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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2861

China’s Bhutan Feint!

By Malladi Rama Rao
New Delhi, 15 July (

Beijing has the panache for doing things simultaneously with a view to engage in diplomatic signalling. Dragon’s transgressions vis-à-vis India fall into this pattern; interestingly, these moves have come to coincide with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits abroad, particularly the United States. Like the latest Doklam show off when Modi was visiting Washington and Tel Aviv!

Doklam is a narrow plateau of Bhutan abutting the tri-junction between China, Bhutan and India. It is roughly 15 kilometers from the Nathu La pass that separates India and China. Says Ambassador of Bhutan to India Vetsop Namgyel: “Bhutan has a written agreement with China that pending the final resolution of the boundary issue, peace and tranquillity should be maintained in the Doklam area”. China has violated this 'peace agreement' by trying to construct roads in Doklam.

Well, you cannot deny that there is a method to Chinese madness whether on the diplomatic front or the board room, where the bottom-line matters. It is, indeed, no more than deception.

Sinologists are unanimous that developments’ flowing from PLA’s intrusion into Bhutanese territory in June 2007 by construction of a memorable road is an attempt to quietly extend the footprint into Indian territory. Also a signal to Bhutan that Thimphu should not get too close to New Delhi. Turn of events show that Bhutan did not pick up the signal.

Past precedence in transgressions was for governments to seek the diplomatic route to resolve the issue leaving the Chinese firmly in control of the territory they occupy. Recent indications are that Beijing is willing to apply military force to make its case, like it did twice in the years gone by --in 1967 (Nathu La and Cho La clashes) and 1987 (Sumdorong Chu Valley skirmishes), but this time around the Chinese have other things to worry about.

Essentially there are two reasons for Chinese aggressiveness in the Doklam area. First the perceived closeness that India is showing with the US. Second the increased global popularity of Prime Minister Modi, a hark back to the Chinese dislike of the global popularity of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. That said, while China engages in cartographic aggression in Bhutan, it finds that India has stepped in and is quite willing to stay the course as far as its military options are concerned. This is what makes all the difference.

Some time ago the Chinese People’s Daily had blithely argued that India and China needed to get over the colonial era boundaries and seek new ways to settle disputes. Yet, China is now using the 1890 Anglo-China Convention to assert its claim to Doklam which drew the line upto Mount Gipmochi (Gyamochen). This line was demarcated on the ground in 1895.

China has for many years worked to influence Bhutan to do a package deal on the boundary. But Bhutan withstood these pressure. India has, of course, kept its side of the promise under the 1949 and 2007 friendship treaty to protect Bhutanese sovereignty. India and Bhutan are the only two countries with whom China has not settled the boundary!

Bhutan does not have the wherewithal to cover every inch of its mountainous territory. So, it relies on India. In fact, this cooperation is not one-sided. Both countries help each other whenever the need arises. Pertinent to recall is the “Operation All-Clear” which the Royal Bhutanese Army and Indian Army jointly launched in 2003-2004 to clear the camps of Assam rebel group, ULFA, and Bodo rebel group, NDFB, in southern Bhutan. From another perspective, India and Bhutan need to work together on a whole range of issues on the strategic front.

The Doklam incident has highlighted the closeness of India and Bhutan once again. Thimphu turned to Delhi at the first signs of the standoff, and met with positive response as always.

The latest Chinese exhortation to Sikkim, to declare independence is clearly an interference in India’s internal affairs. It is possible that China could be stoking the fires in the Darjeeling Hills of West Bengal for a separate Gorkhaland, thus indicating that the Dragon may well be looking to use Doklam as a diversionary tactic when its real intentions lie elsewhere.

The strategic Siliguri corridor forms part of the Darjeeling belt. Known as Chicken’s neck, it connects India’s north east with the rest of the country.

The short point is the possibilities are really endless, but the India bashing coupled with homilies in Global Times and other China papers clearly indicate that the Chinese are peeved at the Indian response to their actions.

Over the years, China has worked assiduously towards a dual approach towards India. This entails working the diplomatic wheel while persisting with intrusion and transgression. India must prepare an aggressive plan to become a strategic powerhouse ready to tackle any threat to its Siliguri Corridor.

Having gone the whole hog with regard to the Doklam incident, China is attempting to blame India for the trouble. India has always had the capability to fight the Chinese, recall the battle of Rezang La (a mountain pass to Chushul Valley in Ladakh) in 1962 and subsequently in 1967 at Nathu La.

What is different this time is the global situation. Just as the US and its allies are divided over what to do about Russia, there is a divide on North Korea. This creates complications for India’s dealings with China.

That per se sums up the history of India-China relations in the present. The positives in bilaterals, however, continue to engage both nations as their leaders met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg and that is the best way forward. India should keep its guard up and ensure that it is not caught wanting anywhere else.

Geo-politics being what it is, attention span of global leaders depends on the situation nearer home and its impact on foreign policy goals. While it makes perfect sense for President Xi Jinping to make noises in the South China Sea and with India, the world’s attention is on North Korea.

Put simply, the Chinese dream is not coming on as it should, and this worries Xi ahead of the Party Congress in October.

-Asian Tribune -

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