Beijing is working doggedly to take Bhutan to its side and attack India’s Achilles heel, the Siliguri corridor
Beijing’s bullying tactic along the border areas is nothing new in its policy of incremental occupation of the land that does not officially belong to it. What may worry New Delhi is Beijing’s border bickering with Bhutan and more specifically along its western border. Its new Land Border Law, which was approved by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NCP) on 23 October 2021 and is reported to be enforced on 1 January 2022, seems more of a well-measured legal move to intensify its border activities.
This may invite a fresh set of troubles for Bhutan, especially at its border areas, in addition to the ongoing ones posed by China in rolling itself into the former’s territory. Beijing’s MoU (memorandum of understanding) with Thimphu on 14 October 2021 is assumed to be a carefully crafted strategy to achieve the specific end, either to exercise ownership on the areas already occupied by it, or to push the latter for the exchange of territories. This essentially signifies China’s cold calculation in acquiring the strategic locations in Bhutan and to weaponise them for legitimising its interest in the region.
Looking into China’s demonstrative aggression along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) manifested through building critical military and civilian infrastructure leading to standoffs in Galwan (Ladakh) and Doklam (Bhutan), it becomes more apparent that Beijing is likely to intensify its conflict with India. India’s success story is too painful for it to digest; and its increasing retaliatory power, at the event of any security challenge posed by its rivals in the neighbourhood, and its global visibility expressed through its soft power credentials turn out to be the much-needed deterrent to China’s bullying proclivities along its border areas.
China’s sustained ambition to emerge as a superpower equal to the United States or above gets seriously thwarted by India’s growing presence in the region. With the help of Bhutan, it intends to occupy the strategic areas in and around Doklam; and this enables Beijing to direct its military might on the Siliguri corridor (length and width of 60 and 22 km respectively) in order to create security concerns for India. Therefore, it becomes quite important to understand Bhutan and its geostrategic importance and China’s interference in its territory.
Sino-Bhutan border conflict
The border that Bhutan shares with China is about 477 km and remains under dispute after Tibet was occupied by the latter. Beijing festers that dispute to escalate tension along the border areas to keep the Bhutanese leadership worried. Its scheming in violating the agreements it has done with Thimphu in the past, is never ending.
The Sino-Bhutan border discussions in 1984, 1990, 1995, 1996 and 1998 have not seen any semblance of dispute settlement except reaching an agreement of retaining status quo. The talk that began in 2016 reached a stalemate; and neither side made any progress. It led to the Doklam standoff. Beijing places different exchange packages which include conceding its northern claim of the area measuring 495 sq km to Thimphu under the condition that the latter solemnises its western claim of area 89 sq km in Doklam. But the question arises as to why the Dragon is obsessively pursuing its western claim and more particularly Doklam. The reason became glaringly evident when the Doklam standoff happened in 2017.
Zompelri ridge and its importance
Zompelri ridge in Doklam is Beijing’s prime target. If it comes into PLA’s (People’s Liberation Army) control, its strategic height offers China the military advantage over India and more importantly over the narrow Siliguri corridor, the only land link that connects India with its Northeastern states. Mao’s ambitious territorial imagination as illustrated through the right hand palm (Tibet) and fingers (Arunachal Pradesh, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, and Ladakh) metaphor seems more of a dream than reality as long as India stands tall in South Asia and gives China challenge and competition.
The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) therefore leaves no opportunity unattended to exert pressure on India by its newly acquired technological, economic and geopolitical might and by capturing the geostrategic nodes along the LAC. But, for Bhutan, Doklam may not be of much strategic importance as it has very limited military and technological and critical weaponry to challenge China.
For India, it is the most critical strategic area which helps it to secure its Siliguri corridor and to express its dominance over the Chumbi valley in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), if China plays anything foul. Thimphu cannot give away Doklam to CCP because it knows very well the latter’s unending territorial appetite and the difficulty involved in satisfying it.
India-Bhutan relations have always been very strong and committed, but China’s phenomenal ability in breaking relationships with its temptations, primarily the economic ones, raises doubt. If Bhutan concedes to CCP’s pressures and allurement tactics, it will prepare for its doom. It would perhaps be a very disastrous choice given China’s nasty territorial aspiration and its determined effort to materialise that aspiration. Thimphu’s commitment to sustain its friendship with India is well-illustrated in its determination not to fall for Beijing’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) network. In the entire South Asia it is only Bhutan and India that resisted the BRI temptations. Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh have surrendered to the BRI trap for the sake of development but realised the subsequent ramifications that BRI brings to their doorstep.
