Will Bhutan exert its independent stand in the Doklam conflict?

Will Bhutan exert its independent stand in the Doklam conflict?

Farah Masum,

Five weeks have passed since the confrontation between China and India at Doklam, but the crisis remains unresolved. It has become an issue of pride, with no one willing to step down first and lose face.

In the meantime, China’s is gaining legal clout for its stance, while India is getting a cold shoulder from Bhutan. Bhutan reportedly never asked India for any military intervention in Doklam. On the contrary, Indian media has reported that Bhutan has requested India to withdraw its troops from there.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s high commissioner in Delhi, Abdul Basit, has met with the ambassadors of both China and Bhutan there. Delhi is rather perturbed at Thimpu’s annoyance with India for involving it in the tensions.

Well-known Indian international relations expert Bhadrakumar has said that the wife of the Chinese ambassador it Delhi met with the king of Bhutan after the crisis began. The king clearly informed the diplomat’s wife that Bhutan did not ask India to deploy troops in Doklam. Since then, China has adopted a firmer stand, according to sources.

China has taken a cautious stand since the Doklam crisis, avoiding direct military conflict, but the country’s media has taken up a hard line and have been issuing threats towards India. Initially India had made attacking statements, but now had adopted a more defensive stand. It now says that the problem can be resolved through talks.

Speaking in parliament, India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj has said that the international community will be with Delhi on the Doklam issue and hat both countries should withdraw their troops. Global Times, the mouth piece of China’s Communist Party, reacted sharply to her statement and published an editorial in this regard.

The editorial stated: “She was lying to the parliament. First, India’s invasion of Chinese territory is a plain fact. New Delhi’s impetuous action stuns the international community. No other country will support India’s aggression. Second, India’s military strength is far behind that of China. If the conflict between China and India escalates to the intensity where they row has to be resolved through military means, India will surely lose.

“India should abandon the fantasy of a long-term standoff at Doklam. China will by no means agree to the withdrawal of troops from both sides in order for talks to be held. Doklam is Chinese territory. The withdrawal of Indian troops must be a precondition for talks and China will not compromise on this stance.”

Many Indian analysts contend that Delhi has taken its Big Brother attitude with Bhutan a little too far, leading up to the prevailing crisis from which it is difficult to retract. Jayanta Ghosal writes in Kolkata’s Anandabazar Patrika, “Bhutan has asked India through diplomatic channels to withdraw those extra 2500 troops from Doklam. They have asked China the same. India’s diplomats could not imagine that Bhutan would take such a stance at this juncture of confrontation with China. Delhi had taken it for granted that this little Himalayan nation was entirely in its camp. Jawaharlal Nehru had signed a peace treaty with Bhutan in 1949. It was laid down there that Bhutan would follow India’s guidance in its foreign policy matters. Then in 2007 when Bhutan changed from monarchy to democratic rule, this clause was dropped from the treaty. In reality, Delhi hadn’t really lost any clout with Thimpu. Under Indian pressure, Bhutan even issued a demarche to China. But this latest request has perturbed India’s South Block.”

Indian security analyst and international relations expert Bhadrakumar revealed India’s motives behind the Doklam operation. In Asia Times he wrote that India is playing a new trick with the Doklam issue to influence Bhutan’s elections to take place in the middle of next year. In 2008 the country transformed from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy and the first election ushered in the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party, perceived to be pro-Chinese. In the next elections, through various means, the pro-Indian People’s Democratic Party president Tshering Tobgay was brought to power. With the party losing popularity, there is all possibility that Jigme Thinley’s party will once again will the election. Under such circumstances, the conflict with China was picked up in order to generate anti-Chinese nationalist emotions before the election.

The Doklam incident had, instead, raked up anti-Indian feelings in Bhutan. Renowned lawyer Wangchuk Singe wrote that Bhutan is much more unprotected in front of India than China. Bhutan has no connectivity with any other country other than through India. As a result, Bhutan’s trade and economy depends entire on India. Due to these geographical restrictions, Bhutan simply has to accept whatever is said about the boundary in India’s survey.

He wrote that During China-Bhutan border talks, India has repeatedly urged Bhutan to claim Doklam as its territory. Though India gave this up itself when in talks with China, it has been using Bhutan to make the claim. Bhutan is in a difficult position. Each inch of Bhutan’s land is sacred. It is natural for them to claim territory for themselves. But claiming disputed land from China simply for India’s strategic purposes, is a dangerous matter.

India had intentionally brought the Doklam issue forward as a tool against China. It had also hoped to fan up extremist Hindutva nationalist  sentiments before the presidential election as well as to cover up the military operations centred on the Kashmir issue. However, Delhi seems to have been caught in its own trap. On one hand China continues amassing its military strength along the Indian border, with its media taking on increasingly threatening tones. One the other hand, Kashmir too is in a weakened state in the face of China’s threats. China has said that if India can send troops to Doklam at Bhutan’s request, then China can consider sending troops to Kashmir at Pakistan’s request.

Bhadrakumar has said, India is at a disadvantage on the Doklam issue for four reasons and it will be difficult for it to garner international support for this. Firstly, even India’s media does not say that China has entered Indian territory. On the contrary, Indian troops have taken position in the territory claimed by Bhutan, which is under Chinese control. Secondly, India claims that the road being constructed by China in Doklam may be a security threat to India. But there had been a road there before. China is just expanding it. Thirdly, India contends at its strategic Chicken Neck or Siliguri corridor may be China’s target. Yet the hundreds of kilometers between the Chumbi valley near the site and Siliguri is absolutely rough and hard-to-access terrain, unfit for military movement. Fourthly, China is carrying out the construction on its sovereign territory. India has no justification to object.

Delhi cannot be unaware of all this. The question is, why then is India so aggressive in its stance concerning Doklam? Wangchuk Singe says that Doklam doesn’t have any extra strategic significance to Bhutan than other parts of the kingdom. But it does hold significance to India and China. Unfortunately for India, the boundaries of Sikkim, India, Tibet-China in the tri-nation junction have been demarcated a long time ago. The Doklam plateau is very important to India in its strategic military interests. It cannot fulfill that requirement through Sikkim. Without Doklam, the doors of Sikkim may close to India.

This analysis reflects Bhutan’s mindset. Singe says, one thing must be made clear. It is true that Indian forces have kept up their presence in Bhutan, India trains the Bhutanese army and arranges funding for it. But none of this is for Bhutan’s defence. It is for India’s defence. India wants to enhance Bhutan’s capabilities in order to protect its own border with China.

The crisis arising out of the Doklam issue is forcing Bhutan to take a sovereign stand. In the past China has a non-interference policy concerning South Asian nations. That is no longer so. Many in Thimpu feel that India had a secret hand in curtailing the powers of the Bhutanese king, just as it did in Nepal. By forming a parliament of pro-Indian elements, it keeps the king under pressure. By keeping him under pressure over the Doklam issue, Delhi is shutting his mouth. But that is how Sikkim lost its independence at one point of time, under such pressure. Such an unspoken fear prevails in Bhutan too.

No matter how small Bhutan may be, it can exert itself independence with Chinese support. Significant in this regard is Abdul Basit meeting with the Bhutanese and Chinese ambassadors in Delhi, the Chinese ambassador’s wife calling upon the Bhutanese king, and the call through diplomatic channels for India to withdraw its troops. Many Indian analysts apprehend this is the beginning of the end of India’s strong domination over Bhutan.