The Naku La face-off in North Sikkim at the height of COVID-19 ends, but the dispute over Tibet-Sikkim boundary begins. The Sino-Indian borders of Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh are considered as undisputed between India and Chinese-occupied Tibet. But China has recently opened new fronts in the Indian states of Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh, which is so called China’s “Early Harvest” strategic Move. It aims to bring India into China’s own orbit of geopolitical influence by leveraging Sino-Indian border conflicts bulwark against India.
A well-known defence expert, Claude Arpi writes in his blog: “A couple of months before the beginning of the Doklam episode in 2017, Luo Zhaohui, the Chinese ambassador in New Delhi, was invited to deliver a talk at a well-known think tank in the national capital. In the course of his speech, Luo mentioned some “early harvest”. When the moderator, a senior Indian diplomat, asked him what he meant by “early harvest”, Luo enigmatically said it was related to Sikkim. The knowledgeable audience did not really understand what he was trying to convey. It is a fact that in early 2017, everyone in New Delhi thought the Sikkim border was a settled issue”.
The Naku La scuffle on May 9 and Chinese helicopter’s violating in the Indian air-space on April 11 and April 20 at Sumdo on the border of Himachal Pradesh are indications of China’s “early harvest” strategic move in the new form of border incursion against India.
The Naku La is situated at border of the Indian state of Sikkim and China’s occupied Tibet in the Eastern Himalayas. Inhabitants of North Sikkim and Tibetans call it as “Nak-po-la”, which means “Black Pass”. In Tibetan word, “Nak-po” means black and “La” means mountain pass.
Topographically, Naku La sector is a no-man’s land. Traditionally, Tibetan nomads grazed their sheep and yaks in Naku La sector, Muguthang and Lhonak during the summer and returned to Tibet when winter approached. This traditional rights of cross-border migration ceased after China and India fought war over borders in 1962.
India shares its 3488 km border with Chinese-occupied Tibet which stretches from Ladakh to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Apart from that, Sikkim shares its 220 Km border with Tibet, which was laid by the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 without informing or inviting Tibet to participate in the Convention. The first article of Convention defined the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet, which reads, “The boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the water flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its affluents from the water flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into the rivers of Tibet. The line commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier and follows the above mentioned water parting to the point where it meets Nepal territory”.
George Ginsburg and Michael Mathow advocate that “He who holds Tibet dominates the Himalaya piedmont, he who dominates the Himalaya piedmont threatens the Indian subcontinent and may well have all of South Asia within his reach and with that all of Asia”. Since the 19th century, the Chinese nationalists called Tibet as China’s open back door. And on top of that, they regarded Tibet as a geostrategic importance for China to expand its geopolitical ambitions in Asia.
Before the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, Tibet served as a buffer-state between India and China for more than two thousand years. Tibet’s historical role as a buffer has now shifted to Nepal, Bhutan and rest of the Himalayan regions. Hence, the Himalayas constitute an epic-centre of the new Great Game between the two Asian giants.
The recent Naku La face-off in north Sikkim and Chinese helicopter’s violating over the Indian air-space in India’s western sector are signs of new Great Game in the form of China’s “early harvest” strategic move in the Sino-Indian border. Therefore, the making of Tibet as a peace zone in Asia is the ultimate solution for bringing harmony and serving as a bridge between India and China and for ending the new Great Game in the Himalayas.
*Tsewang Dorji is a visiting fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. He is a Ph.D scholar from Madras University with the research interest on India-China Relations. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.