As Chinese and Indian security forces square off on a remote plateau in the Himalaya mountains, it is has become clear over two months into the showdown that it’s not really about China building a road in an area disputed between China and Bhutan.
As always when China is involved in a confrontation near or across its frontiers — be it the border war with India in 1962, skirmishes with the Soviets along the Amur river in 1969, or military raids across Vietnam’s northern border in 1979 — there is a hidden political agenda.
In 1962, China wanted to assert its influence in the Third World where until then India had been a leading voice. In 1969, China had to show it would not hesitate to challenge their main enemy at that time, “the Soviet revisionists”, by military means. In 1979, China sought to “punish” Vietnam for intervening in Cambodia and ousting the pro-Beijing Khmer Rouge regime.
This time, China is attempting to drive a wedge between Bhutan and its traditional ally India, China’s main and traditional geopolitical rival. Most recently, China is frustrated with India’s reluctance to join its One Belt One Road infrastructure development initiative. Unresolved border issues are another bilateral problem, as is the long-time presence of the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan government in exile in India.
In June, Chinese construction workers protected by People’s Liberation Army soldiers moved into the Doklam plateau, an area which the Bhutanese claim as their territory and which the Chinese call Donglang and likewise claim as theirs. India does not claim Doklam, but supports Bhutan on the unresolved border issue.
Less than 50 kilometers from the stand-off area is the Bhutanese town of Haa, the center for the Indian Military Training Team, or IMTRAT, which is responsible for training the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA). Doklam is also located on the western flank of the Chumbi valley, the narrow salient between western Bhutan and the mountainous Indian state of Sikkim.
Any Chinese attempt to widen that corridor, giving its security forces more room to maneuver in a sensitive border area, would be perceived as a threat to India’s security.
India obviously interpreted China’s move as a provocation and moved troops into the disputed area to disrupt the construction of the road. China has not said why it is building the road in an area it claims to have held for “centuries.” The sensitive construction comes at a time China is revving up its US$1 trillion One Belt One Road global infrastructure building spree.
India’s reaction to the roadworks may have been exactly what the Chinese wanted. It appears that India was left with no choice but to walk right into a diplomatic trap. The move has made India appear as the belligerent party and at the same time caused concern in Bhutan where India’s military presence is a politically sensitive issue.
There is currently a good all-weather road down the Chumbi valley. Nathula, the mountain pass where China meets the Indian state of Sikkim, is already a major post for cross-border trade with India and many Chinese goods are re-exported to Bhutan. However, direct imports from India account for 75% of Bhutan’s total trade, while 85% of its exports are sent to India.
There is some trade across the Bhutan border with China as well, with Bhutanese carrying medicinal herbs on yak or horseback to China and returning with electronics and other manufactures. But the volume of that trade is small and the road China intends to build does not appear to be for expanding trade — especially since Bhutan and China, despite more than twenty rounds of talks, have not yet demarcated their shared border.
In recent years China had begun courting Bhutan, the only neighboring country with which Beijing does not yet have diplomatic relations. That courtship, some analysts suggest, could reset the prevailing India-dominated balance of power in the Himalayas.
Throughout modern history, Bhutan has depended heavily on India. The tiny Himalayan kingdom is tied to Delhi through treaties signed with the British colonial power in 1910 and independent India in 1949 and 2007.
The first two treaties gave Bhutan a high degree of internal autonomy but its foreign relations were still guided by India, in effect making it an Indian protectorate. The 2007 treaty granted Bhutan more independence over its foreign affairs.
India not only trains the Royal Bhutan Army, but also pays the salaries of its troops. And the Border Road Organization, an outfit affiliated with the Indian Army, has built roads all over Bhutan. For India’s security planners, Bhutan is of utmost strategic importance as it lies south of the crest of the Himalayas, or the northern line of defense against China.
China’s claim to territories south of that defense line was the pretext for a massive Chinese attack in 1962, where Chinese troops invaded large areas in the eastern Himalayas and then withdrew after inflicting a crushing defeat on Indian army units in the area.
Despite its long-time dependence on India, Bhutan has in recent decades gained more independence. It became a member of the United Nations in 1971 and its 2007 treaty with India — a revised version of that signed in 1949 — states only that the two countries “shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interests of the other.”
In a bid to counter India’s influence in Bhutan, China has deployed its usual “soft diplomacy.” Chinese circus artists, acrobats and footballers have recently traveled to Bhutan, and a limited number of Bhutanese students have received scholarships to study in China.
Tourism has expanded as well. Nineteen Chinese tourists visited Bhutan a decade ago; now it is more than 9,000 a year, or 19% of its annual total arrivals. Chinese travelers have become a major source of income for the small kingdom of less than a million people.
Last August, Bhutan and China representatives met for yet another round of border talks. According to a statement issued by the Chinese foreign ministry after the talks: “Although Bhutan and China have not established diplomatic relations yet, it will not hold back the mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries.
The Bhutanese side is willing to continue deepening exchanges in such fields as tourism, religion, culture and agriculture and further lift the cooperation level with China.”
The current conflict has thus placed Bhutan on the horns of a complicated dilemma. On June 29, the Bhutanese foreign ministry stated publicly that “[China’s] construction of the road inside Bhutanese territory is a direct violation of the agreements and affects the process of demarcating the boundary between the two countries.”
A month later, Bhutan’s ambassador to India, Vetsop Namgyel, attended a function at China’s New Delhi embassy to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. His top-level attendance was significant considering China and Bhutan do not yet share diplomatic relations.
On August 2, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a new statement saying that “the China-Bhutan boundary issue is one between China and Bhutan. It has nothing to do with India” and “India has no right to make territorial demands on Bhutan’s behalf.” India, the Chinese foreign ministry went on to say, has not only “violated China’s sovereignty” but also “challenged Bhutan’s sovereignty and independence.”
China has suggested in principle that it would give up its other territorial claims in northern Bhutan if Thimphu agrees to give up its claim to the Doklam plateau — a proposal that India would see as detrimental to its national interests and a violation of the 2007 treaty it holds with Bhutan.
At the same time, Bhutan is eager to lessen its dependence on India and show the world that it is a truly independent nation. The Doklam dispute has therefore led to mixed reactions in Bhutan. The Bhutanese don’t want the Chinese so close to home, but India’s overt intervention could be viewed as reverting to the status of an Indian protectorate.
That view could influence local electoral politics. P. Stobdan, a well-known Indian security analyst, argued in a July 11 article for the Indian website The Wire that, “the next election in Bhutan in October 2018 will be fought on pro- versus anti-Indian slogans.”
That would no doubt be music to China’s ears — and if so Beijing would have achieved exactly what it envisaged when it started constructing an obscure road to nowhere in Doklam.