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 News18.com, 8 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.

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?”

Pressing Pause: India’s Absence at China’s Belt and Road Forum

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

The successful conclusion of the Belt and Road Forum (BARF) in Beijing, which India chose to stay away from, has led to a chorus of voices warning that in doing so, India has isolated itself both regionally and globally.

With the exception of Bhutan, all the South Asian neighbours of India participated, as did countries India regards as its partners in resisting the Chinese dominance of Asia; these include the US, Japan, Australia and Vietnam. Japan and Vietnam are also countries of South East Asia, which, like India, have territorial disputes with China, but they did not consider those disputes reason enough to stay away. It may also be argued that India itself has not let its territorial disputes with China stand in the way of cooperating with it on matters of mutual interest such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) or the BRICS Development Bank (DB).

India’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) will also present opportunities for regional cooperation with China and other member countries. These opportunities constituted a rationale for seeking membership in the organisation. So, did India make a wrong call in staying away from the BARF? Continue reading “Pressing Pause: India’s Absence at China’s Belt and Road Forum”

Sheikh Hasina’s India Visit: China in the Background

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

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina state visit to India from 7-10 April came after at least two postponements. The difficulty in getting the visit to take off is a far cry from the warmth and cordiality that was on display in words and deeds during Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Dhaka in June 2015.

Hasina’s reservations had to do with her fear of coming away from New Delhi without any agreement either on sharing the Teesta river waters or on constructing the Ganges Barrage on the Padma river at Pangsha near Rajbari, which is what has happened. The agreement has fallen through multiple times during both the UPA tenure as well as during Modi’s visit and despite Dhaka agreeing to major India’s major demands of allowing transit of goods to Northeast both from Indian mainland overland through Bangladesh territory and by sea through the Bangladeshi ports of Chittagong and Mongla.

The Contrast

The coming state visit will be Hasina’s first in seven years to India and it might be useful to compare and contrast the progress in Dhaka’s ties with China – India’s principal challenger for Bangladesh’s affections – in the meantime. Continue reading “Sheikh Hasina’s India Visit: China in the Background”

Chinese Debates on North Korea

Hemant Adlakha, PhD, Honorary Fellow, ICS & Associate Professor of Chinese at the Centre for Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, School of Language, Literature, & Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University , New Delhi

Earlier this month, China voiced its unhappiness with North Korea for firing four extended range Scud missiles into the Sea of Japan. Beijing had suspended all coal imports from its neighbor earlier in February. Pyongyang responded by accusing Beijing of “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” This was not the first time North Korea had thumbed its nose at China. However, Beijing was in for a surprise when several Chinese strategic affairs experts went up in arms and demanded the Peoples’ Republic “abandon” North Korea. Continue reading “Chinese Debates on North Korea”

The Dilemma of China’s New Engagement with West Asia

Kishorchand Nongmaithem, Research Associate, ICS       

Traditionally, China has played little role in West Asia. However, in recent years it has become more active in its diplomatic engagement with the countries in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s four-day visit to China commencing on 20 March 2017, just few days after China hosted Saudi Arabia’s king Salman bin Abdulaziz and signed an agreement worth US$65 billion, shows China’s increasing interest in the region’s politics. China’s diplomacy appears intended to increase its profile and facilitate its interests in the region. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping also toured to three of the most important countries in West Asia—Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Continue reading “The Dilemma of China’s New Engagement with West Asia”