Indian and Chinese troops are facing off once again. The time, however, the skirmishes are taking place not in the disputed territories of Arunachal and Ladakh but along the border of the North Eastern state of Sikkim, at Doko-La (or Donglong, as the Chinese call it), which lies at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan.

While there have been growing tensions between India and China, the countries have largely maintained peace along the Sikkim border.

The current confrontation, however, shows signs of escalating. According to The Times of India, both countries have upped the ante, deploying around 3,000 troops each in the tri-junction in what the daily called an “eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation”.

The not-so-contentious border

Unlike Arunachal Pradesh, parts of which China claims, Sikkim is not a disputed territory for India and China. Both countries agree on the delineation of the boundary at Sikkim, which is based on a 127-year-old treaty signed between the Qing empire and Great Britain – the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890. It was demarcated five years later in 1895. In fact, the Chinese foreign minister even reaffirmed on June 27 that it stood by the border delineation.

However, the Doko-La plateau, which overlooks the Chumba valley in Tibet, is contested by China and Bhutan and is of great strategic importance to the former because of its claim over Tibet. The People’s Liberation Army is reportedly building a motorable road over the region – a road that connects China to the contentious tri-junction. The road would give the Chinese direct access to the Chicken’s Neck, a narrow stretch of land that connects India’s North East with the rest of the country. Thus, India is cautious about the project, if not outright uncomfortable with it.

Signs of trouble

Last week, when the Chinese Army refused Indian pilgrims on their way to Mount Kailash entry into Tibetan territory last week through the Nathu La Pass in Sikkim, it became clear that there was a crisis between the two countries. Pilgrims on the on the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, who use this pass to cross over to Mount Kailash in Tibet were turned back and had to return to Gangtok. On Monday, the rift came out in the open as reports and visuals of jostling between soldiers of the two countries were circulated on the internet.

China claimed the jostling was prompted by an attack by Indian troops on a Chinese road-construction unit in the Doko-La plateau on the night of June 4-5. The Chinese asserted that Indian soldiers had no business being there and accused India of acting on behalf of Bhutan.

Following this, the Chinese Army reportedly bulldozed an old bunker of the Indian Army located at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan in Sikkim. The Chinese claim to have acted in retaliation against India’s alleged act of violation of its “sovereign” territory.

The diplomatic (tri)angle

While China and Bhutan have no diplomatic relations, India considers Bhutan a close ally.

Bhutan has put its weight behind India, shooting a letter to the Chinese envoy, asking Beijing to restore status quo in the Doklam area. The Hindustan Times quoted Major General (Retired) Vetsop Namgyel, ambassador of Bhutan to India, as saying that it “has conveyed to China that road construction is not keeping with the agreements between two countries”. He added, “We have asked China to stop road constructions and refrain from changing the status quo. Doklam area is near the tri-junction is part of the boundary talks between Bhutan and China.”

On June 29, the Army Chief General Bipin Rawat reached Sikkim for a two-day trip to take stock of the situation. The general had earlier this month said that India was ready for a “two-and-a-half front war”, suggesting that the Army was prepared to handle internal and external fronts at the same time.

China has reacted strongly to the recent turn of events. People’s Liberation Army spokesperson Colonel Wu Qian said the Indian Army chief’s comment on war was “irresponsible”. He also reportedly said that India should “learn from historical lessons and stop clamouring for war” in what could be a reference to the 1962 Indo-China war, where India was squarely defeated and humiliated by China.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang also reportedly held up photographs at a news briefing in Beijing as evidence of India having transgressed the border. The Telegraph quoted him as saying: “We urge the Indian side to withdraw troops back to the Indian side of the boundary. This is the precondition for the settlement of the incident and also the basis for us to conduct a meaningful dialogue.”

On June 30, the Indian government finally issued an official response, saying that Indian troops, in coordination with the Bhutanese Army, were trying to “desist” the People’s Liberation Army from constructing the road and “changing the status quo unilaterally”. However, the statement reiterated that “India is committed to working with China to find peaceful resolution of all issues in the border areas through dialogue”.

High stakes

Violations of the Line of Actual Control on the India-China border are not unheard of and neither are minor clashes between the two armies. But this may not be a regular intrusion.

Many analysts have pointed out that this could be China’s way of dealing with India after the latter put a spanner on its ambitious One Belt One Road project even as others have contended that China’s aggressive stance was a result of India’s own infrastructure expansion activities in Arunachal Pradesh. China has also been sour since the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in April.

Rajesh Dev, a professor at the political science department in Delhi University told the Quint that the move was part of China’s larger plan to keep India’s frontiers busy, so that it could trains its gun on the country’s natural resources-rich North East.