Why India Should Be Concerned About Bhutan's Relations With China
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seen off by Bhutan's King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in Thimphu
While the nation was agog with the news of China’s incursions into Chumar in the Ladakh sector during the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to India, another Chinese threat of much more dangerous proportion has quietly taken place near the Indo-China border in Tibet. Last month China opened its second railway line in Tibet connecting Lhasa with Shigatse which is near the Indian border in Sikkim and is quite close to China’s border with Nepal and Bhutan. This can pose a serious strategic threat to India in immediate future as Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, has exhorted, after his return from India, the Peoples’ Liberation Army to win any regional war.
Moreover China has declared its resolve to construct another railway line which will connect Nyingchi, a place very near to its border with Arunachal Pradesh and some Chinese experts have described it as a ‘bargaining chip’ in Beijing’s boder negotiations with India. In addition, in its five year plan ending in 2020, Shigatse will be connected with the Gyirong county by a railway network. Now Gyrong has checkpoint which connects a place called Yadong which, in turn, opens up to the Chumbi valley, a military nightmare for India.
Indian policy makers should be concerned by the fact that China has staked claims to certain areas of Bhutan in the north, west and north-west of that country and Thimpu not only agreed to conduct, together with China, joint technical field surveys to settle the problem.but has already endorsed the joint field survey report of September,2013 which dealt with the northern sector.. Since no word of disapproval has come from China, the report may have satisfied Chinese demands. The twenty second round of Sino-Bhutan boundary talk held in July this year has now decided to undertake joint technical surveys of the disputed areas in the western sector. If China has its way in this sector too, then India will be faced with a real strategic threat.
So far as Indo- Bhutan relation is concerned New Delhi’s principal headache is the Chumbi valley, an arrow like protrusion of a part of southern Tibet separating Bhutan from the Indian state of Sikkim. It is a tri junction of China, India and Bhutan and enjoys unparalleled strategic importance in the whole of eastern Himalayas. It is very near to the Siliguri corridor, called the Chicken’s Neck due to its long and narrow shape, which is India’s only gateway to its north eastern part. Any Chinese push down the Chumbi valley and then control of the Siliguri corridor will cut off all the north eastern states of India from its mainland.
When Narendra Modi had gone to Bhutan , he had an intelligence report which said that the Peoples Liberation Army(PLA) of China has recently built an all weather road from Gotsa to Lepola via Pamlung in the disputed northern sector of boundary between China and Bhutan. Nothing more of the report has come to light neither it is known how much transgression, if at all, China has committed in this regard.
In 1954 China first published a map claiming considerable Bhutanese areas. In 1958 it not only published another map claiming larger areas of Bhutan but forcibly took possession of considerable Bhutanese areas .This made Thimpu taking recourse to Clause 2 of the 1949 Indo- Bhutan treaty which stipulated that Thimpu would be guided by India in its conduct of external relations. In 1962 Bhutan made its south eastern part available to the Indian army for safe retreat after it was vanquished by China.
Aggressive postures by China continued and it was only in 1984 that the two countries opened negotiations for border settlement. Ultimately Beijing agreed to renounce its claims over 495 squiare kilometres of areas in the North but continued to stake claims to the 269 square kilometres of areas in the West and the North-West which are abutted by the Chumbi valley.
The reason behind China’s insistence on these areas is obvious. Through Chumbi valley China can conduct scissor like operations to cut off India’s North-East and and then claiming the Siliguri corridor it can threaten the city of Kolkata and the whole of eastern India. But the valley is extremely narrow, only 30 milies wide in its narrowest stretch, for military manoeuvres and therefore Beijing has been trying to expand the Chumbi valley by incorporating the neighbouring Doklam plateau of Bhutan into it.
