Abhijit Bhattacharyya | Bhutan, India and Dragon: Himalayan crisis simmers

The Asian Age.

Opinion, Columnists

The King of Bhutan had to rush to New Delhi last week to restore confidence and re-strengthen the economic and security relationship

This handout photograph taken on April 4, 2023 and released by the Indian Press Information Bureau (PIB) shows Bhutan's King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (L) walking along with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting in New Delhi. (Photo: PIB)

Whatever was Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering even thinking of when he made his avoidable comment in Brussels a while ago on the “2017 Chinese intrusion in Doklam”, wherein he was reported to have said that “it’s not up to Bhutan to solve the problem”. He went on: “We are three… We don’t encounter major border problems with China”.

Perhaps unwittingly, by making China the third party and criticising New Delhi, Mr Tshering’s remarks sound utterly naïve and gullible. His line that “India, China have problems all along the border” didn’t help much either. No wonder that the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, had to rush to New Delhi last week to restore confidence and re-strengthen the economic and security relationship.

What actually transpired, off the record, in the King’s talks in Delhi with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others is understandably shrouded in secrecy due to Dragon’s entry as third party in what always used to be purely bilateral matter.

The question, therefore, is, is Mr Tshering alone responsible for the fiasco? Certainly not; his words only reflected his naivety; that he was taken in by the worldview of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) supreme dictator, Xi Jinping and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that he commands. It’s the PLA, with its two other wings, which are determined to cross the Himalayas for access to the Indian Ocean through the topography of South Asia. Beijing has been playing this malicious game for a very long time. The Hans’ insatiable hunger for territory acquisition, particularly of “weak neighbours”, lies at the root: the DNA the PLA follows, “Destroy Nations Around”. They have been at it since 1949, the very founding of the People’s Republic.

Just peruse this checklist: “Destroy neighbour’s border-geography; break economy; enhance poverty; fracture society; capture remote territory; drown small neighbour like Pakistan into irreversible beggary/poverty; instigate tertiary tribal fraternity; bribe benign neighbour’s unscrupulous traders to sabotage industry and compel their state to resort to reckless import of Chinese goodies; disburse astronomical “non-returnable” loans to rival’s greedy businessmen to push them into bankruptcy. Neighbours will automatically surrender land for short-term economic gain”. This is the essence of China’s “Belt and Road” strategy. This is a warning bell for India: one that Delhi can only ignore at its peril.

Bhutan, therefore, is a bitter test case today which needs deft, firm handling. Communist China simply cannot be allowed to bulldoze its way into the age-old close relationship between Delhi and Thimphu, which have stood the test of time since 1947. What Beijing’s trying to do today is nothing but a replay of British imperialism and its “divide and rule” tactics: in this case, trying to drive a wedge between India and Bhutan.

President Xi Jinping has got particularly emboldened of late, flexing his muscles and trying to win over Western leaders like France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz with economic blandishments for companies like Mercedes Benz, Audi and Airbus to break Western unity; having already turned Russia’s beleaguered Vladimir Putin into a perceived camp follower. After this, India, with its $105 billion annual trade deficit with China, would be a pushover. Or, so Beijing thought, enabling it to assert control all along India’s borders and periphery! Newspapers like South China Morning Post and certain Western media outlets mockingly commented on India’s precarious position facing the multi-front assault from Xi’s battalions.

In reality, China took advantage of India’s retreat from Bhutan’s economy. What Delhi must do now is double back and enhance and expand Bhutan’s economy by giving full support to Thimphu’s Five-Year plans. From 1961 to 1971 (when Bhutan entered the UN) India’s contribution to Himalayan kingdom’s First and Second Five-Year Plan was 100 per cent of total budget allocations. Subsequently, this had dwindled to 21 per cent in Eleventh Plan (2013-2018). This mistake we cannot afford to repeat.

Contextually, one must not forget some of the history relating to the region too. Way back in 1939, Mao Zedong, who then was deep into civil war, referred to Bhutan as “lost territory”. Earlier, in 1904, Beijing’s envoy to Lhasa had called Bhutan the “Gateway to the South”, meaning India. This should have made it clear that Bhutan is a vital factor in India’s security and safety, and we cannot accept any form of Chinese control there. If we give China the slightest leeway, it will try to penetrate into the Indian mainland through tiny, landlocked Bhutan. Like it or not, the geography extending from Bhutan to India’s Bengal constitutes the “Elephant’s Neck”, and not necessarily Chicken’s Neck. It’s the most vulnerable and delicate terrain where no alien presence can be tolerated.

Any entry by Dragon into the Druk homeland will inevitably lead to a fresh China-India conflict, like the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. It would be repeat 1962 treachery by Communist China. That’s why it would be a mistake to underplay or ignore Mr Tshering’s recent remarks. There is a diabolical deception behind CPC-PLA’s land grab game-plan, a neo-imperialist strategy in the guise of benevolent altruism.

Delhi must clearly advise Thimphu to course correct. The Dragon can never be allowed to enter the sub-Himalayan terrain to grab and cut Bhutan and the physical geography of Bharat-Bhutan Elephant’s Neck. India got the severest jolt in 1950 when the peace and tranquility of the Himalayas came to an abrupt end with the PLA’s ruthless conquest of sovereign Tibet (Xizang). The land of the lamas was destroyed and its people turned into serfs by Mao and his minions. Bhutan has ever since then been in the PLA’s line of fire.

Now, a new irritant has been initiated with Xi Jinping’s nefarious design to rename some spots of India’s geography — in the Northeast state of Arunachal Pradesh — with some vague, nonsensical versions. But remember, India too can play the game. In a tit-for-tat response, why can’t the official spokesman of the ministry of external affairs announce that India recognises new names: let Western Tibet be renamed as “Zorawar Singh Pradesh” and the territory adjacent to Nathu La and Doklam as the “14th Dalai Lama la”?

One would love to hear what the foreign ministry’s spokesman in Beijing might have to say, and let the entire world enjoy the choicest, entertaining expletives and tantrums of the Communist giant.

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