The confrontation in Doklam must not be allowed to lead to another Himalayan war.
Although often carried away by enthusiasm, Subramanian Swamy could not be faulted for telling a TV channel that India “needs long-term engagements with China for the benefit of both nations”. Contrary to speculation, the Malabar 2017 exercises by the Indian, Japanese and US navies in the Bay of Bengal that ended on Monday can only further that objective. In fact, if Oliver Cromwell’s aphorism about trusting in God and keeping your powder dry were adapted to Sino-Indian relations, the trust would be in strength, goodwill and diplomacy, while the powder is kept dry.
The confrontation in Doklam must not be allowed to lead to another Himalayan war. But neither can India again be taken by surprise as over the Tibet-Xinjiang road built through the Aksai Chin plateau when no one was looking. Doklam, which both Bhutan and China claim, is at the tip of the Chumbi Valley that Sir Charles Bell, Britain’s political officer responsible for Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan, called “a dagger aimed at the heart of India”. It has long been known that this trijunction was the real stumbling block in the China-Bhutan talks. The Chogyals of Sikkim had their summer palace in Chumbi, which a Sikkimese official administered.
In 1890 the crumbling Celestial Empire’s Manchu envoy, who did as his British secretary advised, signed the Anglo-Chinese convention whereby China recognised Sikkim as a British protectorate in return for Britain recognising Chumbi as China’s, thereby also accepting Chinese overlordship over Tibet. Sikkim and Tibet were not consulted, and rejected the convention. But who cared? Although the British gave Chumbi to China, they delineated its western boundary with Sikkim along a 14,500-ft ridge that gives Indian troops full view of Chinese military fortifications and troop movements in the entire valley. China is trying to counter this advantage with a road on Chumbi’s eastern boundary with Bhutan.
China’s then PM Zhou Enlai didn’t anticipate this strategic need when asked about Chinese claims to the Dragon Kingdom at his New Delhi press conference on April 30, 1960. “I am sorry to disappoint,” he retorted. “We have no claim with regard to Bhutan, nor do we have any dispute with it. You may recall that in its letters to the Indian government, the Chinese government twice mentioned that China has no boundary dispute with Sikkim and Bhutan and that China respects India’s special relations with Sikkim and Bhutan.” According to the Chinese version, Zhou said “proper” and not “special” relations. The distinction is interesting, for “special” is not always “proper”.
Contradicting Zhou’s denial of any dispute with Bhutan, the two countries have held 23 rounds of talks since 1984 without resolving differences along the undemarcated 470-km border. While Thimphu might keep New Delhi in the picture, the talks are bilateral with no scope for an Indian role. Clause 2 of the 1949 Indo-Bhutanese treaty stated that Bhutan would be guided by India’s “advice” in conducting its foreign policy. The 2007 treaty of peace and friendship in perpetuity which replaced the 1949 treaty spoke instead of “abiding ties of close friendship and cooperation” and committed both governments to not allowing their territory to be used “for activities harmful to the national security and interests of the other”. Not only is China, the Dragon Kingdom’s only other neighbour, denied a foothold in Bhutan, but despite the continuing border talks, the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations.
Bhutanese reports indicate China is prepared to discuss all other sectors of the border except the Doklam plateau, where it claims 269 sq km of Bhutanese territory. The contested area sticks like a dagger into the narrow strip of land called Chicken’s Neck, or Siliguri corridor, which connects India’s Northeast to the rest of the country. A successful Chinese military thrust into this area could split India. There are three other territorial disputes in western Bhutan. China probably also views Haa Dzong (castle) with suspicion since this seat of the once powerful Dorjee clan of the King’s half-Sikkimese grandmother, Ashi Kesang Wangchuck, now houses the Indian Military Training Team.
In 1996 China reportedly offered to exchange this 269 sq km stretch for the 495 sq km that it claims in the north-central sector of Bumthang. Whether on their own or at India’s urging, both King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan’s fourth Dragon King, and his son, the present monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, have rejected the offer. Indian reports indicate Bhutan sought India’s help when it discovered the Chinese were building a motorable road “inside Bhutanese territory” towards the Royal Bhutanese Army camp at Zornpelri. The Chinese had reportedly already built what Bhutan’s media calls “a major road till the Yadong town in the Chumbi valley”. Small, landlocked, vulnerable and entirely dependent on India both economically and for access to the world, Bhutan is understandably playing it very cautiously. It cannot afford to provoke China. Priding themselves on being India’s best friend in South Asia, the Bhutanese know that India sees its own security as being tied up with the Dragon Kingdom’s.
Jawaharlal Nehru warned in the Lok Sabha in 1959: “We have publicly, and rightly, undertaken certain responsibilities for the defence of Sikkim and Bhutan, if they are attacked. It is very necessary for us to understand that if anything happens on their borders, then it is the same thing as an interference with the border of India.” That is still India’s position.
Geography will not allow Bhutan to escape the complexities of Sino-Indian relations. But it would be illogical of India not to mend fences with its closest neighbour and biggest trading partner. An economically and militarily stronger India can only stabilise the balance without any need for media militancy or sabre-rattling bombast.