There is every indication that China will leave no stone unturned in trying to gobble up the Bhutanese land and its claim is now no more restricted to the Doklam plateau alone but touches other strategically important neighbouring areas like Charithang,Sinchulimpa and Dramana pasture lands. Although in 1998 Beijing entered into an agreement with Thimpu promising to maintain peace and tranquilty in the border areas yet it has extended road networks in Zuri and Pheeteogang ridges overlokking the Charithang valley thereby creating tensions. There are also reports that China has not only put forward newer claims to over 300 square kilometres of territory in Northern Bhutan but has actually taken possession of 8229 square kilometres of Bhutanese areas in 2013. In doing so it has reportedly bumped off some forward posts of the Royal Bhutan Army. But if China ultimately constructs railway lines connecting Lhasa-Zangmu- Shigatse and Yadong( at the opening of the Chumbi valley) then India will be presented with a real threat to its Siliguri corridor.
However it must be admitted that the present Sino-Bhutan relations transcend Chinese hawkish eyes on Bhutanese territories or even PLA’s aggressive incursions resulting in discomfiture of Royal Bhutan Army. After the opening up of the Druk kingdom and two successive general elections a new group of electorate comprising mostly young people has emerged in Bhutan which has been showing all kinds of restlessness to come out of Indian tutelage. They are not satisfied with mere revision of the 1949 Indo-Bhutan Treaty in 2007 but expect an independent domestic and foreign policy of their country. That Jigme Thinley, the last Prime Minister of Bhutan, had attempted to forge a diplomatic relation with China should be viewed in this context.
Certainly Tsering Tobgay, the present Prime Minister and his People’s Democratic Party(PDP) are more favourably disposed towards India than the previous Prime Minister and his Druk Phuensum Tsogpa(DPT). Withdrawal of subsidies by India on petroleum products on the eve of the last general election was viewed by many as an attempt to discredit Jigme Thinley and pave the way for the victory of Tsering Tobgay. But it has to be kept in mind that China has firmly entrenched itself with several stake holders of Bhutanese politics and economy, particularly the newly emerging business class.
India is still Bhutan’s biggest trade partner. New Delhi accounts for 75 percent of Bhutan’s imports and 85 percent of its exports. India still trains the Bhutanese army through the Indian Military Training Team. But several pressure groups are working within Bhutan to divert the course of its journey towards China. A case in point was the Bhutan Post Corporation Limited’s(BPCL) decision in 2012 to purchase Chinese public transport vehicles, instead of the long standing practice of buying India made vehicles, through an agency named Global Traders and Gangjung owned by the son-in-law of the former Prime Minister Jigme Thinley. The reason proffered for such a decision was the BPCL’s stand that buses purchased from the Tatas( an Indian business house) had developed trouble within one year of their purchase.
But New Delhi cannot deny that its Bhutan policy smacks of immaturity and haughtiness. The King is still a very respected institution in Bhutan but he has not always received from India the reverence due to him although on many occasions he played important behind-the-scene roles to save Indo-Bhutan relations from bumpy journies. Nothing concrete is known about the King’s role when India had withdrawn subsidies on various products last year. But it is noteworthy that no widespread agitation against India on this issue had taken place. However in spite of off and on hiccups in the bilateral relation there has been no dearth of attempts from the Indian side to stand by Bhutan. New Delhi has already committed Rs. 4500 crores towards Bhutan’s 11th Five Year Plan which will continue upto 2018. In addition another 500 crores of rupees will go towards Economic Stimulus Package. Moreover India has decided to build up 10000 megawatt hydro electric capacity in Bhutan within 2020. However, the mega hydro electric project based economy has been resulting in a rapid outflow of rupee. On three previous occasions India had extended massive credits to the Druk kingdom to tide over this rupee crunch.
Indo- Bhutan economic relation has not experienced much topsy turvy save the curtailment of subsidy by the Indian side which was more of a political rather than economic decision. But if Bhutan concedes Chinese territorial demands in its western and north-western parts then the strategic balance in the eastern Himalayas will be in a topsy-turvy.