Why Bhutan is India’s Achilles’ heel

One reason for the PLA aggression in East Ladakh in 2020 was the Indian rebuff to China at Doklam. Disengagement from Doklam did not stop the aggression. The PLA has since fortified defences north of Doklam, extending the road along another axis — the Mochu river — towards the Jampheri ridge and built dual-use villages inside Bhutan.

Why Bhutan is India’s Achilles’ heel

A THREAT: Chinese intrusions have continued in the Chumbi valley, including inside Bhutan. Reuters

Maj Gen Ashok K Mehta (retd)

Military Commentator

THE US Department of Defence’s annual report for 2021 says that Chinese intrusive activities have continued in the Chumbi valley, including inside Bhutan, augmenting the threat to the Siliguri corridor, despite the resumption of border talks between them. Such is the sweep of the Chinese aggression across its two remaining unsettled borders with India and Bhutan.

That India unilaterally offered to revise the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship, 1949, with Bhutan, encouraging Nepal to ask for a similar update of their 1950 treaty is untrue.

In his autobiography, The Presidential Years 2012-17, Pranab Mukherjee explains how the treaty revision occurred. In early 2007, a two-hour closed-door meeting took place among Bhutan’s king Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Foreign Minister Mukherjee. Crown Prince Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was present during the entire discussion. Though his father had already abdicated, he was crowned only on November 1, 2008.

India was not keen to revisit the treaty, but the King insisted. Mukherjee told the King: “We are vitally interested in preserving the concept of the joint security of India and Bhutan being common and indivisible.” Both Singh and Mukherjee urged the King to reconsider revising the treaty, but he did not budge.

Instead, the King presented a draft treaty in which “common security” was central and contained in Article 2 of the treaty: “Both countries will cooperate closely in issues relating to national interest.” The operative part was “neither government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.”

The 2007 treaty was signed by the then Crown Prince, who is now King Khesar, and Mukherjee. It replaced the old Article 2 — of Bhutan being guided by India in its external affairs with the issue of common security embedded. In terms of strategic security, Bhutan presented India more practical and operational terms for intervention, though there is no SOP between the two sides, either in Thimphu or New Delhi or even in Kolkata’s Eastern Command responsible for the security of Bhutan.

The King is the ‘sanctum sanctorum’ in Bhutan. There is no defence minister; de facto the King is. The Major-General in charge of the Indian Military Training Assistance Team (IMTRAT) is the King’s military adviser, although the tiny Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) as a Lieutenant-General as its Commander.

The King is believed to have done some loud thinking with his Indian military adviser about inviting Indian troops other than the 1,000 or so Indian soldiers deployed with IMTRAT.

The Indian Army units, which are to be deployed in the event of an emergency, have not visited their operational areas, except for their commanders. Skeletal troop movement for operational training is kept below the radar; so is the visibility of the Medical Assistance Mission, which is acknowledged by the Bhutanese as a key asset.

Still, the Bhutanese youth resent the presence of the Indian troops on their soil even as business houses want diplomatic relations with China, which has exploited this chink, especially after the Indian intervention at Doklam. Bhutan fears China.

In June 2017, PLA Engineer units constructing a road in the Chumbi valley from Yatung, extending across the Doklam plateau towards the Jampheri Ridge while approaching the disputed trijunction of Gymochen, were intercepted at Doklam by 8 JAK LI deployed on the Doka La post. Disputed between Bhutan and China, Doklam poses a direct threat to the Siliguri corridor. The Indian intervention at Doklam was consequent to invoking Article 2 of the revised 2007 treaty. The RBA deployed on their post at the Jampheri Ridge did not join hands with the Indian soldiers who held the line for 72 days, till the disengagement on August 27.

The Chinese learnt cardinal lessons from the Indian intervention at Doklam that challenged and arrested PLA intrusions in violation of the standstill agreements of 1998 and 2012.

One of the reasons for the PLA aggression in East Ladakh in 2020 was the Indian rebuff to China at Doklam. Disengagement from Doklam did not stop the aggression. The PLA has since fortified defences north of Doklam, extending the road along another axis — the Mochu river — towards the Jampheri ridge and built dual-use villages inside Bhutan. The Bhutanese have denied the existence of the village identified by Google Earth imagery.

India, too, had turned a Nelson’s eye, not invoking Article 2 of the treaty, with one Indian diplomat remarking that it is a “civilian matter”. Obviously, India did not want to start a second front after East Ladakh. With fresh intrusions inside Bhutan, China wants its swap package — 269 sq km in the west at Doklam exchanged for 495 sq km in the north — to be implemented, though the Chinese have already occupied most of the disputed Doklam. The Chinese have done yet another fait accompli: in contravention of the 1890 Convention (which China invoked in 2017), they unilaterally declared the Mochu river the border with Bhutan, which is undemarcated.

Following the Chinese intrusions, a three-step Framework China-Bhutan Accord was reached last year which China has called a deadlock-breaker that may become the first step towards a border settlement, though it is inconceivable that India was not consulted, as is the practice before border or expert group negotiations. External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said: “We have noted the developments and are aware of it.”

India has also had its own three-step Framework Agreement of 2005 with China on border settlement, which was scuttled by the Chinese. Beijing has displayed power and belligerence in occupying Doklam and making an ingress southwards towards Jampheri in the Bhutanese territory. Trading Doklam in the west with territory in the north will breach Article 2 of the treaty.

But the bigger question is: If the PLA crosses India’s red-lines in Bhutan, would K5, the fifth King, Khesar who did the 45th NDC course in New Delhi in 2005, invite the Indian troops for assistance? And if not, would the Indian troops unilaterally intervene, as they probably did in Doklam, invoking Article 2?

Bhutan is India’s Achilles’ heel.

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