THE Doklam plateau, which was the scene of a 72-day tense standoff between the Indian Army and the Chinese PLA in 2017, has been in the news this year. Bhutanese PM Lotay Tshering said in an interview to a Belgian publication in March that China was an equal party to the boundary dispute in this region, regarding the location of the tri-junction between India-China-Bhutan. This would have seemed innocuous enough, were it not for the fact that by tacitly accepting the need to trilaterally discuss the Chinese claim lines in its south-west region neighbouring India, Bhutan is treading on India’s core security concerns. The Chinese have laid claim to areas up till Mount Gyemochen in south-east Sikkim. This lies around 8 km further south of Batang La, the present tri-junction, and the claim covers the entire area of the Doklam plateau, comprising 60-odd square km of undulating terrain, which lies in the Haa district of Bhutan. Any shifting of the tri-junction south will not only make Doklam Chinese territory, but their boundary would then rest on the Jampheri ridge, the highest feature in this area after which the mountain ranges roll southwards for 40 km through Bhutan, before reaching the border with India, on the northern edge of the Siliguri corridor.
Incidentally, the only settled border along the entire stretch of 3,488 km of the LAC was in Sikkim. The joint statement issued during Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in 2005 clearly stated that China recognised “Sikkim state of the Republic of India”. Wen even handed over an official map of the People’s Republic of China to the Indian PM, accepting the legitimacy of the India-China border in Sikkim. The 220-km-long boundary in this sector starts at the tri-junction between India, Bhutan and China, at Batang La in south-east Sikkim and then runs north along the Dongkya range. It is this point at Batang La which China now wants to push further south, thereby claiming the entire Doklam and getting closer to India’s Siliguri corridor, which connects the country to its North-East.
In June 2017, when the Indian Army crossed the watershed at Doka La into Bhutanese territory to physically stop the PLA from constructing a road towards the Jampheri ridge, the Bhutanese government had been somewhat subdued in their denouncement of the Chinese intrusion. China has also occupied areas in western Bhutan across the Amo Chu river and settled three border villages, thereby broadening the tip of the Chumbi Valley, which lies between India and Bhutan. Surprisingly, the Bhutanese government has denied that there are Chinese installations within its territories.
Apparently to soothe frayed tempers in Delhi, the King of Bhutan, on a three-day visit to India in the first week of April, made all the politically correct gestures and the joint statement reiterated that “India and Bhutan share an exemplary relationship, which is characterised by trust, goodwill and mutual understanding”.
Looking beyond this, it is apparent that Bhutan sees building bridges with China as imperative. Its Foreign Minister mentioned an early resolution of border disputes with China, on the sidelines of the Indian Ocean Conference at Dhaka, on May 13. It may be more than willing to trade off the Doklam territory, including some pockets east of Amo Chu where Chinese villages have come up, in exchange for the much larger disputed areas of Pasalmlung and Jakarlung, totalling about 500 sq km, along its northern border with China. It may also be looking at greater economic benefits by further opening relations with China. The Bhutanese monarchy has mostly been pro-India in its public stance. However, given the internal complexities of the ‘Hermit Kingdom’, where the influence of the monarchy and the monastic order may be waning somewhat, the aspirations of an increasingly democratic Bhutan cannot be wished away.
Still, India has a lot going for it in this part of its geography. The threat to the Siliguri corridor due to the sudden decrease in width as the Indian territory extends eastwards, with Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan hedging in this area from the west, east and north, is overhyped. The shortest expanse is 20 km between the border checkpoints of Kakarbhitta on the India-Nepal border and Changrabandha on the India-Bangladesh border. The width of the Indian territory between Bhutan and Bangladesh is 43 km at its narrowest. From Jampheri, in south Bhutan, it is over 40 km of undeveloped mountainous terrain till the Indian border.
The Indian territory may well be visible from Jampheri through high-powered optical devices, but the PLA can observe it just as easily from much further north through satellites and high-altitude drones and engage it with various long-range systems, if required.
The real Indian strength lies in the umbilical economic linkages and it would be difficult if not impossible for China to replicate India-Bhutan ties in this aspect. Power from Chukha, Tala, Mangdechhu and other hydel projects built with Indian assistance is generated mostly to India, yielding a steady source of income to Bhutan. Further, the Bhutanese Ngultrum and Indian Rupee are tied at an (artificial) exchange rate of 1:1, administered by the Indian RBI. This by itself is a huge economic boost to Bhutan. Easy access to large Indian urban habitations in the Siliguri region, business centres, trade routes and most importantly, the land link between eastern and western Bhutan through the Indian territory, are vital for it. Any diminution in this economic linkage will severely impact Bhutan. China cannot match any of the above win-win factors but is following a predatory economic diplomacy. Then again, the Bhutanese are nobody’s fools and quite shrewd in making out what is good for them.
The Chinese ingress into western Bhutan, whether by tacit understanding or otherwise, may not immediately threaten the Siliguri corridor. However, this possibility necessitates re-calibration of the Indian Army deployment on the Bhutan border, with the area south of Jampheri requiring increased attention. The armed forces will surely have come to grips with this matter.
What India needs to build upon is its positive relationship with Bangladesh, so that it becomes a permanent feature beyond political regime changes. It needs to increasingly work on obtaining free transit facilities through northern Bangladesh, adjacent to the Siliguri corridor, and seek to jointly develop communication infrastructure in this area, and also transport corridors, gas and oil pipelines and rail networks.
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