Thumbnail images: 

Doklam Plateau, an area of 89 sq. km, is in western Bhutan and is part of Bhutan’s 269 sq. km disputed area with China. Since mid-June this year, there have been a number of reports and debates on Indian Army’s ‘face off’ with China in the Doklam Plateau opposite Indian Army’s position at Doka La in East Sikkim. Media reports have been hyped and in some quarters, there is a fear of war clouds gathering in the region. War however is a rare and mostly the last option for nations who wish to preserve their strategic options. More importantly, in the context of China and India, both trying to outgrow each other economically, have much to lose in case of an all-out war. At best, it can be termed as strategic posturing by two emerging powers in their common neighbourhood. This however does not mean that we should not be prepared for the worst.



Those who are not familiar with either the area or its historical background will tend to draw a skewed perception and feast on what the media feeds. An easier way to analyse the situation is by finding answers to two crucial questions – ‘what and why’. A good understanding of the geopolitical challenges and a few important historical facts related to Bhutan, combined with other compulsions including that of human behaviour, emotions, miscalculations and domestic constraints will help get answers to these questions.


Sandwiched between the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China and India, Bhutan shares 470 kilometres of its border with China and 605 kilometres with India. The northern border with China is generally glaciated round the year and therefore not of much importance. Similarly, being inaccessible, the eastern boundary with India also has not drawn much attention. However, the north-western boundary (for India it is East Sikkim) with TAR has strategic importance to all the three countries. China presently has a total of 764 sq. km of disputed territory with Bhutan. Of this, 269 sq. km lies in the strategically important north-western sector and 495 sq. km in the glaciated central areas of Paksamlung. The inclusion of the north-western sector in China will result in obvious security implications for India on its northern border. Because of the complex geography, Bhutan naturally gravitates towards India for promoting most of its economic activities. A combination of geographic compulsions, meagre human and natural resources, growing aspirations of the younger generations and vociferous media coverage, renders the task of maintaining its identity as a sovereign and economically independent country as well as settling its boundary dispute with China without hurting India’s sentiments and compromising the latter’s security needs a big political and diplomatic challenge for Bhutan.  


Understanding Indo-Bhutan relationship will never be complete without factoring China in it. Since gaining Independence in 1947 and after the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, India started to gradually strengthen her relationship with Bhutan. This caused worries for China. In order to alter this equation and dislodge India from its friendly space inside Bhutan, China evolved a strategy, which includes: solve the territorial dispute and demarcate the boundary to secure its south-western flank, establish diplomatic relationship with Bhutan and increase/enlarge the scope of bilateral trade with the Himalayan kingdom. As a part of such a strategy, China, while engaged in the boundary talks with Bhutan, has been resorting to certain military activities like military intrusion and construction of roads and military infrastructures inside the disputed areas.


The area in western Bhutan is important to India and China. Chinese military presence in Chumbi Valley, which is only around 30 kilometres from India as the crow flies, is a threat to India’s Siliguri Corridor. On China’s part, Chumbi Valley is an Achilles Hill. A narrow valley with the narrowest portion not more than a few kilometres wide can be easily severed by a determined Indian Army from the West (East Sikkim) and the East (through western Bhutan) in collusion with the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA).


On 16 June 2017, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) decided to build a motorable track in the plateau. This could be for public display of its resolve to take full control of the claimed area. Had it not been for the intervention by the Indian Army, the PLA would have later followed it up with creating other military infrastructure like it has been doing in the north of Chumbi Valley. Shifting the boundary further east to include Doklam Plateau would benefit China in a number of ways. Firstly, at the political level, China will be in physical occupation of their entire claimed area; secondly, it would provide more elbow room to PLA for military manoeuvres inside the valley, thereby reducing China’s vulnerability in the salient against any threat that Indian Army can pose from the East through western Bhutan.


Demarcation of China’s border with Bhutan indirectly impacts India’s security and expansion of the Chumbi Valley will further bring it closer to the Siliguri corridor. While it is natural for India to worry, how the enhanced military capability of the PLA is going to manifest is a matter of military discussion. This is not the first time that a PLA patrol has visited Doklam Plateau. PLA patrols regularly visit the disputed area. But until now patrolling by PLA had been restricted to visiting the plateau closer to Indian Army’s post at Dokala and at times the RBA post located at the base of Zampheri ridge reminding the RBA of China’s right on that area and asking them to vacate the post. But this time, PLA decided to build the motorable track like what it has already done in other claimed areas further north of Chumbi Valley.


There could be a number of reasons for such an aggressive move by the PLA, including next year’s parliamentary elections in Bhutan, Army Chief’s recent statement claiming India’s capability to simultaneously fight a two-front war, India’s stand on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, and its recent initiatives in the South China Sea like naval drills with Singapore in the disputed sea. The fact that Xi Jinping’s desire to emerge as a leader bigger than Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and come out stronger by revamping the collective leadership system of China, bringing out reforms, taking full control of the PLA and calling PLA to transform into an elite military force capable of defeating China’s enemies during its military parade on 30 July 2017, commemorating PLA’s 90th birthday (on 1st August ), a few months ahead of the 19th National Congress of Communist Party of China also must be factored while exploring the answer to the question ‘why now’.


Despite the rhetoric from both sides, back door diplomacy is on to lower the temperature and find a face saving solution to the stand-off. That notwithstanding, this will be a temporary measure and it is bound to resurface and will continue to nag India unless the Sino-Bhutanese boundary is demarcated based on a line which is acceptable to India, Bhutan and China. The boundary has not been demarcated because of the stated positions of the three countries. China’s argument in support of their position is historical even though it is more for security reasons. Similarly, India’s position has been based both on the principle of watershed and the threat perception that goes back to as early as 1950. Unless these issues are addressed and a middle path is found without compromising India’s security, such stand-offs are only going to recur. And until then, what should India do and how far can it go in support of its neighbour? The best person to advice is the King of Bhutan. There are two reasons for engaging the King.


First, the people of Bhutan are very proud of their sovereignty. In spite of ethnic and religious similarities, they are still apprehensive of the Tibetans and the Chinese. Their love for their King, religious faith and strong cultural ties are holding this Himalayan Kingdom together as an independent and sovereign nation. The King of Bhutan is revered like a God and Bhutanese people have full faith in their King. They strongly believe that any decision of the King will only benefit Bhutan. And it is also the sincere desire of the King to remain aligned with India.


Second, even though Bhutan is a democracy, subjects related to defence and national security are personally dealt by the King. In time to come, democracy will only grow, thereby making the decision-making process more democratic. The younger generations have higher expectations and better aspirations. Therefore, the best option will be to listen to the King before it is too late; and subsequently (at an appropriate time) involve the government in the consultative process as well as educate the Bhutanese population of the implications of China’s growing influence in Bhutan and of the benefits of leaning towards India.


As for what India should do, there is a need for some clarity of thought in India’s Bhutan policy in terms of its doctrine and how it can be applied at the strategic and tactical levels to support Bhutan to grow as an economically independent nation and yet remain free of any interference from China. Presently, the world is keenly watching China and India’s positions on the stand-off and how they are going to handle the situation to come out victorious without any loss of face. Doklam Plateau has become a platform for both the countries to alter the status quo of the power balance in the region. For, whatever comes out of the stand-off, it is going to impact India’s position in the region and also China’s venture in reshaping the regional and world power dynamics by its belligerence in nearby areas. 


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.