Tensions in the region

In actuality, it is in India’s interest to keep Bhutan away from China’s embrace


Dr Shaista Tabassum July 14, 2017
The writer is chairperson of the International Relations Department at the University of Karachi

Tensions are escalating between India and China over the construction of a road by China at the tri-junction with Bhutan. At the unmarked border in the remote tri-junction, there are as many as 3,000 troops deployed by both nations. The standoff between the two most populous countries is the longest since the 1962 war. But this time the situation seems to be quite grim. Both regional rivals claim that they are more resourceful and skilled than they used to be 55 years ago.

The Donglang region is important for both China and India. Located in Tibet’s Yadong County, it is a disputed area between Bhutan and China. The region has a strategic significance as it provides India a link to its northeastern states, the so-called Seven Sisters plus Sikkim. These states are comparatively underdeveloped than the rest of India and almost all of them have a small or high level of insurgency. They are connected to the rest of the country by the Siliguri corridor. Delhi is attempting to stop Chinese presence or extension in this area because if Beijing succeeds in expanding its military activities to the Chumbi Valley in Bhutan, which is still not clearly demarcated, then there would be an increased threat to the corridor.

On June 29th, Bhutan’s ministry of foreign affairs issued an official statement urging Beijing to refrain from unilaterally altering the status quo by building a new road in the disputed area. Thimphu called it a violation of the 1988 and 1998 agreements between China and Bhutan to maintain peace and tranquillity, and the status quo pending a final settlement on the boundary question. Beijing has not yet settled its border dispute with Thimphu, despite 24 rounds of talks in the last three decades.

In actuality, it is in India’s interest to keep Bhutan away from China’s embrace even if any bilateral border talks between the two take place. This is linked to the Indian national interest in the eastern Himalayan region. Delhi expects that Thimphu should consult it on matters relating to the region, especially when it concerns Beijing. Earlier, India resented Bhutan’s policy of attempting to ease tensions with China. Delhi also believes that Beijing’s interest in this particular area is due to its support to insurgents in the northeastern states of Nagaland, Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, either by providing safe havens or supplying weapons.



Unlike the Line of Control between Pakistan and India which is demarcated on the ground, India and China has the Line of Actual Control that still remains undefined on ground. This is why there are claims and counterclaims from both sides. India’s state of Sikkim has a 200-kilometre border with Tibet, which remains a source of tension between Beijing and Delhi. The border between the two states in the area was demarcated under the 1890 Sino-British treaty. This was endorsed by former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to then counterpart Cho En-Lai in 1959. However, when in 2005 the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited India, he declared that Sikkim was no longer an issue in bilateral relations between the two countries. But he did not say that China accepts Sikkim as a part of India. Later in 2012, an agreement was reached after consultation between India, China and Bhutan.

Sikkim had become an important state in the 1965 Indo-Pak war, when China in support of Pakistan strongly warned India on Sept 8th 1965 that if Delhi did not dismantle “all aggressive military structure” on the Sikkim-Tibet boundary, it would be responsible for the consequences. In the recent tension, Beijing has closed down the Nathu La Pass, a route that allows the Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims from India to visit Lake Mansarovar and Mount Kailash in Tibet. This pass had earlier witnessed a clash between India and China on Sept 11th 1967.

The timing of this tension is notable. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is looking forward for more comprehensive and robust ties with other players in the region, especially the US. The situation progressed just days ahead of PM Modi’s visit to Washington. Though there were many points of convergence between Washington and Delhi, the primary focus of the policy was China containment. The escalation of troops on the Sino-India border was a direct military threat to India and was noticed in Washington. In addition to this, the Malabar Mega Naval Exercise in the Bay of Bengal from July 7th -17th is yet another significant occurrence in the region, where warships, submarines, aircraft and personnel from India, Japan and the US are participating in the presence of the Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean. It is an indication of strong ties between India and its partners. A new power game is emerging in the region with the US, India and Japan moving close against the possible friendship of Russia, China and Pakistan. A worrying message to other littoral states of the Indian Ocean as well.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 14th, 2017.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.

COMMENTS (5)

Feroz | 4 years ago | Reply As long as matters between India and China remain limited to jostling and posturing all is well. With $ 100 B in trade both countries are unlikely to indulge in rash moves because the economy will always be the focus area. Indian troops are not in Chinese territory but Bhutanese territory after being called in by the Bhutanese government on discovering attempts to change the status quo. Some formula will be arrived at where situation is diffused without loss of face.
Milind | 4 years ago | Reply Balanced and sensible article
VIEW MORE COMMENTS
Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ

E-Publications

Most Read