By Suhasni Haider
There are many strings that tie Bhutan to India in a special and unique relationship, but none are as strong as the ones laid down on the ground: 1,500 km, to be precise, of roads that have been built by India across the Himalayan kingdom’s most difficult mountains and passes.
Since 1960, when Bhutan’s King Jigme Wangchuk (the present King’s grandfather) entrusted the then Prime Minister, Jigme Dorji, with modernising the country, that had previously stayed closed to the world, those roads built and maintained by the Indian Border Roads Organisation (BRO) under Project Dantak have brought the countries together for more than one reason.
A one-way street?
“All the new roads [they] proposed to construct were being aligned to run southwards towards India from the main centres of Bhutan. Not a single road was planned to be constructed to the Tibetan (Chinese) border,” recounted one of independent India’s pioneers in forging ties with Bhutan, Nari Rustomji, a bureaucrat who also served as the Dewan, or Prime Minister, of Sikkim from 1954 to 1959, in his book Dragon Kingdom in Crisis. When the Chinese presented a fork in the road, Rustomji said, “with feelers to bring Bhutan within the orbit of their influence”, Bhutan stood firm in “maintaining an independent stand”.
Just a few years later, during the India-China war of 1962, Bhutan showed its sympathies definitely lay with India, but it still wouldn’t bargain on that independent stand: when Indian soldiers retreated from battle lines in Arunachal Pradesh, they were given safe passage through eastern Bhutan, but on the condition that soldiers would deposit their rifles at the Trashigang Dzong armoury, and travel through Bhutan to India unarmed. (The rifles lie there till today.)
As India seeks to understand the Chinese government’s intentions in the Doklam stand-off, it would be obvious and natural to see them in the context of deteriorating relations between New Delhi and Beijing for the past three years, or in terms of China’s own global ambitions, and its need to show its Asian neighbours its muscular might. But any explanation that does not consider China’s desire to draw space between India and Bhutan in the ongoing stand-off will be inadequate, and simplistic at best.
The first and most important clue to this is the area involved in the stand-off itself: the Doklam plateau is an area that China and Bhutan have long discussed, over 24 rounds of negotiations that began in 1984. In the early 1990s China is understood to have made Bhutan an offer that seemed attractive to the government in Thimphu: a “package deal” under which the Chinese agreed to renounce their claim over the 495-sq.-km disputed land in the Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys to the north, in exchange for a smaller tract of disputed land measuring 269 sq. km, the Doklam plateau. Several interlocutors have confirmed that the offer was repeated by China at every round, something Bhutan’s King and government would relay to India as well. While India was able to convince Bhutan to defer a decision, things did change after India and Bhutan renegotiated their friendship treaty in 2007, and post-2008, when Bhutan’s first elected Prime Minister Jigme Thinley began to look for a more independent foreign policy stance. Some time during this period, the PLA is understood to have built the dirt track at Doklam that is at the centre of the current stand-off, including the “turning point”, and the Bhutanese army appears not to have objected to it then.
During the next five years of his tenure, Mr. Thinley conducted more rounds of talks, including on the ‘Doklam package’, and even held a controversial meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (in Rio de Janeiro, 2012), suggesting that Bhutan was thinking of establishing consular relations with China, much to India’s chagrin. During this time, Bhutan also increased the number of countries with which it had diplomatic relations from 22 to 53, and even ran an unsuccessful campaign for a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council.
By 2013, India took matters in hand, and the Manmohan Singh government’s decision to withdraw energy subsidies to Bhutan on the eve of its general elections that summer contributed to Jigme Thinley’s shock defeat. When the new Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay’s government prepared his first round of boundary talks with Beijing a few months later, New Delhi took no chances. It dispatched both National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh to Thimphu to brief him. China, it would seem, realised it could no longer press the Doklam point, and a year later even offered India the Nathu La pass route through Sikkim for Kailash-Mansarovar yatris.
With the latest stand-off, that includes the cancellation of the Nathu La route,China appears to be back in the eastern great game that Bhutan has become, or an “egg between two rocks”, as a senior Bhutanese commentator described it. India must also consider that the PLA road construction that brought Indian troops to Bhutanese territory may be what is known as a “forcing move” in chess. By triggering a situation where Indian soldiers occupy land that isn’t India’s for a prolonged period, Beijing may have actually planned to show up India’s intentions in an unfavourable light to the people of Bhutan.
The government must see that Bhutan’s sovereignty is no trivial matter, and avoid flippant comments as the one made by the Ministry of External Affairs last week, likening the question of whether Bhutan had sought the help of Indian troops at the tri-junction to “whether the ball came first… or the batsman had taken a stand before the ball was bowled”. The question does matter to Bhutanese people, and although their government has put out a gag request to newspapers on the Doklam stand-off for now, blog posts and social media write-ups by respected commentators indicate there is much disquiet over the idea that Indian and Chinese troops may occupy the plateau in a tense stalemate for months. It cannot have escaped South Block’s notice that the only statement issued by the Bhutanese Foreign Ministry during this time makes no mention of a “distress call” to India, only of its demarche to China. Finally, New Delhi would do well to refrain from differentiating between political factions inside Bhutan, unlike what it has done in Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and recognise that there is no “anti-India” faction in Bhutan, even if some are calling for the establishment of ties with China.
In full view of neighbours
India must also be aware that other neighbours are watching the Doklam stand-off closely. It would be short-sighted not to recognise that Bhutan is at one tri-junction with India and China, but Nepal, Myanmar and Pakistan too have tri-junctions (at least on the map) with both countries, and China’s reference to “third country” presence in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is putting a spotlight on all of these. Bhutan is also the only country in the region that joined India in its boycott of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s marquee project, the Belt and Road Initiative. In China’s thinking, any reconsideration of Bhutan’s unique ties with India, forged all those decades ago in asphalt and concrete, would be not only a prize, but possible payback.
While Indian commentary has focused on the Narendra Modi government’s bilateral problems with Beijing, and India’s larger problems with China’s aggressive stance on the international stage, the truth is, this crisis is as much about the crossroads Bhutan finds itself at. India must calibrate both its message and its military moves in order to keep Bhutan on track with the special ties they share.