Bhutan: the ‘Missing’ Piece of the Puzzle

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

In the latest faceoff between Indian and Chinese troops in the Doklam area, the role and place of Bhutan has been easily overlooked. It is the Bhutanese after all that are contending with Chinese over the area and it is they who invited the Indians to take up cudgels on their behalf against the Chinese.

Bhutan is, in many respects, probably India’s only genuine ally in the region and this too, is largely the result of that country’s unique political history and development. The Bhutanese monarchy has played a key role in nurturing a close and beneficial relationship with India and India has in large measure reciprocated. While a tiny country, Bhutan has always been favoured with fairly senior and always competent Indian ambassadors in its capital and maintains the Indian Military Training Team in support of the Bhutanese army. Also worth remembering is the fact that it was to Bhutan that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first official foreign visit after taking office.

That said, India should simply count itself lucky that it has managed to maintain a special place for itself in Bhutan’s international affairs for such a long time despite the vagaries of international politics.

It is clear that the Chinese are exerting their might to end this exceptionalism. The Doklam incident is a case in point.

After 24 rounds of Sino-Bhutanese boundary negotiations, there appears to be a public perception gaining ground in Bhutan to settle the boundary dispute with China independently of India. And since settlement might involve compromises, the most likely one would be of foregoing claims in their west, i.e., the Doklam area in return for claims in the north – which are more significant for the Bhutanese themselves from cultural and religious points of view. So far however, the tacit agreement between India and Bhutan that they will settle their boundary disputes with China together, has held.

Meanwhile, China has continuously exerted pressure on Thimphu to open formal diplomatic relations. Its failure thus far has often led its analysts and diplomats to derisively refer to the smaller country as a ‘protectorate’ of India. A recent Global Times editorial, in fact, takes pot shots at Bhutan’s ‘happiness index’ and criticizes its policies on its Nepalese population – part of a broader pattern of the Chinese state’s opportunistic criticism of countries it has problems with.

Naturally, Bhutan – including both the government and the public – itself is acutely sensitive to criticism that imputes it is less than completely sovereign. It is perhaps for this reason that it has also not infrequently tried to assert its voice in international affairs independently of and differently from India. Consider for instance, the Bhutanese parliament’s stalling earlier this year, of the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal motor vehicles agreement that India had strongly pushed.

In this context, comparisons with Nepal are not entirely out of place. The differences between the monarchy in Nepal and the Indian government at various stages over the decades eventually culminated in its kings playing the China card frequently against India and this practice has continued into the post-monarchy political dispensation as well. Indeed, in the space of just over a decade in Nepal, China has managed to firmly entrench itself as an influential player in Nepal and a pole in nearly all Nepalese political parties around which those opposed to India gather.

Such a situation does not yet exist in Bhutan but as an electoral democracy – parliamentary elections are due next year – it is only a matter of time before concerns about India, valid or otherwise, will lead to the coalescing of forces that articulate them more cogently, frequently and openly.

And China is helping this process along through its public diplomacy as well as through economic means. For instance, under the Chinese government’s tourism programmes – widely used as a weapon of statecraft – Chinese tourists contribute significant numbers and revenue to Bhutan. Chinese economic leverages are likely only to increase in Bhutan and with these, also political influence.

It is against this reality that the Doklam incident must be evaluated. In fact, in many ways, it might be argued that the Chinese have achieved a more important political objective of putting pressure on the India-Bhutan relationship.

If India sees Chinese proximity to the narrow Siliguri corridor as a military threat, it cannot but be the case that a cooling of relations between India and Bhutan, if not an accretion of Chinese influence in the smaller country, performs much the same function and perhaps, even better. While India tried to preempt such possibilities with the renegotiation of the 1949 treaty with Bhutan in 2007, conditions have remained dynamic and India has not been able to prepare adequately for, leave alone preempt, China’s increasing assertiveness in South Asia.

This article was originally published as,‘Doklam Standoff: Not Forgetting Bhutan’, in, 8 July 2017.

