The tri-party troubles

Doklam is of critical importance to all three countries.

By invoking it, experts say, China is testing the India-Bhutan relationship. If and when India falters, China will be waiting with open arms to take Bhutan into its fold, especially since the tiny country is now pursuing an independent foreign policy after decades of outsourcing it to India. Improved ties with Thimphu will be in line with China’s plan to forge a rock-solid strategic presence encircling India. With strong and growing relationships with many other neighbours of India’s, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, China has already emerged as a dominant regional power in south Asia.

A stand down by India on Doklam will weaken its standing in south Asia, especially at a time when Narendra Modi, too, has pursued a more vigorous neighbourhood diplomacy. Incidentally, the standoff began just days before India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi visited the US and met president Donald Trump.

The counterview is that, apart from the strategic concerns, the Doklam faceoff is a chance for India to strengthen its relationship with Bhutan, the first country Modi visited after taking power in May 2014. Over the decades, India has made substantial investments in that country, particularly in energy projects, which account for nearly 80% of that nation’s imports.

Kingdom Calm

But all this is new for the kingdom itself, which swears by gross national happiness and not GDP.

Bhutan and China share a 470km border and between 1972 and 1984, the tiny nation, with India’s backing, took part in border talks with China. Since then, the two countries have had eight expert meetings and 24 border meetings. Currently, their disputes cover four key regions, including Doklam.

Writing for the Wion, Jagannath Panda, coordinator of the East Asia Centre at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), explained:

By creating the Doklam border tension, Beijing is working towards gradually weaning Bhutan away from India. China has shown much interest to resolve the boundary dispute with Bhutan in recent years, particularly since 2007. The two countries have already conducted 24 rounds of boundary talks. After settling the boundary dispute with Bhutan, Beijing is aiming to have a diplomatic relation with Thimphu, which will allow China to influence the strategic and security environment in the region in its favour.

Amidst all the tension, reports suggest that Bhutan’s state media has been rather sober in its reportage. Perhaps, the country is pinning its hopes on India and China to playing it out among themselves.

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