Making a new addition to the long list of multifarious border disputes, China has now declared the Eastern region of Bhutan to be yet another victim of its ‘expansionist’ policy. The Sino-Bhutanese border dispute ranges back to 1984, since then the two countries have held 24 rounds of talks to resolve their border issues. Until now, the disputed region only consisted of the Central and Western sections of the boundary. The talks between the two were delimited to three areas of dispute, Jakarlung and Pasamlung Areas in Northern Bhutan and one region in the West. Thus, China’s new claim on the Sakteng region of East Bhutan was a bolt out of the blue.
The Five Finger Plan
After the annexation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese leaders elucidated upon its Five Finger plan. In accordance with this, the Chinese believe Tibet to be the ‘palm’ with Ladakh, Nepal, Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh, and Sikkim being the five ‘fingers’. China’s aggression in the Himalayas and its attempt at changing the status quo has been nothing but a clear adumbration of how China is all set to bring this plan into action.
Where does Bhutan come into the Picture?
With historically tense diplomatic ties, Bhutan’s border with Tibet has never been officially recognised. In 1959, in A Brief History of China, China released a map that portrayed numerous territories of Bhutan as a part of China under the five finger plan. Later in the year, the annexation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China began. During this process, The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also captured several territories under the Bhutan region. These included regions of Gartok, Darchen, and several other monasteries that had been under the Bhutanese administration for more than 300 years.
The tensions began to escalate in 1961 with the invasion of Chinese soldiers and herdsmen. A tensed Bhutanese nation imposed extensive border controls and a cross-border trade embargo in retaliation to the increasing incursions. In order to build a safety net in response to the rising tensions between the two nations, Bhutan began building strong diplomatic and extensive military ties with India. Thus, the strong Indo-Bhutanese ties were attributed to the deteriorating Sino-Bhutanese diplomatic ties. Though this soon turned into neutrality from Bhutan’s end with India’s defeat in the Sino-Indian war of 1962, as the loss put forth a question on India’s ability to defend Bhutan from the Chinese wrath.
Fast-forward to 1988, when the tensions between the two nations further escalated, Bhutan and China signed a bilateral peace agreement based on the Panchsheel Treaty (a treaty-based on diplomatic principles of India and China to ensure non-interference in others’ internal affairs and respect for each other’s territorial unity integrity and sovereignty). This treaty was later violated by the Chinese authorities on account of building roads in regions under the territory of Bhutan. This was later settled in 2002 with an interim agreement.
The Doklam Standoff
A plateau and a trijunction between China, India and Bhutan became the cause of a major uproar in 2017. Doklam was never a source of contention or interest. Even during the prior independence talks of border settlement between the British and the Chinese, neither of them placed any significance on the plateau. But, since 1962, Beijing has made numerous claims over the territory. What sprouted this sudden and ardent interest in the plateau was not the plateau region itself, but the area surrounding it.
The Siliguri corridor often referred to as the ‘chicken’s neck’ is the Achilles heel of India. The corridor is of vital importance to India as it connects the Indian mainland to its north-eastern counterparts. Doklam’s proximity to the corridor is what makes the trijunction strategically immensely significant. Along with this, the plateau is surrounded by the Chumbi Valley, where the Chinese are militarily disadvantaged.
Thus, China has been undertaking innumerable measures by building a network of roads to provide a smooth flow to increase its military presence in the region. Doklam, hence, would provide commanding access to both the Siliguri corridor and the Chumbi Valley. To ensure proper security to the region, when the Chinese officials came with a target to extend its road networks southwards in Doklam, in regions under the authorisation of Bhutan, India rose to action to stop the construction. The construction of the road directly violated the terms of the 1988 peace agreement. This led to a two-month-long standoff in the region. In August 2017, a mutual disengagement on the plateau was undertaken to bring an end to the face-off in the region.
While the border tensions and issues have long continued, Chinese claim over the Sakteng valley is a new amendment to the long list. But out of all the disputed territory between the Sino-Bhutan authorities, the Sakteng valley constitutes to be the single largest of them all, comprising 11% of the region under the Bhutanese administration. Some believe that this claim is a threat to India, pertaining to the current Sino-Indian tensions in the Ladakh region. The Sakteng valley borders the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is claimed in its entirety by the Chinese Government. Others also believe that this claim is targeted as a threat to Bhutan to tip the scale on other disputed land areas including Doklam in favour of China in the 25th round of border talks long after the 2017 standoff. It remains to be seen what happens in the future.
What does it mean for India?
While the world’s attention is diverted towards dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, China is using this strategic time and is spreading its arm like an octopus: both in the Himalayan region and the South China sea. With neighbouring Nepal already an ally to China now and out of India’s orbit, India cannot afford to let loose its ties with Bhutan. With the growing attention of China towards the mountain kingdom, India is at a turmoil to be caught up in a bigger strategic ploy.
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