Through BRI, Beijing has taken Bangladesh to its side and it needs Doklam to challenge India and its vulnerability at the Siliguri corridor. This shows that Xi Jinping seems to be on a mission of territorial expansion and cartographical redrafting of South Asia. Bhutan’s silence over the incursions and military built-up done by China on its territory, the construction of road to Zompelri ridge, and a model village on the Mochu River and other critical infrastructures and activities in and around Doklam plateau, which may prove seriously detrimental to India’s geopolitical interest in the region, is difficult to decipher. Its helplessness against China’s big brother attitude of bullying and harassment is well encoded in its disciplined silence. If it succumbs to Beijing’s pressure and chooses not to speak out, thinking it has successfully satisfied its enemy by making some little sacrifice, it will make the aggressor more greedy.
China’s incursions into Bhutan
Robert Barnett writes in the Foreign Policy magazine that in north Bhutan, China has built the following — three villages, and Gyalaphug is one of them, 66 miles of new roads, a small hydropower station, two Communist Party administrative centres, a communications base, a disaster relief warehouse, five military or police outposts, a major signals tower, a satellite receiving station, a military base, and up to six security sites and outposts. But, Beijing claims the region as its own and invariably parts of Lhodrak in the TAR. This helps China force Bhutan to come to the bargaining table to comply with the demands it places to take Doklam.
In the same article, Barnett is of the opinion that Bhutan’s Beyul Khenpajong and Menchuma Valley and Chagdzom in the north measuring 495 sq km have already been occupied by China. Beijing expects Thimphu to concede to its demands by giving away 269 sq km Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulungpa, Dramana, and Shakhatoe in the west, considering the historical and religious importance of Beyul for the Bhutanese. If this bargain clicks, India runs into trouble and will be worried about the safety of the Siliguri corridor.
Will Bhutan betray India to secure Beyul? Will the safety of its heritage induce helplessness in Bhutan to sign a pact with its aggressor and expose its friend to danger? This brings the question as to what is there in Beyul that China thinks it can bargain harder with Bhutan.
Beyul and bargain
Beyul, meaning ‘hidden valley’, in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism is a sacred place. It is one of those sacred areas or ridges which embody special spiritual significance kept concealed by none other than Padmasambhava, the Buddhist mystic of the 8th century and only discoverable by the spiritually evolved personalities. The classical Tibetan literature makes copious references to Beyul and its significance from the point of view of tantra and mysticism.
The Beyul Khenpajong registers a strong presence in Bhutanese classical literature bearing the phenomenal spiritual magnificence. Apart from the spiritual significance, it happens to be the birthplace of Desi Jigme Namgyal, a forefather of the current ruling Wangchuck dynasty. Therefore, there is enough ancestry and sentiment attached to it. China tactically brings up time and again this region, which it has captured incrementally over the years, to the bargaining table knowing very well its exchange potential.
The current ruling dispensation under King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck seems to be caught in a complex situation where any move it takes either saving heritage or protecting its all-weather friend India will embody loss. The either/or is Bhutan’s dilemma and forces it to accept silence over action. China takes advantage of this silence and adamantly continues its incursions into the Bhutanese territory. This has led Bhutan finally to relinquish its claim on Kula Khari, 154-square-mile in its northern border.
Not just in the northern border, Bhutan’s western border too is very fragile and attracts several incursions from the PLA; and it became habitual from 2004 to 2009. In 2004, the PRC (People’s Republic of China) built six roads in Chumbi valley very close to Bhutan’s western border and out of which four go straight to Bhutan. All complaints raised by Thimphu fell into Beijing’s deaf ear; and nothing could stop the bully from conducting its construction work.
The Sino-Bhutanese joint survey in 2013 in the Beyul area reached no logical conclusion as China expected Bhutan to accept its decision. The latter’s non-compliances irked China to escalate tension in Bhutan’s western sector. This could transpire the Doklam faceoff in 2017. China resorts to choking Bhutan at its north in order to demand compliance from the latter in its west. This is the game PRC plays with Bhutan. The Bhutan-China MoU signed on 14 October and the demonstrative digital display of camaraderie and the promise of amicable border settlement are all China’s gimmick and verbosity.
PRC through its BRI-trap has taken India’s immediate neighbours to its control and the only neighbour that stands committed to India in spite of all trouble that China creates for it, is Bhutan. Beijing works doggedly to take Thimphu to its side and attack India’s Achilles heel, the Siliguri corridor. India and Bhutan therefore need to come strongly together to confront the common enemy.
Jajati K Pattnaik is an Associate Professor in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Chandan K Panda is an Assistant Professor at Rajiv Gandhi University, Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh. Views expressed are personal.