Doklam: Understanding the Chinese Actions in Bhutan

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

Following the latest confrontation between China and India in the Doklam area of Bhutan, there is clearly an edge to the repeated Chinese calls to India to ‘immediately pull back’ Indian troops to their side of the boundary.

The Chinese have stressed that this ‘is the precondition for any meaningful talks between the two sides aiming at resolving the issue’.



What should Indians make of this and what should we look out for?

First, there have been frequent statements from India that it is not what it was in 1962 and the Chinese have responded that neither is it for that matter. And this implies more than just the accretion of military capability and determination and will on both sides.

These statements are also a reminder that both sides have a clearer view of each other shorn of romanticism on the Indian side and of an equally romanticised ideology-driven anti-imperialism on the Chinese side.

Responsible leaders on either side know the costs of war. In particular, the Chinese are somewhat more conscious of the domestic political and economic costs of actual kinetic conflict as opposed to sabre-rattling.

The argument can be made that going into an important Communist Party Congress in a few months time, and given his strong domestic record in carrying out his political agenda, including the battle against corruption, Xi Jinping does not really need to show such muscularity in foreign policy as a way of consolidating his position.

Second, the Chinese are certainly caught in a spiral of their own making. The reliance on nationalism to overcome the shortcomings in communist practice today in China means that there is no easy or immediate way to spin Indian troop movement in defence of Bhutan as anything but an act of aggression against China.

However, the state’s control over the news dissemination system is strong enough in China to bury the matter gradually over time. Note, for example, Beijing did precious little in response to the Myanmarese air force bombing Kokang rebels on the Chinese side of the border in March 2015, ignoring online criticism by its citizens.

It then depends on the Indian side to ensure that it sticks to its firm but measured response in Doklam.

Third, despite Chinese statements that India has no business interceding on the behalf of Bhutan, they are also perhaps aware how this will play out internationally – that India has merely come to the rescue of its smaller neighbour in response to the bullying actions of their northern neighbour.

While China has managed to portray the South China Sea issue as a case of several smaller countries ganging up against it with American backing and in the process also managed to divide ASEAN over time, there is no equivalent opportunity in the Doklam case.

SAARC as an entity does not deal with or delve into issues of this sort and this will be seen more easily as a bilateral David versus Goliath situation. Here, perhaps, there was an element of Chinese miscalculation of the potential for a coordinated Bhutanese and Indian response.

Still, China is not without leverage for the future based on the responses of its southern neighbours.

For one, it has through its brazen and provocative move in Bhutan’s territory, pushed the issue of their boundary dispute a little more to the forefront of attention of the Bhutanese public. There will be, without a doubt, increasing debate within Bhutan on the merits of leaving the dispute unresolved until India is able to resolve its own boundary dispute with China.

This then opens up the possibility of targeted Chinese political and economic effort to increase Beijing’s influence in the tiny country. China’s success in becoming a force in Nepalese politics today is a case in point.

Two, India must not make the mistake of assuming that Xi’s preoccupation with the upcoming 19th Party Congress means that he will be too distracted to focus on foreign policy and security matters. Or that this gives People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) local commanders the freedom to take the initiative and that therefore, there is no hand of the central leadership in assertive activity along the Line of Actual Control.

Far from it.

Xi’s big stress in so far as the PLA is concerned has been on ensuring absolute supremacy of and loyalty to the Party. Actions might show local variance but they are unmistakably the result of central direction from Beijing. Any confusion on this score will muddle both analysis and response.

Meanwhile, one way of explaining the Doklam incident – more so than any reference to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States or the upcoming Malabar Exercises in the Indian Ocean – is that the Chinese leadership wishes to convey in clear terms that it will not take the gimlet eye off national security issues whatever its domestic preoccupations.

And like China’s frequent incursions into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands – 16 times already this year – India too, can expect LAC incursions to continue, even pick up pace and display a qualitatively different nature in the coming months and years.

This article was originally published as,‘India, China and the ‘pull back your troops’ fracas: Explaining action and reaction on Doklam’, in Catch News, 7 July 2017.

