India-China standoff over Bhutan remains intractable

India-China standoff over Bhutan remains intractable

P K Balachandran,

India is trying not to enter into a slanging match with China over the military standoff at Doklam on the Bhutan-Tibet border in the hope that China will soon stop its threatening rhetoric and agree to settle the border dispute through talks. But in the past two weeks, during which the crisis has billowed beyond expectations, China has only increased its belligerence issuing new threats every other day.

Beijing began with a threat to crush India as it did in the previous military clash in 1962. It then went on to say that India’s control over Sikkim and Bhutan is illegitimate; that it is time Sikkim and Bhutan revolted against Indian rule or hegemony with Chinese support; that New Delhi should remember that its hold on the North Eastern states bristling with insurgencies is tenuous; and finally that China could intervene in Kashmir militarily if Pakistan wanted it.

China has not ruled out talks, but has put conditions which India cannot accept without losing face both at home and abroad.

China has repeatedly said in response to entreaties from the Indian media, that for talks to begin, India should first withdraw its troops from the disputed area unilaterally. China is doggedly holding on to the contention that the border, based on the 1890 agreement between the British Raj and Tibet, is settled and demarcated on the ground, though the markers are no longer there due to the weather conditions or local thieves.

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If India accepts this condition, it is tantamount to accepting that it had committed aggression by getting into Doklam in the first place. The other humiliating aspect of the Chinese condition is that the withdrawal should be unilateral. That is, India will withdraw and China will not. This means that India will not have even symbolic parity at the talks table.

If India agrees to these conditions, it will have forfeited its claim that the border at Doklam is disputed and is to be settled through talks; and also that it has no automatic right to respond to Bhutan’s appeal for help to check China’s attempt to grab its territory.

This is tantamount to nullifying the 2007 Indo-Bhutan agreement which says that the two sides “shall cooperate closely on issues relating to their national interest.” India’s military involvement in Doklam flows from this aspect of the agreement.

China wants this aspect of Bhutan’s relations with India to be nullified because it facilitates India’s involvement in Bhutan’s affairs to the detriment of China sometimes, as in the present case. China has long been trying to have dealings with Bhutan with the aim of disentangling it from India and make it a Chinese satellite.

Bhutan shares a border with the Tibet region of China and India. The Chumbi valley between Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan, tapers into an area which is only 30 kms form the Siliguri corridor known which is the “chicken neck” linking mainland India with the North Eastern states.

China has been building infrastructure in Chumbi valley including a 29km road in what Bhutan and India consider to be disputed territory but China does not and insists that it is part of Tibet. Over the years, China has been claiming parcels of Bhutanese territory for its infrastructure projects and Bhutan has being giving in to the China’s demands.

India, which was turning a blind eye to it out of helplessness, woke up to the dangers inherent in China’s moves when the Chinese lengthened the road towards the Siliguri corridor.

Also Read: No room for negotiations, Doklam border line is bottom line, says China’s mouthpiece

According to China, India intervened on its own to protect its interests and coerced the Bhutanese to ask the Chinese to stop construction of the road. As a Xinhua editorial of July 14 written by Qu Junya, Xiong Ping, and Tang Lu pointed out, there is no evidence of Bhutan’s asking India to intervene.

India agrees that the border here has been settled by the pact of 1890, but there is a dispute as to where exactly the border in the Doklam lies. The Indian and Chinese perceptions of the actual line differ. Therefore, it is better that the matter is thrashed out in talks. India also insists that it is obliged to respond to ally Bhutan’s request for help.

New Delhi is worried that any dilution of India’s rights in this regard will seriously affect its relations with Bhutan which began as an Indian Protectorate in 1949 and became gradually more and more independent. But even the present diluted strategic relationship gives India the right to expect the Bhutanese government to be supportive of its national interest.

If India is threatened by Chinese intrusions, it should be able to seek Bhutanese cooperation to safeguard those interests. Conversely, Bhutan should be able to count on India’s help when China makes threatening moves. If India is unable to meet its needs, Bhutan will have no option but to seek accommodation or a modus vivendi with China.

In fact, Bhutan has been seeking accommodation with China for some years now by giving in to its territorial demands. It has been doing this partly because it is non-too-happy with the asymmetrical relationship with India based on heavy economic and financial dependence on the big brother. India has been buying up Bhutan’s loyalty by extending huge loans and grants. Dependence on India is abject with 90% of Bhutan’s exports going to India and 75% of its imports coming from India.

Bhutan’s relations with India was good till it was a Kingdom. But since the end of the monarchy in 2007, it has been wanting to pursue an independent foreign policy with wider and greater ties with the world beyond India. This irked New Delhi so much that it slapped economic sanctions to influence a parliamentary election in 2013. The sanctions drew heavy flak from the Bhutanese who have become increasingly wary of India. If they are restrained now it is only because they fear annexation as it happened in the case of Sikkim in 1975.

Also Read: India shooting off Bhutan’s shoulders!

Therefore, India is in a bind. On the one hand, it has to stand up to China’s bullying to keep its hegemony over Bhutan. It has to ensure that the Chinese do not come too close to the Siliguri Corridor and threaten its control over the North Eastern states which are already troubled by insurgencies. On the other hand, it cannot have a military confrontation with a vastly more powerful China and lose in the process. Any manifest military loss will mean loss of credibility in Bhutan, Sikkim and the rest of South Asia.

Dr. Hu Shisheng, Director of China’s Institute of South, South East Asian and Oceanic Studies told the Times of India that there is no way China will deviate from its set condition for talks. A unilateral Indian withdrawal has become a matter of principle and also public prestige for the Chinese government. India also cannot climb down because it cannot lose face either, Hu said.

He does not think that the meeting between the Indian and Chinese National Security Advisors in Beijing on July 26, will bring an end to the standoff and initiate talks.

A military showdown is on the cards, Hu says. But the coming winter may turn out to be a mitigating factor. The severe winter in the region may force the two militaries to temporarily withdraw from the area. But a sense of honor will bring them back again to eye ball to eye ball confrontation once the winter ends.