Activists of the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party protest outside the Chinese embassy in New Delhi in the wake of border tensions between the neighbouring countries

New Delhi must realise there are few takers in Bhutan for the logic that India’s military commitment gives it ownership over Thimphu’s security and economic decision-making

by Ajai Shukla

Last week, an Indian parliamentary panel fluttered the dovecotes in Thimphu – Bhutan’s capital – by recommending New Delhi encourage Bhutan to deploy more soldiers in the disputed Doklam area, where a year ago several hundred Indian and Chinese soldiers stood eyeball-to-eyeball, raising real fears of bloodshed.

Non-violent patrol confrontations are common along the undefined, 4,588 km Sino-Indian border, but the face-off at Doklam was unique. Indian soldiers were not defending Indian soil; they had crossed into Bhutan and claimed to be acting on Thimphu’s behalf, in accordance with a security treaty between India and Bhutan. For the 73 days that Doklam smouldered, Thimphu walked on eggshells, balancing between India’s stifling embrace and the potential consequences from China.

The Doklam crisis ended with mixed results for India. As the Indian Army chief himself admitted in January, Chinese troops continue to occupy North Doklam, while Indian soldiers have pulled out of Doklam and returned to their outposts in Sikkim. On the positive side, India managed to force China to halt building a road in Doklam, which it was extending southwards, across the Torsa Nala, to its claim line at the Zompelri Ridge, which runs southeast from Mount Gipmochi. Indian military planners believe it essential to enforce Bhutan’s claim line along the Batang La – Sinche La ridge line, about 12-14km north of Zompelri Ridge. They worry that Chinese possession of Zompelri would give the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a launching pad to capture the vulnerable Siliguri Corridor, a narrow, 29km-wide sliver of land, with Nepal on one side and Bangladesh on the other. It connects mainland India with its eight north-eastern states.

Thus, in confronting China in Doklam, the Indian Army was protecting vital Indian interests more than enforcing the India-Bhutan security pact.

Some Sikkim veterans, like retired lieutenant general SL Narasimhan, who is on India’s National Security Advisory Board, believe concerns about Siliguri are overblown. Breaking through India’s strong border defences in Sikkim would require the PLA to mobilise large bodies of troops, giving India time to reinforce. Chinese troops would have to enter Doklam through the Chumbi Valley which is overlooked by dominating Indian positions that would pound the PLA with artillery, air and ground fire. Were the Chinese attackers to miraculously reach Gipmochi, they would then face the daunting task of advancing to Siliguri through 80km of forested mountains, without artillery or logistic support. Once in Siliguri, the isolated Chinese spearheads would face massive Indian counter-attacks.

Whatever the logic for Doklam, that confrontation has exacerbated Thimphu’s concerns about getting sucked into a Sino-Indian conflict. Bhutanese elites, and increasingly the public, believe they should settle their border with China, not tack a settlement onto India’s more intractable dispute. Beijing has offered Thimphu a strategic swap, in which China would concede to Bhutan disputed territory in the north, in exchange for Doklam. New Delhi, however, firmly discourages conceding Doklam to China.

A top-level Bhutanese politician told me in Thimphu: “Since 1984, we have had 25 rounds of boundary talks with China. There is still no settlement because we also have to take into account India’s security concerns. But we have to think carefully and get a settlement that is good for Bhutan.”

India has discouraged Bhutan from opening diplomatic relations with other countries, particularly China, encouraging it instead to conduct diplomatic relations through its embassy in New Delhi. But now, with China outpacing India economically and militarily and showing its power through incidents like Doklam, Bhutan’s old elites and new, populist politicians increasingly worry about having hitched their wagon to the wrong horse. There is also a popular aspiration across Bhutan to emerge from India’s shadow and assert sovereignty more tangibly. New Delhi has not handled this aspiration with sophistication and sensitivity.

This causes resentment across Bhutan. Responding to Indian criticism of the recent Chinese ministerial visit to Thimphu, Tenzing Lamsang, editor of The Bhutanese newspaper tweeted: “I would advise Indian media outlets, commentators, think tanks and even policymakers against such excessive paranoia and speculation. This is what Bhutanese find irritating and at times even suffocating. You call us your closest friend, so at least trust us and give us some space.”

It is ironic that Indian assistance, as in Doklam, has only swollen Bhutanese resentment. India’s Border Roads Organisation has done much to create a network of routes in Bhutan under its so-called Project Dantak. But Dantak’s enormous visibility has worked against it. Last year, public criticism forced Dantak to remove from Paro airport a large sign saying “Dantak welcomes you to Bhutan.” Last month, Dantak was also forced to remove road safety reflectors that were in the colours of the Indian flag. Now there is criticism of Dantak for building roads too expensively.

Similarly, there is criticism across Bhutan about the hydroelectric power purchase arrangement with India, which has backstopped economic cooperation between the two countries. So far, the Indian government has funded the construction of hydroelectricity plants in Bhutan and paid Thimphu for the power it purchased. Now, New Delhi wants to delegate responsibility to its public sector power corporations, which would make decisions based on economic rather than strategic rationale.

New Delhi must realise there are few takers in Bhutan for the logic that India’s military commitment to Bhutan gives it ownership over Thimphu’s security and economic decision-making. There is the lurking fear of China, which is unsurprising in a predominantly Buddhist country. But that is gradually giving way to an even more tangible irritation at India’s clumsy overlordship.