Indian military standoff with China was all about Bhutan

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The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is the site of a military standoff between its giant neighbors, India and China. Photo: iStock

A ‘consensus’ was reached at a meeting in New Delhi over the weekend between the government and leaders of India’s opposition parties that the five-week long military standoff with China in the Sikkim region should be resolved peacefully.

The headlines have begun moving away from the topic as if an unseen hand is guiding. The standoff could be inching its way toward denouement.

‘De-escalation’ is the new mantra. The good part is that the clamor for war with China by hotheads in India does not reflect the official thinking (anymore).

China probably widening road in Doklam

Meanwhile, there is much greater clarity about what really happened on the ground.

First, contrary to what India media claimed, there has been no Chinese ‘intrusion’ on to India’s sacred soil. On the contrary, Indian military moved into Doklam on the China-Bhutan border, which has been under Chinese control all along.

Second, reports projected that a standoff ensued as China started building a road in Doklam. But there is evidence now that a road was already in existence for over a decade at least and China was probably widening it.

Third, India claimed that its intervention was at the request of Bhutan. China disputed the claim. Significantly, after a visit to Thimphu by the spouse of the Chinese ambassador in Delhi and her meeting with the Bhutanese king last week, Beijing maintains that Bhutan did not seek Indian military intervention.

Fourth, and most importantly, China maintains that it is within its sovereign right to build roads in an area under its control. Whereas, Indian reports sensed a ‘mission creep’ with a hidden Chinese agenda to eventually threaten the Siliguri corridor, a hundred kilometers to the south, which connects India’s restive northeast with the hinterland.

Thimphu, Bhutan map

Illustration: iStock.

However, this ‘threat perception’ appears to be based on an exaggerated notion since the Chumbi Valley in Tibet which leads toward the Indian border itself is a narrow corridor flanked by steep mountains, which India dominates. A former Indian corps commander Lt Gen KJ Singh put it this way:

‘‘Treacherous mountainous jungle terrain and (a) total absence of connectivity limits application of force levels and will reduce it to a slogging crawl. (Any) such offensives need logistic sustenance, (as the) narrow Chumbi valley, dominated on both flanks, with limited deployment spaces and acclimatization challenges is a virtual death trap. While granting credit to (the) Chinese for favorable force ratios, its actual efficacy has to be discounted as force multipliers have severe limitation in application due to weather and terrain.’’

All things taken into account, therefore, the current standoff is not so much about territory as the ‘great game’ over Bhutan.

India has been treating Bhutan as its ‘protectorate’ ever since Great Britain left the subcontinent in 1947. But lately, through the past decade or so, China started nibbling away at Indian influence by working on fault lines that had begun appearing in India-Bhutan relations over time.

India harbors a deep sense of disquiet about China’s direct dealings with Bhutan, especially on border disputes. By the military intervention in Doklam, India has inserted itself as the proverbial elephant in the room. This is one thing.

‘High-stakes’ election in Bhutan next year

Interestingly, the current standoff is playing out in the run-up to a crucial parliamentary election in Bhutan, which is due in mid-2018.

The forthcoming election will be a high stakes affair for New Delhi, which is keen that the present ‘pro-India’ Bhutanese prime minister Tshering Tobgay secures a renewed mandate. (He deposed his ‘pro-China’ predecessor Jigme Thinley in the 2013 election with some Indian manipulation from the back stage.)

To be sure, a calibrated brinkmanship seems to characterize the current standoff – in both Indian and Chinese behavior. Bhutan says nothing much.

Bhutan must be aware of the great game by its two giant neighbors over its strategic autonomy. Sadly, it is caught up in a debt trap. According to the International Monetary Fund, Bhutan’s government debt now stands at 118% of GDP, with India by far the largest creditor, accounting for 64% of Bhutan’s total debt.  Of course, much of India’s ‘aid’ effectively promoted project exports to Bhutan by Indian companies.

As a former Indian ambassador and top expert on Himalayan affairs, P Stobdan wrote last week, India’s “colonial-style approach of buying loyalty through economic aid” may not work anymore. Do not be surprised if Bhutan views China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ as the salvation – following Nepal’s footfalls.

If so, it must be the mother of all ironies because India is waging a relentless whispering campaign against the Belt and Road, warning that it leads to ‘debt trap’.

Bhutanese nationalism and resentment of Indian ‘hegemony’, is, no doubt, a strong undercurrent, and Delhi cannot ignore it much longer.

Intervention in neighboring countries to browbeat them is a grotesque foreign-policy legacy left behind by decades of successive Congress Party governments in India. It is an archaic mindset.

On Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought in refreshingly new thinking to India’s policy and a tumultuous relationship (which tragically took the life of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi) steadied almost overnight.

A similar imaginative approach is needed vis-à-vis Bhutan.

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