Sikkim standoff: Beijing should realise Bhutan is as important to India as North Korea is to China

Sikkim standoff: Beijing should realise Bhutan is as important to India as North Korea is to China

The ongoing face-off between the Indian and Chinese troops over a road construction on the borders of a 269-square kilometre plateau in Bhutan raises questions for both India and China, to which there may not be any convincing answers.

But, if one goes by history and logic, China’s answer will be more embarrassing than India’s. In fact, what India is doing in the Doklam plateau is exactly the same as what China is doing in the Korean peninsula at the moment.

The question for China is: Why is it in such a hurry to construct roads in a so-called disputed territory? Especially, since the territory’s status has to be determined through peaceful boundary negotiations with Bhutan – that have been on since 1984 (as of now, there have been 24 rounds of China-Bhutan border negotiations, the last one being held in Beijing in August 2016).

The question for India, on the other hand, is: Why are Indian troops fighting for Bhutan in “Bhutanese territory” to repel the encroaching Chinese soldiers? Especially given the fact that India and Bhutan do not have a formal defence or security treaty between them, that calls for one to come to the rescue of the other under attack or threats.

ile image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping. Reuters Now, let us look at China. The Chinese claims over Bhutanese territory cover a total of 764 square kilometres – the North West (269 square kilometres), constituting the Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe in Samste, Haa and Paro districts; and Central parts (495 square kilometres), constituting the Pasamlung and the Jakarlung valley in the Wangdue Phodrang district.

In 1996, China offered Bhutan a “resolution package deal”, proposing an exchange of Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys, totalling an area of 495 square kilometres in Central Bhutan, with the pasture land of Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe, amounting to 269 square kilometres in North Western Bhutan. But Bhutan rejected it. In 1998, Bhutan and China signed a peace agreement promising to ‘maintain peace and tranquillity on the Bhutan-China Border Areas’.

China has violated this ‘peace agreement’ by trying to construct roads in Doklam. As Ambassador of Bhutan to India Vetsop Namgyel has said, “Doklam is a disputed territory and Bhutan has a written agreement with China that pending the final resolution of the boundary issue, peace and tranquillity should be maintained in the area.” China cannot describe its actions as legitimate, which it does by describing the area as “a part of Chinese territory”.

Now comes the question to India, a question that, in fact, has been asked by China. According to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, India is objecting to the Chinese efforts to build the road on behalf of Bhutan (which, incidentally, does not have any diplomatic ties with Beijing), “a universally recognised sovereign country”.

He then advised, “Hope countries can respect the sovereignty of the country (Bhutan). The China-Bhutan boundary is not delineated, no third party should interfere in this matter and make irresponsible remarks or actions.”

However, China knows the answer to this question very well, given its own stance in the Korean peninsula under similar circumstances. The United States, bound by a security treaty with South Korea, has deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile systems to counter possible nuclear missiles from North Korea, following two nuclear tests by the latter in 2016. But China has vehemently opposed the deployment of THAAD in South Korea.

Beijing apprehends that THAAD in South Korea could weaken its second strike capability and destroy strategic stability between China and the Unite States. It is very much worried over THAAD’s technological capabilities, primarily the X-ray AN/TPY-2 radar system it employs, which, if directed at China, would provide a surveillance system for missiles launched within a radius of 1,500 to 2,000 kilometres.

This will speed up the forecasting time of the US National Missile Defense System (NMD) and significantly increase the missile intercept rate. Accordingly, China has demanded the removal of THAAD from South Korea, failing which it has threatened to “destroy” bilateral relations with Seoul.

Now, is South Korea not a sovereign country for China? After all, THAAD in South Korea does not pose a direct threat to China; it is an anti-ballistic missile system designed to destroy intermediate-range ballistic missiles originating from North Korea, not China. But then, the reality is that China considers stability in the Korean peninsula to be extremely important for its own security and any imbalance there (in favour of the US-South Korea alliance) will change the regional dynamics. And here, there are some merits to China’s apprehensions.

It is exactly similar to India’s apprehensions when China unilaterally changes the status quo in the area near Chumbi valley, the tri-junction of Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. Chinese intrusions into the territory under Bhutan’s control have ominous signals to India from the strategic point of view.

Chumbi Valley is only 500 kilometres from Siliguri corridor – the chicken neck which connects India to North East India and Nepal to Bhutan. This explains the rationale behind the aforesaid package deal that China has offered to Bhutan – Central areas for Bhutan in exchange the North-Western areas, which lie next to the Chumbi Valley tri-junction, for China.

The Chumbi Valley has enormous strategic importance for India in the sense that dominance here by China will adversely affect the stability in the Siliguri corridor, vital not only for the linkage between Indian mainland and the north-eastern Indian states but also to ensure security for Kolkata and the north Bihar plains.

And this is all the more important after China opened a railway network in August 2014 connecting Lhasa with Shigatse, a small town near the Indian border in Sikkim. China now wants to extend this line up to Yadong, situated at the mouth of the Chumbi valley. And once this is done, potential threats to the Siliguri corridor from China will take a menacing proportion.

It is obvious, therefore, for India to be concerned about Chinese incursions into the Bhutanese territory the same way China is worried over the deployment of THAAD in South Korea. Even otherwise, India-Bhutan relations are guided by the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, signed in 1949 and renewed in 2007. Bhutan and India are supposed to consult each other closely on foreign affairs and defence matters.

The Indian Army has always been present in Bhutan and is posted on many China-Bhutan border posts. The Indian Army maintains a training mission in Bhutan, known as the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT), not to speak of the exemplary work done in that country by the Border Roads Organisation, a subdivision of the Indian Army Corps of Engineers.

Besides, the Royal Bhutan Army relies on the Eastern Command of the Indian Air Force for air support during emergencies. Above all, in 1958, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had declared in the Indian Parliament that any aggression against Bhutan would be seen as aggression against India.

Bhutan is just not an ordinary country for India. It is as important to India as North Korea is to China.

 (Courtesy: First Post)

By Prakash Nanda

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