Sunday, May 18, 2008

Tip of Sikkim is latest India-China flashpoint

Pranab Dhal Samanta
Beijing sends ‘informal’ threat to demolish stone structures in Finger Area, India protests, bans Chinese troop entry

New Delhi, May 17:China has surprised India by laying claim on a small tract of land in North Sikkim, even threatening this week to demolish existing stone structures there. India has strongly rebutted these claims, lodged an official protest and barred Chinese troops from entering the area.

Referred to as the “Finger Area” by Indian armed forces, this territory falls north of Gyangyong in Sikkim and overlooks a strategically important valley known as the Sora Funnel. It contains several stone cairns, which are essentially heaps of stones that can be used for shelter. The area is in the northernmost tip of Sikkim, north of a place called Gyangyong, and appears like a protruding finger on the map — hence the name Finger Area.

On Thursday, at the periodic division commander-level flag meeting in Nathu La, India made it clear that it will not allow Chinese troops to enter the area and will strongly enforce this measure. While this was not the first time in the past five months that India was asking Chinese troops to stay away, sources said, this time it underlined stronger enforcement.

A day earlier, in Beijing at a lunch meeting between Indian officials led by Indian Ambassador to China Nirupama Rao and a Chinese team led by Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister for Foreign Affairs He Yafei, a key member of the Chinese delegation called aside a senior Indian diplomat and conveyed Chinese objections on the row building up in North Sikkim.

And in that informal off-the-record conversation, the Chinese side is believed to have gone to the extent of saying that its troops would soon demolish the stone cairns. A surprised Indian side is said to have pointed out that this would be a breach of the treaty to maintain peace and tranquility along the LAC.

Though off-the-record, the message of China’s “informal threat” officially reached New Delhi, which then made it clear at the military-level meeting that the Indian Army will not tolerate any more transgression into this area by Chinese troops. This has created a bit of tension, but the general view is that, at present, the issue had not gone beyond posturing.

Going back in history, Chinese troops used to cross the area during patrols but this was attributed to the general confusion that occurs during patrols along the Line of Actual Control. In many other areas, Indian troops, too, would cross Chinese territory for the same practical reasons like taking the shorter and negotiable route which may involve bit of transgression.

The row began to build up last year when Chinese troops started to frequent the area far too often — this year too about 50 Chinese transgressions have been reported in this area — and then started building a road towards the end of the year that crossed this tract of land.

When India objected to this at a local military commander level, China claimed that the area fell in its territory. A shocked Indian side then produced a 1924 map of the Survey of India where the stone cairns have been identified and shown as part of Indian territory. When China did not pay much attention to this, India even lodged a diplomatic protest in February with the Chinese government on this issue. This was after China had protested other troop deployments in Sikkim resulting from relocation of India troops from the western border. As a result of this diplomatic escalation, the road construction near the area came to a halt.

Realising that this could suddenly escalate into a major controversy, the Indian side started beefing up its positions and constructing pathways in the area. Sources said this further annoyed China, which re-emphasised its claim.

The bigger question that has emerged from this issue, China destroying a makeshift bunker at Doka La near the Sino-Sikkim-Bhutan trijunction and then the protest of India troop movements, sources said, is a Chinese effort to bring Sikkim back into the boundary controversy. Known as the Middle Sector of the LAC, the boundary along Sikkim was considered a less difficult issue compared to other sectors. In fact, this is the only sector where both sides have exchanged maps.

But clearly, what was considered a settled issue once China recognized Sikkim as part of India is now making an uncomfortable re-entry into the boundary settlement discourse.