1-7 September 2017 #874

Middle ground in Doklam

The climax this week in the India-Bhutan-China dispute restored the status quo, but created a new normal in the trilateral relations
Dinkar Nepal


Haa is perched at 3,000m in a remote part of Bhutan where India maintains a military training school, an army hospital, a helipad and a golf course. 

A day’s trek to the northwest from this bucolic town is the Doklam Plateau, where for more than two months till Monday, Indian and Chinese soldiers were ‘eyeball-to-eyeball’, as military types like to put it.

The spectre of a full-scale war between these two nuclear powers has, for now, been averted. The two sides agreed to an ‘expeditious disengagement’ of their troops just a week before the summit in Beijing of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). It would have been pretty embarrassing to have a summit where two of its members are about to go to war.

Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi stayed in Haa in 1958. ‘I shall be going to a country, Bhutan, which is more cut off from the world than perhaps any other country,’ Nehru wrote then from Gangtok. 

Nehru reached Haa after crossing the Nathu La pass in Sikkim, where India maintained a ‘political officer’ responsible for contacts with the Himalayan kingdoms of Sikkim and Bhutan. The easiest route to Paro, then the summer capital of Bhutan, was via Sikkim from Nathu La and across a far-flung corner of Tibet near the Yatung trading post. 

The Prime Minister’s entourage spent a night at Yatung, and crossed the Tibet-Bhutan border where they were met by the  Prime Minister of Bhutan. Riding through the high passes, Nehru got to Paro, where the 28-year-old ‘Maharaja’ was waiting with a ‘spectacular procession consisting of hundreds of knights, dignitaries of the Buddhist clergy in their special robes, troupes of dancers, etc.’

That took place at a time when Tibet was in trouble but hadn’t yet been annexed by China. And Bhutan was, in Nehru’s words, ‘another world’. Trouble with China was brewing, though, and many Indians had already started imagining their role as the saviours of Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan. Soon, the Chinese over-ran Tibet, and the Dalai Lama fled to India.

In 1962, China and India fought a war over their Himalayan border, and Thimphu was spooked by China’s claim to Ladakh, Sikkim and Bhutan because it said they all belonged historically to Tibet, which itself was always under the suzerainty of the ‘Motherland China’. The Dragon Kingdom swiftly snuggled into India’s protective lap, accepting the offer 

that was ‘not formal but had always been there’. In 1960, a team from the Indian Army went on a recce mission to Bhutan. It was followed by a road construction project by the Border Roads Organisation under Project Dantak, and a year later, establishment of the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) headquarters at Haa.

The Himalayan War left Bhutan largely untouched, mostly because of China’s disinterest in drawing a third country into the conflict that it started to ‘teach India a lesson’. India was, however, eager later to use Bhutan for military logistics, and built a landing strip at Paro. 

The geographical and geopolitical realities in the region have changed in the last 60 years. Tibet is now part of an ‘autonomous region’ of China, 

Sikkim a state in India, which even China has recognised.  But Beijing has consistently maintained that Bhutan is a ‘sovereign’ and ‘independent’ country and has criticised India’s role of ‘mediating’ on bilateral issues on behalf of Bhutan. 

The Doklam dispute, owing to its colonial legacy, remains unresolved because of India’s strategic interest, and Bhutan’s own helplessness about not being able to move out of Delhi’s protective embrace.

In the past, Bhutan and China had agreed to disagree over the border, and settled into a comfortable status quo in which both maintained their claims over the disputed territory.

There is a consensus within Bhutan to accept China’s offer to exchange the Doklam area with another disputed territory along the northern border that is almost three times the area. 

The trouble is, Doklam is situated smack at the entrance from the Tibetan Plateau into the Siliguri Corridor, and is therefore of utmost strategic importance to India. The territory swap proposal, therefore, is not openly spoken about in Thimphu.

This week’s agreement, in which the Chinese have agreed to stop construction of a road in the disputed area in return for Indian soldiers stepping back, is a tactical win for India. But China won strategically because now the whole world knows about Bhutan seeking direct diplomatic channels with Beijing. This is the new normal. 

There is a strong desire among the Bhutanese to untangle the big-brotherly embrace of India, and Thimphu may try to derive benefits from this new reality soon. 

Read also:

The Himalayan Thaw, Kunda Dixit

Squeezed in the Himalayan, Sean Shoemaker

Bhutan Nepal Bhai-Bhai, Kanak Mani Dixit

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