Bhutan: An atheist dragon threatens Shangri-La

By Maj. Gen. Sudhakar Jee

Weather played a spoilsport to an extent but could not stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi from visiting Bhutan even amidst the grueling election season in India.

The visit is not only important for Indo-Bhutan diplomacy but also as a strategic focus of both neighbors on the issue of ‘strategic encirclement’ by China. Security of Bhutan is important for India also as it can not allow China to sit over the safe heights of Doklam looking at Bangladesh over India’s ‘chicken neck’ – the Siliguri corridor.

The corridor is a narrow strip of land between Nepal and Bangladesh in India’s West Bengal state – 60 km long and 20 km wide that connects the North-East with the rest of India. Bhutan, thus, makes it an important buffer state for India’s security interests.

Indo-Bhutan relationship

India and Bhutan share a “special relationship” as Bhutan is a protected state, but not a ‘protectorate’ of India. The basic framework of India-Bhutan bilateral relations was the treaty of friendship and cooperation signed in 1949 between the two countries, which was revised in February 2007.

In 1949 treaty, Bhutan agreed to let India guide its foreign policy and defense affairs, reminiscent of its protected state status during the British colonial rule. In 2007, that treaty was superseded by a new friendship treaty which allowed freedom of foreign policy to Bhutan, but mandated cooperation in issues of national security interest.

India builds roads in Bhutan and trains the Royal Bhutan Army and the Royal Bodyguards of Bhutan. The five year plan of Bhutan is mostly funded by India. As India has never coveted any foreign territory in its entire history, land-locked countries like Bhutan and Nepal feel safe in the vicinity of much larger neighbor India. Importantly, defense of Bhutan from any external threat is the responsibility of India.

Chinese encroachments

India, Bhutan and China are part of a strategic triangle in the Eastern Himalayas with the inverted apex jutting in the form of the Chumbi Valley in Yadong (Yatung) county of Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Given proximity of Chumbi Valley to India’s Siliguri corridor, the two arms of the triangle resting on the Indian state of Sikkim in the West and Bhutan in the East assume importance.

The Chinese also plan to extend the Qinghai Tibet Railway to Shigatse and Yadong – around 62.8 Km north of Nathula, close to the Sino-Indian border, which have added to concerns in India.

The local equation may get disturbed in case China gains greater access to the Bhutanese arm of the triangle with an aim of resetting the China-Bhutan boundary, negotiations for which are underway.

Bhutan-China border issues

There are two areas of dispute between China and Bhutan, one falling in north-west Bhutan covering 269 sq km comprising Dokalam (89 sq km), Sinchulumpa (42 sq km) and Shakhatoe (138 sq km) and the other in north-central Bhutan covering 495 sq km in the Jakaurlung and Pasamlung valleys.

China has been looking for a package deal with Bhutan seeking areas in the North-West in exchange for the North-Central region ever since the sixth round of talks held in August 1990 disregarding the fact that the territory in the North-Central Bhutan has always been a part of the sovereign state of Bhutan.

Another major concern is the Dokalam Dispute.

Dokalam plateau is a land area of Bhutan, 18 km wide and 20 km long flat terrain giving a commanding view of the Chumbi valley, outflanking the Indian defense in Sikkim and overlooking the strategic Siliguri Corridor. It is located on the tri-junction of India-China-Bhutan border, which is just 15 km away from Nathula Pass of India.

According to the Bhutanese government, China in 2017 increased the military presence in the Dokalam region and attempted to extend the road that previously terminated at Doka La towards the Bhutan Army Camp at Jhampheri, two km to the south. The Jhampheri ridge, viewed as the border by China but falls within Bhutan, extends eastward overlooking India’s strategic Siliguri corridor. However, on June 29, 2017 Bhutan declared the Dokalam region its land and dismissed China’s claims.

Domination in the Dokalam region would lend China easy access to India’s ‘Chicken’s Neck’.

After the Dokalam standoff, the satellite images suggest that China has been developing a road about nine km east of the Doklam, through Pagdah village towards the Jhampheri ridge .

Further, Since 2020, China has claimed another 740 sq km of territory in the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Bhutan resting on the northern shoulders of the corridor connecting with northeastern states of India. Moreover, the 628 Xiaokang, all along the LAC, including the Ladakh, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh borders are now being occupied by Chinese residents.

Bhutan’s Tibet-moment

China is repeating all its tactics to woo Bhutan before it can engulf the unsuspecting country. Chinese goods are pouring into Bhutan’s market and Chinese tourists are coming in hoards as it has been given an award for being the most outstanding destination in the Chinese market in 2024.

There is also a growing demand in Bhutan to loosen dependence on India. China’s policy of mixing soft diplomacy and economic aid has already reaped rich dividends in many South Asian countries before they realized the real cost of Chinese affection and went bust.

Bhutan and China have held 25 rounds of border talks since 2016 and more than ten rounds of Expert Group Meetings to discuss a “Three-Step Roadmap” signed in October 2021. They are now inching towards finding a final resolution on the border issues.

Bhutan being treated by China as a country on the equal footing is the same ploy it employed with Tibet many decades ago. The Tibetan tried to deal with the Chinese with the soft glove while keeping India out, resulting in the unbearable pain they suffered at the hand of Chinese generals.

India’s strategic concerns

With infrastructural development, populating the border villages and claiming new territories, China has been pressuring almost all its neighbors including Russia. They play with all their plans with short, long and medium term objectives to be achieved and use multi-meaning ‘chinese proverbs’ to confuse even the well versed of the diplomats.

Bhutan will have to decide in the light of the historical facts whether it wants to get into Chinese embrace with a border agreement. There have been efforts by Chinese to ferment anti-India sentiments in both Bhutan and Nepal. Both the nations will have to see through the conspiracy being played from across the Himalaya lest they want to meet the fate of Tibet, an autonomous territory of enormous size engulfed by China without any remorse.

Simply put, Bhutan should be wary of its future. India is already worried but it has the strength and resources to counter China while Bhutan will have the option of meeting the fate of Tibet or living prosperously like the state of Sikkim which turned itself from a protectorate to full fledged India state in 1975. One side is offering the choice while the other offers Hobson’s choice – make your decision lest it’s too late.


 

 

Maj Gen Sudhakar Jee, VSM, is a former colonel of the Mahar Regiment who superannuated in 2020 after more than 37 years of active service. He has commanded troops in varied terrain, climate, and conflict zones. Currently, he is pursuing a doctoral thesis on the India-China border dispute.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times

Images courtesy of Quora and Image provided

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