50 years after round one, Bhutan, China, and India are stuck in another border face-off

Don’t cross borders.
Don’t cross borders.
Image: AP Photo
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A dormant border dispute primarily involving China and Bhutan has suddenly turned live again over the past few days. With India, too, forced to get involved, all eyes are on the diplomatic brinkmanship underway in a remote corner of the Himalayas.

On June 16, Chinese troops and their earth movers entered the Doklam plateau, long claimed by Bhutan, to build roads. Following this transgression, the Royal Bhutanese Army called in the Indian armed forces for assistance to push them back. Meanwhile, at least one report by the Press Trust of India on June 28 said the Chinese had entered Sikkim, too. But an Indian Army statement on July 03 clarified that this was nothing to be alarmed about, though it didn’t confirm or deny whether the Chinese did enter Sikkim.

As tensions rose, the Narendra Modi government sent in more troops to Sikkim on July 02.

The plateau itself is a tri-junction of India, Bhutan, and China, near the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim. It lies close to the strategic Siliguri Corridor, a narrow strip that connects India’s northeast to the mainland. The China-Bhutan border in the Doklam region is yet to be clearly demarcated.

A Chinese road in the neighbourhood naturally unsettled India’s security establishment. With its role as a security guarantor to Bhutan automatically coming into play in the situation, the fuse was just waiting to be lit.

All three countries have indulged in aggressive diplomatese to make their stands public.

“Statements issued by Bhutan make it clear that this is the land of Bhutan. It is located near India’s land. There is an arrangement between India and Bhutan for giving protection in the border region,” India’s defence minister, Arun Jaitley, said on June 30.

Bhutan, on its part, said that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) incursions go against the agreements of 1988 and 1998 that call upon both countries to maintain peace and tranquility until a final settlement is reached on the boundary. Bhutan doesn’t have diplomatic ties with China. And as per a 2012 agreement between India and China, the tri-juncture boundary issue needs trilateral consultation.

Beijing insists Doklam is its territory. “There is no breach of agreement or damage to status quo… It was the Indian side who (sic) trespassed on the Chinese territory and obstructed China’s normal construction. The pressing task now is for the Indian side to bring those who trespassed on the Chinese territory back to the Indian side of the boundary,” a Chinese government spokesperson said on June 30.

In the wake of the flare-up, China has blocked Indian pilgrims travelling to Tibet’s Kailash Mansarovar through Nathu La. So, 50 years since India and China came to blows at Nathu La, history is in replay mode.

Old, old history

Nathu La, or “Listening Ear” in the Tibetan language, connects Sikkim’s capital Gangtok and Kalimpong in India’s West Bengal state to Yatung in Tibet, China. The pass was opened only in 2006, nearly 55 years after India sealed it during the 1962 war in which the south Asian country suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the PLA.

Five years after that war, in 1967, the Indian Army gave China a bloody nose at Nathu La after PLA troops encroached upon Indian territory there. Seventy Indian soldiers and over 400 of China’s died in the clash.

Border incursions have been frequent since 1962, but diplomacy mostly managed to win temporary peace. For instance, in 2014, when president Xi Jinping was visiting India, both armies were engaged in a standoff in Ladakh.

Suddenly now, war-talk is rife again.

“There could be a chance of war if the recent conflict between China and India is not handled properly, observers said, noting that China will resolutely defend its territory and safeguard the border,” China’s state-run Global Times said. The newspaper also claimed that the Indian troops “violated” the “undisputed” India-China border so it could show the US New Delhi’s “firm determination to constrain China’s rise.”

While warning shots have been fired from New Delhi, telling China that India is not the country of 1962, China has retorted in the same vein.

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.