The Chinese have been relentlessly trying to expand their strategic space in South Asia. Generally, they have achieved this objective by entering into economic agreements, which is supposedly in the interests of their South Asian partners. As part of these economic agreements they are engaged in building a number of infrastructural projects some of which are of dual nature. This became obvious when Chinese submarines started showing up in Sri Lankan and Pakistani ports. Chinese have strengthened their stranglehold even on landlocked countries like Nepal. But one important exception to this pattern has been Bhutan, where despite their best efforts, Chinese could not do much. Chinese now want to change this situation through force and deceit.
India and Bhutan signed a treaty in 1949 which is the basis for their special relationship. Bhutan has generally kept very limited relationship with China which is in line with its foreign policy to keep five permanent members of the Security Council outside the country. But Bhutan and China have a boundary dispute of 764 square km on the northern and western borders. In recent years both sides have been engaged in talks to resolve the border dispute. They have already held 24 rounds of Boundary talks. In these talks China has been trying to put pressure on Bhutan to give it the disputed western territory in exchange for the disputed northern territory. Bhutan has been resisting this.
Chinese however tried to change the situation on the ground by constructing a road in the western disputed area which is Bhutanese territory but under Chinese control. They have been constructing this road for last several years. But this construction has now reached dangerously close to the Siliguri Corridor, which connects North India with the northeast India. This has now made India to react together with Bhutan. To protect their security interests both these countries now want China to stop construction in the area until the dispute is resolved.
China was surprised by the action of India. It thought that it will not do anything concrete to check the Chinese ingress. Chinese also thought that as the territory belongs to Bhutan, India would be hesitant to take any strong action. But as this territory is critically important for India, it could have ignored this development only at its own peril. India had to act on behalf of Bhutan with whom it has a friendship treaty since 1949. No doubt, Bhutan aspires for a more dynamic foreign policy of its own, but it does not mean, it is looking for Chinese encroachment of its territory.
Since the crisis began, the Chinese have tried several methods to browbeat both India and Bhutan. They have used the threat of war. They have quite arrogantly laid a pre-condition that before any meaningful discussion on the crisis India should withdraw its troops from Doklam area. Their state controlled media has been saying that China will make no concession in territorial disputes. One wonders, then how China is planning to resolve these disputes.
The Chinese have also tried to mislead the world opinion by saying that Bhutan thinks Doklam is Chinese territory. This lie was exposed when Bhutan on June 29 not only rejected this claim but also asked China to vacate Doklam area. Bhutan now wants China to restore the status quo that existed before June 16, 2017.
Beijing has been indulging in this misadventure in the Doklam area thinking that a small country like Bhutan which has just seven lakh people will never be able to resist its transgressions. But the Doklam area is equally important for Bhutan too. This is the shortest route for Bhutanese people to come to India through the Siliguri Corridor. It is only understandable that Bhutan would not like this region to slip away from it.
Bhutan, a small South Asian country has so far successfully avoided the Chinese embrace. Despite the best efforts of the Chinese, Bhutan has not even established diplomatic relationship with China. Bhutan and India are the only two countries in South Asia which have territorial disputes with China. Though Bhutan is trying to sort this out by engaging in talks it seems China through its illegal incursions and constructions in the Bhutanese territory wants to put pressure on the small Himalayan country. China thinks that it can force Bhutan to its wishes. Had India not intervened in this crisis, it is quite possible that Bhutan would have ended up losing its territory. It would have also given a message to Bhutan that its long-time friend India is not able to take care of its security interests in the region.
China is pushing the envelope in the case of territorial disputes everywhere, be it with Japan, in South China Sea or with India. It does not think twice furthering its strategic and economic interests by going for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) which is a disputed territory but strongly objects when India goes for hydrocarbon exploration in the EEZ of Vietnam. India, in the interest of regional peace has so far not strongly taken up the Chinese activities in PoK. But it can’t afford to ignore Chinese road building in Doklam which is so close to India’s chicken’s area. The important question that arises is why China is showing so much urgency to build this road when bilateral talks between Bhutan and China is going on to resolve the dispute. It shows nothing but aggressive and hostile intent of China.
War is not in the interest of either China or India. Instead both countries at present would like to focus on their economic development and perhaps even on economic cooperation between them. China must realize that Doklam is not critical for the Chinese national security but it is for India. It cannot hope to economically benefit from India while raising tensions on the border. It would be much better if Beijing instead of raising heat over a disputed region tries to diffuse the situation.
(The author is Fellow in the institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi)