ignored Tibet’s rights in the trade regulation talks three years later, and insulted and imprisoned the Dalai Lama’s envoy, refusing to allow him any part in the negotiations. Claude White, then Political Officer, deliberately did not wait for Tibet’s representatives in 1895 when he erected boundary pillars at Jelap-la in the presence of three Chinese commissioners. These pillars along a 14,500-ft ridge gave – and give – India’s artillery an overview of the entire Chumbi valley, including military fortifications and troop movements.
This is probably what the People’s Liberation Army is trying to correct. A road through the Doklam plateau along the eastern Bhutanese edge of the Chumbi Valley would counter the advantage the British gave themselves at Jelap-la on the Valley’s western Sikkimese border. China reportedly offered Bhutan a package deal in 1996 to exchange its claim to 495 sq km of land in the north-central sector of Bumthang in return for the 269 sq km in Doklam.
It seemed a wonder China did not ask for abrogation of the 1890 Convention as yet another “unequal treaty” forced on the dying Qing dynasty just as it repudiated or demanded renegotiation of many other treaties. One reason could be that it enshrined British recognition of the Chumbi Valley as Chinese. A no less vital reason with contemporary political relevance may be that it portrayed China as Tibet’s suzerain power. The historian John Rowland claimed that “Peking, which sees the Himalayan states as irredentist regions to be regained as soon as possible, also assigns to them an offensive role. They can be future bases for the subversion of India.” But this is to overlook modern China’s sophisticated diplomacy. Beijing already controls Tibet. It knows Sikkim is beyond its reach. Nepal is probably thought to be more trouble than it’s worth. Bhutan alone remains to be wooed.
Zhou En-lai sounded jubilant at his New Delhi press conference on 30 April 1960 when he was asked about Chinese claims to Bhutan. “I am sorry to disappoint” he retorted. “We have no claim with regard to Bhutan, nor do we have any dispute with it. You may recall that in its letters to the Indian government, the Chinese government twice mentioned that China has no boundary dispute with Sikkim and Bhutan and that China respects India’s special relations with Sikkim and Bhutan.” This is India’s version. According to China’s Hsinhua News Agency, Zhou said “proper relations” (as in his note to New Delhi) and not “special” relations. The distinction is interesting for “special” is not always “proper”. Although Zhou dismissed the McMahon Line as “illegally delineated through an exchange of secret notes by British imperialism with the Tibetan local authorities of China”, he did not – for the reasons already suggested – denounce the 1890 Convention as another fraudulent imposition.
But, presumably, China seeks to improve on its gains from the Convention. Hence the PLA’s attempt to build a motorable road “inside Bhutanese territory” from Dokala in the Doklam area towards the Royal Bhutanese Army camp at Zornpelri. Having reportedly already built what the Bhutanese media calls “a major road till the Yadong town in the Chumbi valley”, the Chinese are apparently trying to take it as close as they can to the Indian and Bhutanese borders. India is paranoiac about security in the region. One of the reasons why the late King Birendra of Nepal lost New Delhi’s favour was his proposal for a six-point zone of peace that would, in India’s view, bring the Chinese right down to the Nepal-India border. Neither Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck nor his ministers will make a similar mistake.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist