Sikkim Under the Larger Cloud of Sino-Indian Relations: Understanding the Context


The twenty-first century has been termed as the ‘Asian Century’. Many literature and writing have been established to support this proponent. There are also substantial writings predicting a global shift of power from the ‘West’ to the ‘East’. The Asian Century and the proponents of the shift of global power from the West to the East posit that these phenomena will be driven by China (Peoples Republic of China) and India, where the statistics show a high rate of economic growth, accompanied by a young population and huge market. The interaction between these two countries will exert a profound and far-reaching influence over the politics of Asian security in particular and the international politics in general. 

Historically, China and India have shared a cordial relation. Many scholars have termed China and India as a ‘civilisational state’ with its long history dating back to the pre-colonial era. Xi Jinping has been stressing on the unique history and civilisation of China. Zhang Weiwei, a Professor at Fudan University in his influential book, ‘The China Wave: The Rise of Civilisational State’ argues that modern China is successful because it has rooted its model based on its own Confucian culture and not on Western political ideas. Many Chinese today are in line with the analogous line stressed by Xi and Weiwei.

Similarly, in India, under the current dispensation of Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), majority of the people are attracted to the idea of India being a distinct civilisation as a ‘Hindu nation’ and not merely a nation which came about with the independence of India in 1947.

The modern and formal relation between India and China started with the attainment of India’s independence in 1947 and the commencement of the Communist Party rule in China in 1949. In the initial period, the two nations shared cordial relations. India became the first non-communist state to recognise the Peoples Republic of China. Panchsheel Agreement was signed between the two countries which became the binding document for future relations. However, by 1960s the relations between the two after a brief period of honeymoon started having tensions. There was a problem of demarcation of borders which led to a brief Sino-Indian War of 1962.

Today, both China and India have come a long way from the ‘shadow of 1962’. The global political environment and the structures binding the global world order have changed significantly. China and India today have become more confident in world politics and their bargaining power today have improved significantly in global diplomacy. The shadow of 1962 has been left behind and today, Sino-Indian relation is marked by a significant increase in bilateral trade accompanied by many common interests in global forums and politics. However, what has remained unchanged over these periods is the issue of border demarcation. The border problem still remains to be unsolved and this issue has been the single largest issue troubling the Sino-Indian relations.

Within these tacit understanding of Sino-Indian relations, let’s try to juxtapose the position, perspective and challenges of Sikkim and Sikkimese within the larger structure of Sino-Indian relation.

Sikkim is a state which shares a huge border with China [Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)]. The County of Kamba (Gangba) and the Yadong County of the TAR share the 220 kilometres long border with the North and East districts of Sikkim. As such, the problems and challenges within the Sino-Indian relation are bound to have an effect in the larger interest of Sikkim and the Sikkimese.

Historically, Sikkim and the interest of the Sikkimese have been tacitly undermined by the larger structures of global politics which was being played in the Himalayas. Sikkim with the gift of ‘strategic location’ became a pawn in the hands of powerful and bigger nations playing the ‘great game in the Himalayas’. Sikkim and its people became the third party albeit for no gain or for their interest. The Sikkim-Tibet border was demarcated on the ground in 1895 following the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890. The PRC in a formal note to the government of India in 1959 confirmed the position. As such the 220 km Sikkim-Tibet stretch of Sino-Indian border remains the only non-disputed stretch of the border.

Following the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the Sikkim-Tibet borders were sealed off completely. Massive securitisation and militarisation of the region followed. India increased its defence budget significantly following the Chinese aggression of 1962. Nathu La which was a flourishing trade pass at that point of time was closed down. It would take another forty-four years before it is opened again albeit with many restrictions. The centuries-old trade practices and cross border trade and flow of goods and people were stopped completely.

The closing of the border and massive securitisation of the region had an instant ramification to the locals inhabiting the areas close to the border. The centuries-old trade and interaction being closed meant that these local border population whose generational ancestors had been dependent upon these border trade for their livelihood and whose identity and culture had evolved within these spaces had to search for new avenues and new pastures. The massive securitisation also meant that the spaces which otherwise was unrestricted became constrained and the movement within the region also became arduous.

The opening up of Nathu La in 2006 gave a sort of new epoch in Sino-Indian relation especially looking from border trade and sovereignty issues regarding Sikkim. Nathu La became the third border trading point after Lipu Lekh and Shipki La. The idea of opening up Nathu La was reiterated way back in 1993 when Shipki La and Lipu Lekh were being opened. Due to the difference with China, particularly, China’s reluctance to recognise Sikkim as an integral part of India. The turn of the 21st century significantly changed the configurations within the bilateral relations between the two countries. The positive and marked improvement in Sino-Indian relation had far-reaching ramifications for Sikkim.

The diplomatic tug-of-war of the recognition of Sikkim as an integral part of India has been on between China and India for more than three decades. C Raja Mohan (The Hindu, 2002) wrote (just before Vajpayee’s visit to China) — “the easiest place to start (the normalizing process of Sino-Indian relation) would be Sikkim”. When Vajpayee reiterated that China should recognise Sikkim as an integral part of India. China was cautious in its approach and did not fully jump to a conclusion. This was keeping in mind the atmosphere within the Chinese domestic politics as the CPC leaders did not want to anger the hardliners in Beijing.  

It was during the ASEAN Summit in Bali in October 2003 that the Chinese informed the Indian about the removal of Sikkim from the Chinese website and Chinese maps which showed Sikkim as an independent country. This by default meant that Sikkim was no longer a separate nation and that China recognised Sikkim as an integral part of India. On the part of India, it wanted Chinese to officially declare its stand on Sikkim. Keeping the bilateral relations in mind, the then Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi remarked that Sikkim is an integral part of India. China took steps to reflect this view in all its official maps and website. The joint statement signed in April 2005 by the two Prime Ministers explicitly referred to Sikkim as a ‘State of the Republic of India”.