India-China Face-Off in Doklam – Need for firmness of resolve but with a measure of caution and prudence 

Shyam Saran, Member, ICS Governing Council and former Indian Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister’s Special Envoy

The latest face-off between the Indian and Chinese security forces in Doklam, where the borders of India, China and Bhutan meet, brings a sense of déjà vu. There was a similar extended face-off in the Depsang area in Ladakh in April 2013. There have been other incidents as well but the mechanisms in place to maintain peace and tranquillity at the border have eventually worked and the issues have been resolved. Both sides have remained committed to preventing escalation. One hopes that the Doklam incident will not be allowed to vitiate the relationship between the two countries, particularly in view of the fact that Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly had a friendly meeting on the sidelines of the recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Almaty. Both leaders made a special effort to put relations back on a positive track after a somewhat prickly interlude, which included India’s refusal to join the Chinese-led One Belt One Road initiative. This turnaround in relations must not suffer a setback as a result of the latest incident. This may impact the prospects of a possible bilateral summit when the leaders attend the forthcoming G-20 summit in Hamburg.

It is important to understand that as a result of sustained development of infrastructure at their common border, their border guarding forces are able to mount more frequent patrols and visit areas which were hitherto remote and barely accessible. This has multiplied the occasions when the patrols run into each other and wherever there are differences in perception concerning the alignment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), face-offs become inevitable. This is what has been happening over the recent past and the bilateral measures to ensure peace and tranquillity need to be upgraded to take these developments into account. This is all the more necessary in order to avoid misunderstanding and unintended escalation in segments of the border which hold special sensitivity for either side.

The bedrock of the peace and tranquillity regime between India and China is the mutual commitment that neither side will seek to unilaterally alter the status quo at the LAC. Both sides are also committed to resolving any differences which may arise through consultations, beginning at the local level and then going right up to the senior-most levels. Of late, China has been resorting increasingly to unilateral actions seeking to alter the status quo. This is what has happened at Doklam and the Indian side had to respond in order to prevent an enhanced threat to the narrow land corridor which links the Indian North-East to the rest of the country.  The Chinese side maintains that in the “Convention Between Great Britain and China relating to Sikkim and Tibet”, the southern-most point identified as the peak of Gipmochi, is located on the Bhutan frontier but further south. On this basis, China has laid a claim to Doklam, but this has been contested by the Bhutanese side. The Chinese side has recognised this as disputed territory and even in the past its construction of mud tracks through this area had been resisted by the Bhutanese border guards.  Although both China and India accept the alignment of the Sikkim-Tibet boundary as laid down in the Convention except for the so-called “The Finger” at its northern-most point, they have agreed that as far as the trijunction is concerned this can only be settled in consultation with Bhutan.  Until then the commitment not to unilaterally alter the status quo, should be observed by all sides concerned. The current impasse has arisen because the Chinese side has gone further by attempting to build a defence class road through the area in place of the earlier mud tracks. This will significantly elevate the potential security threat to the Siliguri corridor which is a vital transport artery for both India and Bhutan. China should have shown greater sensitivity in this matter.

The Chinese side has demanded that the issue should be resolved by India withdrawing its security personnel from the Doklam area.  In fact the issue can be defused by both sides agreeing to restore the status quo and mutually disengaging their forces. This is how earlier such incidents were resolved satisfactorily.

It is clear that the Indian side does not want the situation to escalate. It has been fairly muted in its reaction to the daily and harsh rhetoric emanating from the Chinese side whether from official sources or from the media. The Chinese action to suspend the Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrimage through the Nathu la Pass and its more recent cancellation of a visit of Indian journalists to Tibet are uncalled for. These will heighten tensions and lead to an adverse public reaction in India. In a charged public environment it becomes difficult to deal with issues in a sober and measured manner.

For India this incident has certain unique sensitivities as it involves not only China but also a very close neighbour and partner, Bhutan. India would not wish to do anything which embarrasses Bhutan or which complicates its relations with China. This is another reason to handle the incident in as discreet a manner as possible. This is the first time that Indian forces have engaged China from the soil of a third country and this cannot but be a sensitive issue for a proud and independent country like Bhutan. It is imperative that whatever India does to deal with the situation, it does so in close consultation with Bhutan. It will only be too easy for an impression to gain ground that India has dragged a reluctant Bhutan into its own disputes with China. Bhutan’s press release confirming that it had lodged a protest against China’s road building in Doklam has helped dispel the perception that it is India and not Bhutan reacting to the Chinese action but we should continue to emphasise that the two countries are acting in concert against a shared threat. India-Bhutan relations are far too important to be affected negatively by developments related to China.

