As 2015 draws to a close, it is worth remembering that it marks a forgotten but important anniversary in the history of India and Sino-Indian relations. Forty years ago, in 1975, the princely state of Sikkim became part of India, following a long political game that saw Beijing try to lure the Chogyal, Sikkim’s king, away from New Delhi’s tight embrace. While India won out in 1975, the Sikkim issue has continued to trouble China-India relations to this day. China has not unequivocally accepted Sikkim as part of India, the Sikkim border between the two Himalayan giants remains a source of tensions, and both sides have interests in Sikkim which are often at odds.
Historically Sikkim – “new palace” in the Limbu language – was a small and pristine Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas with close religious and cultural ties to Tibet. At different points in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the kingdom had lived under Chinese suzerainty and, later, as a British protectorate, but had mostly managed to preserve its domestic autonomy. India’s independence in 1947 and Tibet’s incorporation into the newly founded People’s Republic of China fundamentally changed the geopolitical situation of Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital, as it emerged as a buffer between its two giant neighbors. Concerned that China might expand its influence in Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan, and even threaten India’s disputed northern borders, New Delhi pressured the three Himalayan states to establish special relations with India. Hence, in 1950, Sikkim signed a treaty with India which established the kingdom as an Indian protectorate, handed over all of Sikkim’s external relations to India, allowed the stationing of Indian troops and prohibited the kingdom from “dealings with any foreign power.”
In the 1960s, however, Sikkim reemerged as a major concern for New Delhi in the aftermath of India’s disastrous 1962 border war with China and the enthronement of a new Chogyal, Palden Thondup Namgyal, who sought full sovereignty for his Himalayan kingdom. The 1962 war, which saw action close to Sikkim, and the 1967 clashes between Chinese and Indian forces on the kingdom’s northern border, at Nathu La and Chola, underscored Sikkim’s strategic importance as a key military point on the disputed border. The Chogyal’s push to sovereignty, probably influenced by his American wife, inevitably led him to seek relations with China to balance India, an interest reciprocated by Beijing which hoped to lure Sikkim into its sphere of influence. Soon after the king’s accession in 1964, Beijing officially sent condolences for his father’s passing and the two sides cautiously came into contact on several occasions in the next decade, including, famously, on one of the Chogyal’s trips to Britain during which he met Chinese officials at a Chinese restaurant in an outright break with the 1950 treaty. As New Delhi was growing alarmed by the prospect of Chinese influence in Sikkim, the kingdom was increasingly being shaken by the struggle between the autocratic Chogyal and Sikkim’s democratic opposition which, cautiously backed by India, sought to curtain his power. This struggle came to a head in 1973, when law and order in Sikkim broke down and India moved its forces in to stabilize the kingdom and eventually mediate a compromise between the king and the opposition. Soon afterward, over Beijing’s ferocious protests, Sikkim’s new democratic assembly agreed with New Delhi’s proposal to make the kingdom an “associate state” of India. In 1975, probably provoked by the Chogyal’s desperate attempt to get Chinese and Pakistani help against India during a trip to Nepal, Indira Gandhi’s government pushed for a referendum which democratically approved the abolition of the monarchy and a full merger with India, after an amendment to India’s constitution. In spite of China’s indignation, Sikkim became a state of the Republic of India.
However, New Delhi’s success in 1975 did not close the Sikkim issue. Forty years after the former kingdom joined India, Sikkim remains a source of political and military tensions between China and India, with little prospect of this ending. There are three reasons for this.
