China and India have been watching each other’s militarisation of the Himalayas with great wariness. Now, a serious dispute has erupted over the demarcation of the Bhutanese border. The dream of the Asian giants as fraternal ‘Brics’ partners looks ever more fanciful.
In June, the Chinese government accused Indian border guards in India’s north-eastern state of Sikkim of crossing the border into Chinese-held Tibet. The Indians were attempting to obstruct the construction of a mountain road through an obscure tri-border region that India calls Doklam and China refers to as Donglang. The small kingdom of Bhutan claims this remote slice of Himalayan landscape as part of its own territory.
Bhutan and India counter-claimed that Chinese soldiers had destroyed two Bhutanese military bunkers, and more importantly, that they were altering the territorial status quo, which has ensured peace in the area for decades. The deployment of Indian and Chinese troops to the area began a border standoff that has lasted a month so far. Approximately 300 soldiers from either side are now facing – and occasionally jostling – each other just 150m apart.
Doklam: strategy and symbol
Doklam is disputed between China on one side and Bhutan, supported by India, on the other. According to Bhutan, the tri-boundary point lies at Batang-la, around 4km north of where the troops are currently gathering. China claims the border point is located at Mount Gipmochi/Gyemochen, 2.5km south of the stand-off.
Mount Gipmochi is crucial for access to the Siliguri Corridor, often called the ‘chicken’s neck’, a 20km-wide strip that connects India’s seven north-eastern states to the rest of the country. India’s concern is thus that Chinese expansionism could cut off this vital stretch of land, severing India from its turbulent north-east.
The quarrel over Doklam is further complicated by India’s own ongoing territorial disputes with China. Most of the 4,000km border separating the two countries is disputed by both sides. China sees much of Himalayan India as being part of Tibet, and thus part of China. India, by contrast, hosts the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government in exile, much to Beijing’s annoyance.
Nonetheless, apart from low-level scuffles, the frontier has been largely conflict-free since the Chinese invasion of India in 1962. It is possible that China, which has resolved 11 border disputes in recent years, is trying to use the stand-off as leverage for future negotiations with India over other territorial claims.
Little brother Bhutan
China is also in the midst of an extensive regional infrastructure programme to increase regional trade, and the Doklam road would provide easy access to border posts with Bhutan.
Chinese trading and investment relations tend to come with strategic inroads; India is concerned that enhanced China-Bhutan trade could tempt Bhutan out of India’s strategic orbit, as China has attempted to do with all of India’s smaller neighbours.
In the 1949 Treaty of Friendship between India and Bhutan, India was given the power to shape Bhutan’s foreign policy. In 2007, the treaty was renegotiated and updated, giving Bhutan far more autonomy but reaffirming the responsibility of India to intervene if Bhutan was militarily threatened and requiring the two countries to ‘cooperate closely… on issues relating to their national interests’.
For now, Bhutan remains firmly within India’s orbit, but Beijing has been pushing to establish diplomatic ties with the kingdom. In 1998, China and Bhutan signed the ‘Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity in Bhutan-China Border Areas’. Bhutan regarded this as a significant victory: it was the first time that China had recognised its neighbour as a sovereign country. Since then, the two countries have held 24 rounds of talks, with China making efforts to deepen relations with Bhutan.
Without India’s approval, however, Bhutan will continue to avoid setting up diplomatic relations with Beijing. When the then-prime minister of Bhutan, Jigme Thinley, appeared to be growing closer to China, India simply cut subsidies on fuel exports to Bhutan during the Bhutanese electoral campaign in 2013. Thinley’s pro-India opponent Tshering Tobgay achieved a convincing victory. Though it is impossible to quantify the effect of the subsidy cuts on the electoral outcome, it is clear that India remains hugely influential in Bhutanese politics.