Despite rising stridency in Chinese demands that India pull back from the confrontation near the Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan tri-junction, Indian troops are digging in to protect the strategic topography that is just 30 km from a hydel project and overlooks the Bengal-Assam road link.
The hydro-electric project is located at Jaldhaka river at Jhalong which is not far from the border with Bhutan and is also a bridge for crossing over to the landlocked hill kingdom. The Jaldhaka, along with Torsha river, flows into the Brahmaputra and is part of a tract of land that could come under pressure if the Chinese build the road they are planning through Doklam plateau in Bhutan.
The Siliguri corridor, and the town itself, will be vulnerable if China gets to dominate ridge lines which will allow its troops to literally sit astride Indian territory. The road to Assam also runs through the narrow strip of territory that connects West Bengal to the northeast and any threat to it can snip the surface link from Bagdogra to Guwahati.
Given the importance of holding the current alignment and preventing China from altering this to its benefit, India is not likely to consider a pullout without some clear terms being arrived at first. Though the Chinese are clearly annoyed at Indian troops stalling road work in an area that is near the tri-junction, Bhutan has strongly protested the intrusion on its territory. Even if the area is considered disputed, China’s unilateral move violates agreements with India and impacts Bhutan’s sovereignty.
As the full significance of the Chinese move becomes apparent, it is clear that the road project and movement of troops was more than the “usual” intrusions by which China tests India’s defences and responses. The realignment of ground position was intended to grasp a decisive advantage in the region and went beyond the “needle and nibble” attempts to reset parts of the unsettled boundary between India and China.
With matters grinding to a stalemate and India holding its ground and comments, the stage could be set for more serious diplomatic engagement. Though the tough talk on part of Beijing continues, ejecting Indian troops is not an easy prospect and neither side would be keen to let matters get out of hand.
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