We must acknowledge that India-China relations are undergoing a change. China believes that India should acknowledge the power disparity between the two sides and show appropriate deference to China. In the past it had tacitly acknowledged Indian pre-eminence in the South Asian region. It is no longer willing to do so and is seeking such pre-eminence for itself. In the Asia-Pacific region it believes that under Trump, the U.S. has abandoned any notion of a “pivot” to Asia . It also believes that its dominance of the South China Sea and South East Asia is now unchallenged. In this context, India is not seen as a constraint on China, which can pursue its interests, indeed its ambitions, more openly, more aggressively. In Chinese perceptions, therefore, India’s refusal to join Xi Jinping’s signature initiative, the One Belt One Road, is seen as impertinence. In dealing with China in Doklam, this overall context must be kept in mind. We need firmness of resolve but expressed through a measure of caution and prudence.

This article was originally published as, ‘The Standoff in Doklam’, in The Tribune, 4 July 2017.

Panama Switches Diplomatic Recognition to PRC: Understanding the Chinese Action and Strategy

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

Taiwan has lost yet another member of the small group of countries that recognize it diplomatically with Panama in Central America making the move to build ties with the PRC instead. The last country to switch ties was São Tomé and Príncipe in December 2016. Before that it was Gambia at the beginning of the previous year. But in between it must also be recalled that there was the move in Nigeria to get the Taiwan representation to move from Abuja, the capital, to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial center, an attempt to curtail whatever limited diplomatic privileges that the Taiwanese enjoyed in practice there. Taiwan is now down to just 20 countries recognizing it officially.[1]

With the latest action, there can be no doubt that China under Xi Jinping is engaged in a long-term but steady strategy of trying to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and constrain its international space. Beijing is declaring in unequivocal terms that it does not believe that it can reach any form of accommodation with Tsai Ing-wen’s pro-Taiwanese independence Democratic Progressive Party-led government and that its patience to wait for reunification is diminishing.

While the first aspect, that is the lack of faith in Tsai and the DPP might be the result of an objective evaluation of the situation especially given the Taiwanese side’s unwillingness to accept the so-called ‘1992 consensus’, the latter part has much to do with China’s own evolving sense of its international self. In other words, just as Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of ‘observe calmly… bide one’s time’ has been set aside in favour of a more proactive approach to change the ground realities as for example, in the South China Sea issue, so also with Taiwan. The Xi leadership appears to be believe that Taiwan’s politics and economy must be actively influenced or controlled in order to achieve the desired outcomes. Constraining Taiwan’s international space is merely one strand of this approach.

What is more while earlier, attitude of US administrations was an active and constraining factor in its turn for China, Beijing appears to sense an opportunity to increase costs for Taiwan without itself being affected by a strong American reaction with Donald Trump as US president. It would appear that China now sees Trump’s opening salvo of publicizing his contact with Tsai in December on the eve of his inauguration as a one-off without much policy forethought involved.

Interpreting China’s Choice of Countries to Wean Away from Taiwan

Panama’s action must hurt all the more since Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen had visited Panama in June last year as part of her first official overseas visit. Nevertheless, the move should also not surprise Taiwanese officials since as was evident from the Wikileaks revelations in 2011, Panama was one among a group of Central American countries including Nicaragua, Paraguay, Honduras – also countries that Tsai has visited – Dominica and Haiti that had all expressed interest in switching recognition to Beijing from Taipei, with the Chinese apparently stalling the moves as part of a ‘diplomatic truce’ with then Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou of not poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies.[2]

So the first aspect of the Chinese targeting it might be said is on countries that are being opportunistic and willing already to make the switch, perhaps in search for greater economic largesse. A second related aspect might be to target countries that Tsai has visited in order to drive home the diplomatic embarrassment for Taiwan.

