The international community heaved a sigh of relief after a joint announcement last week from Beijing and New Delhi that their respective troops have withdrawn to positions as on June 16, from Doklam area located at the Bhutan-China-India tri-junction. The Chinese call it Dong Lang. The 55sqkm of plateau under effective Chinese control is actually disputed between Bhutan and China.
Trouble brewed when Indian troops stopped a Chinese road construction crew on June 16 from extending a road on this narrow plateau. India seemingly ordered troops into the area without a request from Bhutan. They remained in confrontational exchange for nearly ten weeks.
India’s sensitivity towards Chinese presence in the south of Doklam Plateau is understandable. The disputed area slopes into a narrow Indian valley and is perilously close to the Siliguri Corridor — about 20km at its narrowest point that connects India’s main landmass with its land-locked northeastern states. As the 1962 drubbing by China remains fresh in India’s narrative, India fears that China could seize it in a war, cutting off 45 million Indians and an area the size of United Kingdom.
Underlying the dispute over a small sliver of land the deeper question is how China wants to relate to Bhutan. Currently, Bhutan’s relations are heavily tilted in Indian’s favour allowing India, under a treaty, to guide Bhutan’s foreign policy. China’s interest lies in a change of status quo in their relations. Shyam Saran, India’s former foreign secretary, believes that the purpose of Chinese move is to weaken the Bhutan-India alliance and compel Bhutan to negotiate directly with China. Any incremental move by Bhutan towards an independent foreign policy position is China’s win. The standoff was therefore symptomatic of the growing competition between China and India over their regional and global role.
The Bhutan-India special relationship started in the wake of Chinese occupation of Tibet during the late 1950s. China’s phenomenal economic growth compels Bhutan to look north at India’s expense. Even though Bhutan’s requirements may be small, China’s ability to penetrate markets outmatches that of India. Many in Bhutan therefore resent India’s covert attempts to block Bhutan’s desire to establish trade and diplomatic relations with Beijing.
Being a neighbouring state, Bhutan can draw immediate benefits by opening towards China. In addition to the border trade, there is tourism, one of Bhutan’s biggest money-spinners. Indians do not need visas to travel to Bhutan, but Chinese must pay $250 (Dh919.5) a day in advance for vacation packages. Still, for the first time last year, more visitors came from China than from any other country besides India.
The Sino-Indian standoff undermined the Bhutan-China border negotiations and has again blocked Bhutan’s way to closer economic cooperation with China. A clearly unnerved Bhutan, a small state with little capacity to defend itself, does not want to be drawn into a row involving its two giant neighbours.
While the Sino-Indian mutual withdrawal from Doklam has averted a crisis, the problem of boundary demarcation remains for Bhutan and China to resolve. Bhutan is in a bind. Seemingly willing to negotiate the territorial dispute with China but continues to be saddled with India’s pressure to remain tough on China. Facing a difficult choice between India’s virtual control over its foreign policy and China’s insistence to deal independently of India, opinion on dealing with China independently of India is gaining ground in Bhutan. The Sino-Indian standoff demonstrates Bhutan’s vulnerabilities. The Chinese proximity to Siliguri is a threat, but weaning Bhutan away from India may be a bigger political gain.
India is wary of the risks of allowing Bhutan a freer hand in dealing with China. They note that within a decade, China has firmly entrenched itself as an influential player in neighbouring Nepal and fear Bhutan could be next.
In this context, next year’s parliamentary elections in Bhutan will be critical when Bhutanese would have an opportunity to vent their concerns over how far their country can continue to be branded as India’s protectorate. In fact, China subtly promotes this debate through its economic clout and public diplomacy.
As the two sides wisely chose to negotiate away from the public glare it is assumed that the urgency of the breakthrough came due to the Brics Summit — involving Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — which China hosted last Sunday to Tuesday. It would have been extremely odd for Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to allow the border standoff to upstage summit success.
Bhutan must be extremely relieved at what appears to be a China backdown and yet remain concerned at any possible reccurrence of such incidents, where it will have no control. While time remains on China’s side, Bhutan would want to push for a resolution of its borders with China as early as possible.
Mutual empathy and accommodation of each other’s concern have contributed to withdrawals to agreed positions. Bhutan and China now need to muster political will, keeping India’s security interests in view and resolve the contentious issues shorn of external influences.
Sajjad Ashraf is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973-2008 and served as Pakistan’s Consul General in Dubai during the mid 1990s.