On the eve of the 25th round of border talks between China and Bhutan, the PLA is back at its old mischief on the Bhutan-Sikkim-Bengal trijunction.
Its troops are “trying to work around or outflank” the Indian Doka La military outpost, located on the ridge dominating Doklam by constructing a new 1.3-km long road and “communication trenches” around 4-km away from the spot.
This alternative axis could allow them access towards the Jampheri Ridge in south Doklam. That was the strategic objective the PLA had set for itself before the determined Indian army forced them to back off during a 73-day troop stand-off last year.
India is “highly sensitive” about the Jampheri Ridge because it overlooks its militarily-vulnerable “Chicken’s Neck” area.
Officials say China remains keen to usurp Doklam or the Dolam Plateau, disputed between Beijing and Thimpu, to add strategic depth to its narrow Chumbi Valley, which juts in like a dagger between Sikkim and Bhutan. It is likely that China will make a determined effort to secure Doklam for which it is prepared to concede other areas.
The border talks started in 1950s when China published maps claiming Bhutanese territory, thus bringing the issue into the public domain.
The disputed areas that China claimed covered a total of 764 square kilometres covering the North West (269 sq km) and Central parts of Bhutan (495 sq km).
While the North West part constitutes the Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe in Samste, Haa and Paro districts, the Central parts constitute the Pasamlung and the Jakarlung valley in the Wangdue Phodrang district.
The intrusion by Chinese soldiers and Tibetan herders has often been an issue of concern in Bhutan’s National Assembly discussions, where many chimis (district representatives) have claimed that traditionally the land always belonged to Bhutan and historically there has been no precedence of Bhutan paying taxes to the Tibetan government for any of the disputed claims.
If one traces the trajectory of boundary negotiations between Bhutan and China they can be divided into three significant phases.
The engagement phase started in 1984; the redistribution phase took off in 1996; and the normalisation phase accounting for the present spate of negotiations can be traced to 2000.
In the engagement phase, both parties decided to hold formal boundary talks and discussed issues of mutual concern. The Sino-Bhutan boundary issue till the seventies was being considered under the broader aegis of Sino-Indian border negotiations.
The Chinese intent in the engagement phase was to engage Bhutan bilaterally and create a conducive atmosphere for facilitating bilateral relations.
This argument can be made by assessing a statement made by Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue in 2008 who claimed that border issues have been a platform for facilitating mutual cooperation between the two countries.
The redistribution phase started in 1996, when China for the first time as part of the resolution package offered Bhutan a package deal, proposing an exchange of Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys totalling an area of 495 sq km in Central Bhutan, with the pasture land of Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe amounting to 269 sq km in North Western Bhutan.
In 1998 both countries for the first time signed a peace agreement promising to ‘Maintain Peace and Tranquillity on the Bhutan-China Border Areas.’
The agreement was seen as significant in Thimpu because China for the first time acknowledged Bhutan as a sovereign country and stated clearly in the agreement that “China fully respects the territorial integrity and independence of Bhutan.”
This was the first official recognition and Bhutan could break free from the stated Chinese rhetoric of middle kingdom suzerainty. China during the talks also insisted on expanding the zone of engagement towards developing trade and formal diplomatic relations.
The normalisation phase can also be called the extension phase as both countries since 2000 have not shifted positions. In 2000, Bhutan extended the claim line of the disputed border. The same year, it also proposed technical discussions, using maps, between experts from the two sides. As can be gathered, the latest talks have not made progress beyond the stated positions.
However, China-Bhutan engagement has intensified over the years as indicated by the December 2009 statement made by the Ugyen Tshering, the Foreign Minister of Bhutan, in Kolkata.
Tshering claimed that diplomatic and trade ties between Bhutan and China “are definitely conceivable in the future,” adding that an indirect trade link has already been established as India often buys heavy machinery and equipment of superior quality at competitive prices from China and then installs it in Bhutan.
China has made deep inroads into Bhutan in the past few years by exporting farming and telecommunication equipment. However, it has also not shied away from keeping Bhutan on tenterhooks by dangling the carrot of a promising economic engagement but also using extensive pressure tactics by regularly intruding into Bhutanese territory. Chinese soldiers have encircled Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) outposts for than 50 times since 2007.
The protracted nature of Sino-Bhutan boundary talks and the continuous Chinese intrusions into Bhutanese territory reveals the strategic element in Chinese engagement with the tiny Himalayan Kingdom.
In November 2007, Chinese forces dismantled several unmanned posts near the Chumbi valley. This “distorted the Sino-Bhutanese border near Sikkim,” with Chinese forces only a few kilometres away from the Siliguri corridor. The North-Western areas of Bhutan which China wants in exchange for the Central areas lie next to the Chumbi Valley tri-junction. Thus the potential consequences of an exchange deal would raise strategic concerns in India.
The Sino-Bhutan boundary negotiation has gained much strategic importance and any significant move in north-western Bhutan’s border with China could ring alarm bells in Indian strategic circles. Bhutan as a small country surrounded by two Asian giants has been successful in managing external players with some rare deftness but it always risks getting sandwiched between the two Asian giants.
Subir Bhaumik is a veteran journalist based in Kolkata and author of several books on Northeast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org