China’s recent discovery that it has a border dispute with tiny Bhutan, covering the eastern part of that country, soon after its People’s Liberation Army troops intruded into eastern Ladakh and set up some posts there, is a clear attempt by Beijing to rachet up pressure on New Delhi even as the two Asian giants are engaged in discussions on how to defuse their ongoing crisis on the Line of Actual Control.
Over three decades, from 1984 to 2016, China and Bhutan have held over 24 rounds of boundary talks, where the two sides have tried to sort out their differences over areas in western and central Bhutan, but at no time had the Chinese raised any claims to territory in eastern Bhutan, and it had simply not figured in their bilateral negotiations.
This “claim” first emerged at a virtual meeting of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) council in June as it was considering a Bhutanese application for a grant for its Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, located in eastern Bhutan, when the Chinese representative raised objections on the ground that it was a “disputed” territory, to which the Bhutanese naturally objected, saying the sanctuary, in its Trashigang province, was part of the “integral and sovereign territory of Bhutan”.
The GEF then voted to allow Bhutan the funding it sought, but the Chinese would not allow the matter to die down that easily.
It may be recalled, incidentally, that three years ago, in 2017, the Chinese PLA had intruded into the Doklam plateau, which is Bhutanese territory, and began building a road there, and it was only after Indian forces deployed in strength that the standoff could be defused after over two and a half months.
This year too, there have been reports of the Chinese trying to build another road that could pose a threat to India’s Siliguri Corridor.
The timing of China’s raising the pitch over its claims to Bhutanese territory last weekend is significant too – coming just a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s high-profile visit to Indian troops deployed in the Ladakh sector, where he publicly warned China (though without naming any country) that the “era of expansionism is over”.
China, though quick to deny any expansionist ambitions, started ramping up the Bhutan border issue the very next day.
New Delhi needs to take this matter extremely seriously – it is not a threat to Bhutan alone, but a clear and present danger to our national security.
Eastern Bhutan abuts Arunachal Pradesh, in which lies a major chunk of the 3,488-km Line of Actual Control, and in any case China disputes India’s sovereignty over the state, which it refers to as “Southern Tibet”.
As part of its overall long-term strategy, China is systematically targeting all our smaller neighbours in a bid to deter them from developing friendly ties with India.
Bhutan has historically been extremely close to India, especially in the conduct of its foreign policy, and all its negotiations with Beijing, for example, are through the two countries’ embassies in New Delhi.
Similarly, amid an ongoing political crisis in Nepal, with its Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli facing flak from within his party for, among other things, mishandling relations with India, the Chinese ambassador’s meddling in domestic issues is worth watching....