Chinese Checkers over Bhutan

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Reflecting its concerns as China and Bhutan inch toward a resolution of their festering border dispute, India rolled out the red carpet for Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck within days of his country holding the 25th round of boundary talks with Beijing.

What would have heightened New Delhi’s anxieties is also the inking of a cooperation agreement between Bhutan and China delineating the work of the joint technical team for the demarcation of the boundary. Bhutanese Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji’s remarks soon after that both sides are committed to resolving the border issue at the earliest and establishing diplomatic relations would have stoked New Delhi’s worries further.

The Bhutanese king’s visit would have afforded New Delhi the opportunity to voice its unease on the recent developments with China. Equally, the Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) would have explained his country’s position on the sensitive matter. The India-Bhutan joint statement took note of the depth of the bilateral relationship, noting that they “enjoy long-standing and exceptional bilateral ties characterised by utmost trust, goodwill and mutual understanding at all levels”.

Notwithstanding this affirmation, New Delhi will need to crank up its outreach to Thimphu in view of China’s looming shadow over Bhutan.

With China already having made deep inroads in India’s immediate neighbourhood, be it Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or the Maldives, India can ill-afford to lose strategic space in Bhutan, too. It’s a country where India has held unchallenged sway thus far, even generously funding its Five-Year Plans. But Indian influence would most certainly be in jeopardy if the boundary settlement went against Indian interests or if Bhutan formalises ties with China.

The Druk Gyalpo’s visit was an unusually long one, lasting eight days, his itinerary including Assam and Maharashtra. Rail links to boost cross-border connectivity for land-locked Bhutan through Assam and impetus to bilateral trade, mutual investments and education were emphasised in the joint statement. Delhi, however, will need to convert its promises into concrete action, and without the delays that beset many Indian-executed projects in the neighbourhood.

For a nation that’s gradually emerging from decades of isolation and with a nascent democracy, the road ahead for Bhutan is a challenging one. Economically hit by the pandemic and amidst lack of employment opportunities, the ‘last Shangri-La’ is also grappling with the need to preserve its traditions while embracing modernity. Its youth are migrating abroad in large numbers, even as Bhutan is striving to inculcate a spirit of service among them with the King introducing the concept of ‘national service’. Amid this period of change, Bhutan would also be seeking to ensure it does not get pulled into the India-China geostrategic battle. While Bhutan now has diplomatic relations with 55 countries, it has chosen not to establish diplomatic ties with the P-5 nations.

Undeniably, Beijing’s overtures to Thimphu on the boundary issue and its relentless pressure to establish diplomatic ties have set the alarm bells ringing in India. With its security interests intrinsically tied to Bhutan, India knows well that Beijing is not averse to using strong-arm tactics with Thimphu. It’s the reason why India, while protecting its own strategic interests, has been perceived as a security guarantor for Bhutan, which has neither the diplomatic heft nor the military resources to counter Chinese muscle-flexing.

The tense 73-day troop face-off between India and China in 2017 at Doklam — close to the Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan trijunction — is a case in point. The Indian Army had then intervened to stop the Chinese People’s Liberation Army from constructing a road on Bhutanese territory, typical of Beijing’s ‘salami slicing’ tactics, in a bid to add strategic depth to its narrow Chumbi Valley, which juts down between Sikkim and Bhutan. India remains acutely wary of China’s tactics to coerce Bhutan into resolving their bilateral boundary dispute, which could have security ramifications for it. If China, for instance, gains total control over the Doklam region, it can easily threaten India’s narrow and strategically vulnerable Siliguri corridor, which links its mainland to its North-East.

China has for long been gradually encroaching on Bhutanese territory, building roads and settlements. In 2020, Beijing had sprung another surprise on both Thimphu and Delhi, staking its claims to the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Bhutan, which until then was not even considered disputed territory.

Bhutan has steadfastly maintained during diplomatic discussions that it will keep India’s security interests in mind. The Himalayan kingdom has, over the years, kept its word, not establishing diplomatic relations with China and resisting pressure from Beijing to forge closer relations. This may, however, no longer be possible as Bhutan deals with a changing world. As a sovereign nation, Bhutan is well within its rights to resolve its boundary issue with China. But it should do so on its own terms, while not compromising Indian strategic interests.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

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