First, China’s stance on Sikkim as part of India has been ambiguous. For decades after 1975, Beijing published maps showing Sikkim as an independent state and spoke about China-Sikkim relations. In 2003, as part of a deal to reset the China-India relationship and make progress on the border dispute, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Chinese President Jiang Zemin reached an understanding that China would recognize Sikkim as part of India in exchange for full Indian recognition of Tibet as part of China. However, the recognition was implicit, in a trade-related paragraph of the 2005 joint statement between the two sides which stated that the “Sikkim state of the Republic of India” will be opened for trade with China. While Beijing claimed that Sikkim is no longer an issue in bilateral relations and presented to New Delhi maps showing Sikkim in India, it never clearly issued an unambiguous statement or signed a document to this effect. While the Indian side had claimed that during Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in 2005, China affirmed that Sikkim is an “inalienable part of India,” no such statement was publicly uttered by the Chinese side during the visit. The resulting ambiguity gives Beijing the opportunity to reopen the issue in the future and use it as a bargaining chip.
Second, the Sikkim issue is closely related to the unresolved border dispute between China and India. Sikkim’s 204 km border with China’s Tibet Autonomous Region(TAR), while mostly uncontested, forms part of the heavily disputed and unrecognized China-India border and hence remains unsettled. Incidents, usually border incursions, often occur on the Sino-Indian border and the Sikkim section of it is no exception. One particularly significant incident took place in 2014 when China tried to build a road, later destroyed by Indian forces, on the Indian side of the border. Moreover, China is still claiming the “Finger area” of Sikkim, a tract of Sikkim protruding into Chinese territory, through which a significant Chinese highway is scheduled to pass. Beijing has also been building infrastructure to the border with Sikkim, including highways, roads and a rail line, which not only cement Chinese presence along the disputed Sino-Indian border but can be used to ship troops in the case of conflict.
Third, in spite of its size Sikkim has substantial strategic significance for both China and India, significance which often puts the two sides’ interests at odds. The small Himalayan state lies very close to India’s narrow Siliguri corridor, which, if cut in the case of a military conflict with the PRC, would sever the connection between India and its Northeast, part of which is claimed by China. Sikkim also borders Nepal and Bhutan, countries in which Beijing and New Delhi have competed for influence for years. Moreover, as the border between China and Sikkim is determined by the McMahon line, which Beijing ferociously rejects and on which India has based its position in its border dispute with China, the China-India border at Sikkim has wider implications. Finally, the close religious contact between Sikkim’s Buddhists and their Tibetan counterparts, the former kingdom’s geographical proximity to TAR, and the presence of people of Tibetan descent in Sikkim connect Sikkim to the Tibet issue. The role of Sikkim’s Rumtek manastary as the seat of the Karmapa, one of the most important leaders in Tibetan Buddhism, whose position is presently disputed by two claimants, further reinforces this connection.
In brief, Sikkim continues to generate tensions in Sino-Indian relations. At the same time, though, Sikkim offers hope for improved relations between the two trans-Himalayan neighbors. Since 2006 the two sides have opened the Nathu La Pass for trade, which has grown in the last decade in spite of limitations imposed by Indian security concerns and fears of Chinese economic domination of India’s Northeast. In a further positive sign, 2015 saw the opening of a route through Sikkim’s Nathu La Pass for Indian pilgrims who want to visit Tibet’s Mount Kailash and Lake Manosawar, both sacred to Hindus and Buddhists. Sikkim also hosts one of five border meeting points at which officers from the two sides can discuss and resolve border incidents. There has even been talk of developing Sikkim as a major transportation and economic corridor between China and India as part of China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative and of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor. While none of these steps removes the mutual suspicion between China and India in Sikkim, they soften it.
In 1975, Sikkim’s accession to India was prompted by the competition between Beijing and New Delhi. Forty years later, the competition is still ongoing and Sikkim remains a source of tensions between China and India. What is different, however, is the potential that together with tensions, present-day Sikkim might also produce cooperation in Sino-Indian relations.
Ivan Lidarev is a Ph.D. student at King’s College London (KCL) and an advisor to Bulgaria’s National Assembly. Ivan’s research, published in The Diplomat, Eurasia Review and the China Brief, focuses on Chinese foreign policy, Sino-Indian relations and Asian security