Thursday, October 17, 2019
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Bonding At 14,000 Feet: India & China At Nathu-La

Nathu-La: Bonhomie over Chinese tea at Nathu-La. The occasion was a meeting hosted by senior officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the communist republic. As Indian army officers headed by the Nathu-La garrison commander Brigadier K S Dadhwal, handed over gifts to their Chinese hosts, the irony of the event may not have been lost on any of them.

About 20 km to the south of Nathu-La, is the trijunction where the borders of India, Bhutan and Tibet meet. This is where the Doklam standoff took place a little over two years ago when Chinese troops attempted to lay a road through Doklam Plateau in Bhutan. The ownership is disputed by China but there is an agreement whereby both sides promised not to alter the ground situation until the dispute is resolved. The Chinese broke that agreement, which resulted in India intervening to stop the road construction.

Incidentally, Indian and Chinese troops in the Doklam trijunction are now reported to meet every day as part of an effort to build trust and ensure no more face offs. The Nathu-La ceremony is more formal since this is one of five designated points for Border Personnel Meetings (the others are Daulat Beg Oldi and Chushul in Ladakh, and Kibithu and Bum-La in Arunachal Pradesh). The ceremonies in Nathu-La this time included a bhangra performance and the rendition of a popular Chinese song by Indian troops.

The Nathu-la meetings are held twice a year, alternately on Chinese and Indian territory, requiring officers from both sides to cross over and raise whatever issues trouble them. It could be an altercation between patrols of the two sides, disputes over territory that one or the other side claims, any movement or construction that goes against the spirit of the agreement to preserve peace and tranquility and so on.

The latest meeting was unscheduled but India also hosts such meetings on its side during Republic Day and Independence Day. What gave salience to the Oct. 1 meeting was it comes ahead of the second informal summit between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping on October 11 at Mammallapuram, a seaside resort in Tamil Nadu.

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