Indo-China standoff: Dragon's shadow on the Chicken neck
Darjeeling, July 7, 2017: With the Dragon breathing down land locked Sikkim's neck and unrest in the Hills of North Bengal, it is double trouble for India. Both the problems have cast a long shadow on the Chicken neck - a thin strip of land of immense strategic importance connecting the North Eastern states with the rest of India.
On the Sikkim front it all started in June with China expanding a road in the territory known as the Dokolam plateau - a tri-junction between India, Bhutan and China bordering Sikkim near the Nathula pass (14400 ft) region. While India calls this 89 sq km pasture land- Dokola, Bhutan refers to it as Dokolam and China as Donglang.
China already has a road near Dokola and is trying to extend it southward towards Gamochen which is controlled by Indian troops. Interestingly Gamochen is the area from where the Jampheri ridge starts. Located at an elevation it is a very important strategic vantage point for the Indian Army.
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Government of Bhutan release recently stated "On 16th June 2017, the Chinese Army started constructing a motorable road from Dokola in the Doklam area towards the Bhutan Army camp at Zompelri."
Boundary talks are ongoing between Bhutan and China. The release claims that Bhutan has written agreements of 1988 and 1998 stating that the two sides (Bhutan and China) agree to maintain peace and tranquility in their border areas pending a final settlement on the boundary question, and to maintain status quo on the boundary as before March 1959. The agreements also state that the two sides will refrain from taking unilateral action, or use of force, to change the status quo of the boundary.
"Bhutan has conveyed to the Chinese side, both on the ground and through the diplomatic channel, that the construction of the road inside Bhutanese territory is a direct violation of the agreements and affects the process of demarcating the boundary between our two countries. Bhutan hopes that the status quo in the Dokolam area will be maintained as before 16 June 2017" stated the release.
India supporting Bhutan's stand asked China to halt all construction work. Chinese troops instead told India to remove two bunkers that were set up in 2012 at Lalten in the Dokolam region. On June 6 night the Indian bunkers were destroyed by Chinese Bulldozers.
A standoff ensued with troop buildup by both the Peoples' Liberation Army and Indian Army. Conditions still remain the same with tension mounting. While the two armies are on eyeball to eyeball contact, China has resorted to sabre-rattling.
Rejecting Bhutan's claims, China has stated that the Dokolam area has always been a traditional pasture for Chinese cattle grazers over which it has always exercised complete control.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang talking to media persons in Beijing stated "The Dokolam area is an integral part of Chinese territory and we are exercising complete and comprehensive administration over this region. Our border troops and the residents around the border have been herding cattle since ages. The construction is being carried out in Chinese land."
The Dragon has preferred to play the Sikkim and Bhutan card to mount pressure on India. The Chinese official media has given a call for Sikkim's independence and separation from India. The state-controlled media has asked Chinese citizens to spark pro-independence movements in Sikkim thereby reversing India's "brutal" annexation of the state.
Sikkim was an independent kingdom until it merged with India in 1975 following a decisive referendum. Interestingly China also recognizes Sikkim as an Indian state since 2003.
The Chinese media has further suggested that China should build up a global consensus for the abolition of unfair treaties of sovereignty and defense that India has allegedly forced Bhutan to sign.
The state of Sikkim borders China in the north and east; Bhutan in the east; Nepal in the west and the state of West Bengal in the South. It shares a 220 km border with China; 32 km border with Bhutan. The region is also in close proximity to the Chicken neck.
Defence analysts are of the opinion that if China desires to inflict a strong blow to India it has to take control of the Chicken neck. The road that China is constructing in the Dokolam plateau will bring it closer to the Chicken's neck. In case it manages to suffocate the Chicken neck it will be able to effectively cut off the North East states of India including vital defense installations, military formations, reinforcements and supplies.
A Chinese military advance of less than 130 km would cut off Bhutan, part of West Bengal and the whole of North East. Such a situation arose during the Indo-China war in 1962.