The recognition of Sikkim as an integral part of India boosted the pace of re-opening of Nathu La which otherwise was going at a snail’s pace and bought the resumption of border trade back on the track. The year 2003 marked the signing of the memorandum on Expanding Border Trade. The memorandum declared the opening up of the third border pass through Nathu La while adhering to the memorandum signed in 1991 and 1992, that is, the memorandum on Resumption of Border Trade signed on 13 December 1991 and Protocol on Entry and Exit Procedures for Border Trade signed on July 1, 1992 (Das 2006). The 2003 memorandum agrees that the two sides will designate Changu in Sikkim and Renqinggang in the TAR as the venue for border trade market (Article 1). The Article also posits that the two sides will use Nathu La as the pass for entry and exit of persons, means of transport and commodities engaged in border trade.

Initially, Nathu La was planned for opening in July 2004. The period between 2003-2004 saw six rounds of border talks. The Parliamentary election result of 2004 and the reshuffling of the government from BJP led NDA to Indian National Congress-led UPA resulted in the postponement of the opening of Nathu La. Many scholars such as Kue-Hsiang Hsu of National Chengchi University were of the opinion that the new government in India needed time to assess and explore it carefully. The other reasons was also that of security and inadequate infrastructure.

As diplomatic manoeuvring for the opening of Nathu La is on, border negotiation is taking place between the two countries. Between July and November 2004, China and India had two rounds of border talks and in 2005 the fifth and six rounds of border talks took place. The fifth round of border talks saw the signing of ‘Agreement on Political Guiding Principles on Solving the Border Issues’. The agreement reiterated that the border issues should not be allowed to affect the overall development (of Sino-Indian relation). Though the agreement reflected the core interest of both China and India. Article 7 of the agreement talks about safeguarding the interest of the settled population along the border (Sino-Indian border). This is quite important for the Sikkimese as Sikkim is the only stretch of the border which is settled and undisputed. In one sense, the settled population would also tacitly mean the Sikkimese from the Indian side of the border.

The Indian government proposal of the opening of Nathu La in 2005 was rejected by China citing unfinished infrastructure development on the Chinese side. The pass was finally opened in 2006 after much delay.

In 2004, the Government of Sikkim initiated and commissioned a high-level team, the National Advisory Board, primarily to study the prospects of Nathu La. The report which came about under the title, “Sikkim-Tibet Trade via Nathu La: A Policy Study on Prospects, Opportunities and Requisite Preparedness”  presented two scenarios for trade volume projections of Nathu La. The study group presented two scenarios for trade volume projections. The scenario 1 which projects higher trade flow through Nathu La; Rs 206 crores by 2007, Rs 2266 crores by 2010 and Rs. 12, 203 by 2015. Scenario 2 projects trade at lower flow; Rs. 353 crores in 2010, Rs. 450 crores by 2015 and Rs. 574 crores by 2020. Today, when we look at trade figures of Nathu La, it is going at snail’s pace. The total trade in 2016 was 82.68 crores and it dropped further to a mere 3.54 crores in 2017 before increasing to 40.27 crores in 2018.

The low level of trade in 2017 can be attributed to the Doklam issue which hindered the Sino-Indian relation and which impacted the trade at Nathu La. The trade remained closed for most of the months in 2017. The full potential of Nathu La has not been tapped or even if it is done so. The external factors notably the structures and complexities of the Sino-Indian relation plays a key role in influencing the policies at the border which includes Nathu La. To put it another way, the opening of Nathu La though have benefitted many local people, the objective of opening of Nathu La was for confidence-building measures and not really intended for trade as such.

China’s domestic issue today is shaken by the spread of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19). The disease started in Wuhan in the Hubei Province of China and it has since spread to the whole of China and even outside of this country. The spread of COVID-19 virus has severely slowed the Chinese economy. The trade with India has been impacted. Several Indian industries which depend upon raw materials from China, such as the pharma sectors have been impacted.

According to the Confederation of Indian Industry, China supplies 43 per cent of India’s import of the top 20 goods, including mobile handsets (7.2 billion), computers (3 billion), integrated circuits and other inputs (7.5 billion), fertilisers (1.5 billion) and antibiotics (1.1 billion). As such, the coronavirus pandemic in China is already impacting inputs into the Indian industry which may adversely impact small businesses and jobs. The industries representatives have also requested the government for a ‘force majeure’ situation which provides relief to companies to default on contract obligations.

The COVID-19 virus which started in the northern part of China has since spread to its southern region and this should alarm Sikkim and Sikkimese. The Chinese provinces which are nearest to Sikkim such as Sichuan and Yunnan have recorded confirmed cases of COVID-19. By 19 February 2020, Sichuan confirmed 519 confirmed cases (186 cured) with 3 deaths, Yunnan confirmed 173 cases (60 cured with one death. The data from TAR could not be retrieved, but going by the statistics, there should be no doubt that TAR too has cases of COVID-19 virus.

The eminent danger and threat perception of COVID-19 virus would create a problem for Sikkim. The future of border trade which is going to be open soon looks bleak. If the situation does not improve with regards to the COVID-19 virus in China then we won’t be seeing trade taking place at Nathu La for the year 2020-21.

Thus, to conclude, it becomes clear that the interest, challenges and goals of the Sikkimese and Sikkim have always been directed and bounded under the larger structure of the Sino-Indian relations. This is not something new and it is here to stay.

The author is Sangay Lachenpa, a Research Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


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