A third aspect is the economic one. While to a large degree, China’s increasing economic heft and reach across the globe is part of an ongoing and even organic process, if one were to take the São Tomé case, it is also evident that there is an element of Chinese legwork involved. Even during the years of truce with the Ma Ying-jeou administration, Beijing opened a trade mission São Tomé in 2013 with the added lure of possible investment in a US$400 million deepwater port.[3] Already in 2012, China had overtaken Taiwan in terms of its trade volume with São Tomé. Taiwan in fact suffered a sharp decrease relative to China in by the end of the year.[4]

The case of Panama is not much different with a sharp difference in Panama’s trade volumes with China and Taiwan evident from at about 2010. Further, there are again important Chinese investments in Panama that are leverage for Beijing. For example, Margarita Island Port, Panama’s largest port and located at the Panama Canal’s opening to the Atlantic Ocean is owned by China’s Shandong Landbridge Group.[5] Thus, a fourth element of strategic relevance might also be added to the list of factors driving China’s timing and choice of Taiwanese allies to target.

And taking all these factors into account and given the somewhat fickle nature of its leadership, Nicaragua could well be the next Chinese target to steal away from Taiwan. A private Hong Kong company owned by a Chinese national has been endeavouring since July 2014 to build a canal across the South American nation in order to rival the Panama Canal[6] even if the estimated US$50billion project has little to show in terms of progress so far and faces heavy domestic opposition.[7]








Artificial Intelligence and China’s Future

Shruthi Anup Kumar, Research Intern, ICS

The field of artificial intelligence or AI encompasses a number of possibilities. Ranging from autonomous driving systems and language interpretation to facial recognition and military weapons, AI comprises not only the development of a robot that can move, think and talk like a human being but also includes smart programmes that are built to overcome our shortcomings and make the job easier for a human being.

In 2015, China’s central government launched the ‘Made in China 2025’ policy,[1] whereby the shift in focus from mass producing factory goods to developing high tech manufactured products by the year 2025 was announced. The effect of this policy was especially felt in the AI sector which is expected to grow from an industry of 23.9 billion Yuan (as of 2016) to 38 billion Yuan by the year 2018.[2] Continue reading “Artificial Intelligence and China’s Future”

China’s Technological Success in Manufacturing

Amitava Banik, BE (E&C), PGDM (Insurance Business)

China has for some time now been holding a position of technological significance in the world. It is a great success story for a country that is still counted among the world’s developing nations. Memories of the time it had been associated with inferior quality products have all but vanished. China has not only been extremely successful in making its products the “new normal” all over the world, but with its investments in cutting edge technologies, infrastructure and skilled manpower, it has started to edge into the hi-tech zone.

It is generally accepted that countries develop in successive stages from an agricultural economy to industrial manufacturing and then to a service-based economy. All major world economies have traversed this path. The transformation in India on the contrary, has been from the agrarian economy to a service economy, virtually jumping over the manufacturing stage. One of the primary reasons put forward by economists for this bypassing of the manufacturing stage in India, is the lack of progress of primary education in the country. Continue reading “China’s Technological Success in Manufacturing”

Does Chinese Public Opinion on North Korea Affect China’s Foreign Policy?

Niyati Shetty, Research Intern, ICS & 1st MA International Studies, Christ University, Bangalore

Over the years, Chinese public opinion towards North Korea has shown a downward trend with an increasingly negative opinions gaining ground. There are two aspects to public opinion – popular opinion and elite opinion. Chinese popular opinion about North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is reflected in his nickname ‘Kim Fatty III’ (Jīn Sān Pàng), widely used by Chinese netizens[1]. In 2013, after North Korea’s third nuclear test, a web search on ‘North Korea’ showed that the majority of the 41 million mentions were about North Korea being a security threat and urging the government to change its policies towards the country.[2] There have also been various incidents that triggered the Chinese public’s growing resentment against North Korea.[3]

Chinese elites and scholars have also been a part of this negative discourse against North Korea. Continue reading “Does Chinese Public Opinion on North Korea Affect China’s Foreign Policy?”