Doklam remerges The Excelsior 11 Apr 2024 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


Doklam remerges The Excelsior 11 Apr 2024

          The King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, visited India for three days. During the visit he held interactions with the Indian leadership on multiple subjects. The king was accompanied by Tandi Dorji, Minister of Foreign Affairs and External Trade, and senior officials of the royal government of Bhutan. The King was received by the Indian external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, on his arrival in Delhi, indicating the importance India attaches to its relations with Bhutan. This visit had been on the cards for some time. The King had last visited India in Sept 2022.

The fact that the visit came close on the heels on the comments of Bhutanese PM, Lotay Tshering in Europe, does not imply that the two could be necessarily linked. India remains Bhutan’s major trading partner and Thimphu has thus far resisted Chinese attempts to establish an embassy there.

          Bhutanese PM, Lotay Tshering, had stated in an interview to Belgian newspaper ‘La Libre,’ responding to a question on Bhutan-China boundary talks, ‘Doklam is a junction point between India, China and Bhutan. It is not up to Bhutan alone to solve the problem. There are three of us. There is no big or small country, there are three equal countries, each counting for a third. As soon as the other two parties are ready, we can discuss.’

On his return to Thimphu, Tshering clarified that he had stated nothing new and there was no change in Bhutan’s position on the subject. Bhutan simultaneously claims that his comments were misinterpreted. However, the statement did appear to send a message that Bhutan has accepted that it has little choice other than to engage with China on boundary issues.

Tshering’s Europe comments are in contrast to his statement in 2019 wherein he had mentioned no country should do anything near the existing trijunction ‘unilaterally.’ India and China had a 73-day standoff in Doklam in 2017. India and China had agreed in 2012 that the tri-junction boundary points will be fixed in consultation with Bhutan, hence to some extent, Tshering stated the obvious. However, Beijing broke the agreement when it unilaterally began road construction in Doklam. 

China has been attempting to shift the tri-junction approximately seven Kms south of its current location, Batang La, to a peak termed as Mount Gipmochi. This would make the entire Doklam plateau legally a part of China. Occupation of Doklam could enhance threat to the Siliguri Corridor, which is a narrow strip, connecting the rest of India to its Eastern states. While India has a strong defence line along the region such a move could enhance its vulnerability, which India is unwilling to accept. China had earlier suggested to Bhutan that it would give up its claims in Northern Bhutan in case it accepted Beijing’s claims on Doklam. Thimphu refused.

India and Bhutan share a unique and time-tested bilateral relationship, characterized by trust, goodwill and mutual understanding. Apart from being its largest trading partner, India is also the destination for over 4000 Bhutanese students, many of whom are on Indian government scholarships, as also hosts Bhutanese Buddhist tourists.

Militarily, an Indian Military Training Team is located in Bhutan since 1961 to train the Royal Bhutanese army and is also responsible for its security. An Indian formation is earmarked for the defence of Bhutan. It was Indian troops which blocked the Chinese at Doklam after they refused to adhere to requests by Bhutanese forces. Bhutanese officers are trained in Indian military academies. Security cooperation between the two nations has been a regular feature. The Doklam standoff enhanced security concerns.

China has been exploiting Indo-Bhutanese proximity by continuously enhancing its claims on Bhutanese territory. It has built villages in Bhutanese territory in Northern Bhutan and as recently as 2020 added Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Bhutan in its claims, a fact which was rubbished by the Bhutanese PM. Tshering stated that no Chinese villages have been built on Bhutanese soil. By regularly changing its claim lines, China is pressing Bhutan to accept its terms and conditions.

China and Bhutan held their eleventh Expert Group Meeting on their boundary issues in Kunming, China, from 10 to 13 January 2023. Border talks had commenced in 1984 and thus far 17 rounds have been held at different levels seeking to resolve the dispute. China and Bhutan share a 477 Kms border with China claiming 750 square Kms of Bhutanese territory. All Chinese attempts at sealing an agreement which suits them had come to naught as Bhutan refuses to ignore India’s concerns. 

Tshering’s comments in Europe were exploited by opposition political parties in India. They questioned the government on whether it had changed its stance on Doklam. The comments also hinted that China and Bhutan may soon resolve their boundary issue bypassing Doklam, which would necessitate Indian participation. In view of the ongoing standoff in Ladakh and freezing of Indo-China bilateral ties, talks on Doklam appear nowhere on the horizon.

Thimphu is aware that India will never accept any unilateral Bhutanese-China agreement which involves Doklam. It may enhance tensions between India and China as also impact Bhutan-India relations, and as has been proved time and again, India will stand its ground. At the end of the day, Bhutan will be the loser as its dependence on India is high as also it would be loathe to let Delhi-Thimphu relations be impacted. It is possibly this belief which has led to India not commenting on Tshering’s statement.

It is evident that Bhutan’s perspective on border talks with China and specifically Tshering’s comments would have been discussed in the Bhutanese King’s meeting with the Indian PM. The foreign secretary was non-committal when he stated at the conclusion of the talks, on a question on China, ‘Government of India closely follows all developments which have a bearing on our national interest and we would take all necessary measures to safeguard them.’ Considering Indo-Bhutan relations it is unlikely that Bhutan would take any step which would be detrimental to India’s security.