The Chicken neck or Siliguri corridor is 200 km long and 60 km wide strip of land connecting North East states with the rest of India. Through this corridor runs the rail road network to the North East. There is the presence of 3 vital military formations in the North East near the Chinese border namely Dibrugarh in Upper Assam; Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh and Dimapur in Nagaland. The Siliguri corridor also provides important logistic support to Sikkim.
China has been building up its asset base and upgrading infrastructure in the Dokolam plateau. It has upgraded the road from Lhasa to Yadong (7 hour journey.) China has already started extension work of the Beijing-Lhasa railway line to Yadong. Located in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) Yadong is 3 and a half hours drive from the Sikkim capital Gangtok.
Though the tri-junction impasse is the longest stand off between the two countries, in the past also there have many numerous instances of aggression in the Sikkim sector, specially the "Finger Tip" area of North Sikkim.
The "finger" located in the valley known as Sora Funnel, lies north of Giagong enroute to Gurudongmar lake ( a famous high altitude lake located at 17,100 feet) very near to the International Border. Giagong is located 180 kms from the Gangtok. There have been numerous instances of intrusions by the PLA in the past, claiming that the "finger" area belongs to China.
At present India has strategic advantage. In case a war breaks out Indian military presence inside Bhutan, stationed at Ha, will allow it to attack the Chumbi valley (A dagger like strip of land pointing at the Chicken neck) from two sides, potentially cutting off Chinese troops stationed facing Sikkim, claim defence analysts.
On the Military front, the Mountain Strike Corps designated as 17 Corps raised in 2013 is meant to guard the northern borders. Trained in high altitude warfare the Mountain Strike Corps was raised to be deployed in mountainous terrain from Arunachal Pradesh in the East to Ladakh in the North.
A new 72 Infantry Division of the Mountain Strike Corps is being raised and is expected to be fully operational in the next two to three years. In 2013 there were plans to build a composite aviation base under the Army Aviation Corps in Jalapiguri district (also part of the Siliguri corridor) of West Bengal.
Pegged at Rs. 1322 Crores the proposed project would be the largest in the country and would emerge as a major muscle power for the Strike Corps. Plans included stationing of fixed winged aircrafts, helicopters and even drones in this base. However the project is still under the wraps.
On the political front the recent unrest in the Darjeeling Hills has spilled over to the Chicken neck thereby affecting the region. There has been an indefinite bandh clamped by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in support of the separate state of Gorkhaland since June 15.
The National Highway 10, the arterial road from Siliguri to Gangtok has been blocked despite a standing order by the Supreme Court. Vehicles plying on the NH10 have been vandalised and torched also.
In 2008 the Supreme Court had directed the Union, Sikkim and West Bengal Governments and others to ensure that the NH31A (now named the NH10) is kept open and outside the purview of all bandhs. Even Siliguri has witnessed numerous flashpoints with vehicles from Sikkim attacked and vandalized.
Commenting on the catch 22 situation, caught between the Chinese standoff and the Gorkhaland agitation, Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling stated "Given Sikkim's geographical location, having international boundaries with three countries, the potential threat to national security is a matter of supreme importance. The only access to the rest of the country is through the state of West Bengal. Due to the agitation, the law and order situation, Sikkim is sandwiched. The Government of India and all concerned authorities should safeguard the interest of Sikkim from these hazards and constraints. We fully support the Government of India's efforts in addressing the national security concerns in the best interest of the country."
However there hasn't been much effort on the part of the Union Government to defuse the ongoing political unrest in the Darjeeling Hills despite the prolonged bandh which hit the 23 day mark on Wednesday, feel political observers.
The geo-political location of this region with four international borders namely Nepal, Bhutan, China and Bangladesh makes it highly vulnerable. In the past there have been ISI operatives and North East insurgent outfit operatives arrested from this region. Owing to its strategic importance the Chicken neck is also on the radar of all major intelligence agencies of the world.