Six years later Bhutan tilts to China over Doklam

It has been almost 6 years since China tried to change the status quo in Doklam. In 2017, China sent People Liberation Army (PLA) scurrying deep into Doklam razing off stone bunkers built by Royal Bhutan Army (RBA). After a failed resistance bid the RBA sought India’s help that led to a bloody stand-off between Indian forces and PLA that went on for two months non-stop. China also made a rubbish statement that Thimpu agrees to its claim over Doklam which was later denied by Bhutan.

Bhutan had firmly stated that any construction activity in Doklam by the PLA troops is a clear violation of agreed terms between Thimpu and Beijing. Doklam is a trijunction of strategic importance to China, Bhutan and India. For India it is an extremely volatile situation as China’s territorial claim of Doklambrings the dragon closer to 27-km-Long Siliguri Channel or the “Chicken neck” that connects the northeastern states with the rest of India.

Bhutanese Prime Minister, Lotay Tshering, recently raised eyebrows by claiming in an interview with the Belgian Daily La Libre that Beijing has an equal say in finding a resolution to the dispute over the high-altitude plateau, which New Delhi believes has been illegally occupied by China. “It is not up to Bhutan alone
to solve the problem. There are three of us. There is no big or small country, there are three equal countries, each counting for a third,”Tshering said.

Bhutan’s Prime Minister says, ”We are ready. As soon as the other two parties are ready too, we can discuss.” This gives a direct signal to India that Thimpu is now ready to discuss Doklam and its territorial status with China having an equal say as India.

The current statement by Mr. Tshering is contrasting to what he stated to The Hindu in 2019, that no side’ should do anything near the existing tri junction point between the three countries. For decades, this narrow plateau, as represented in world maps, has been located at a spot called Batang La. China’s Chumbi Valley lies to the North of Batang La, Bhutan lies to the South and East and India (Sikkim), to the West.

In 2017, through the Doklam stand-off, China had an intention to move the center of trijunction to approximately 7 km south of Batang La to a peak called Mount Gipmochi. This move could have made the entire Doklam plateau a legal part of China with a bonus of easy access to “chicken neck” of India. Lieutenant General Pravin Bakshi (Retd), who was Eastern Army commander when the Doklam crisis erupted in 2017, gave a stern warning to China and said:
“Any attempt by China to shift the location of the tri-junction South would be unacceptable to the Indian Armed Forces. Chinese attempts at unilateral disruption of the status quo, like construction activity across parts of Western Bhutan, is a major security concern with a clear security bearing upon India.”

Experts in Sino-Indian relations believe that this sudden tilt of Bhutan towards China could be due to an overpowering stance of the dragon. Satellite images of Bhutanese territory along the Amo Chu river valley, which lies adjacent and directly to the East of Doklam, shows construction of villages and roads by Chinese troops. This further suggests Bhutan might have ceded some territory to China to carry out operations against India.

Now what the Bhutanese PM has recently stated is also seen as an attempt to give a blanket cover to Chinese illegal occupation of Bhutan while treating Doklam as a separate issue from other western areas claimed by China. But Bhutan does not understand that this would encourage China to claim even more Bhutanese territories.

It is understood that Bhutan is willing to give away its territory it has lost on its Western frontier to China in order to retain the land mass to the North. But if Bhutan will legalize Chinese control of Bhutanese territory to the West that would be directly against India’s diplomatic and security interests.

In the start of 2023, Chinese and Bhutanese experts had met in Kunming to discuss boundary issues. Over 20 rounds of talks took place between both sides in order to build a positive agreement. ”We are not experiencing major border problems with China, but some territories have not yet been demarcated,” said Prime Minister Tshering, downplaying the extent of China’s intrusions. “After one or two more meetings, we will probably be able to draw a dividing line,” he added.

New Delhi has been closely monitoring all these activities and Mr. Tshering’s recent statement has further indicated that China is back to its old tactics of manipulating smaller nations to get through its own objectives.


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