How China's Gamble In Bhutan Is A Sign Of A Bigger Game

This crisis is significant from two angles. One, it is part of a bigger Chinese strategic game. Secondly, it is important to understand the implications from a tactical and operational perspective.
How China's Gamble In Bhutan Is A Sign Of A Bigger Game

It has been almost a month since Chinese and Indian military began the current stand-off in Doka La, near the intersection of India, China and Bhutan. This kind of prolonged stand-off is not entirely new – the stand-off that took place in September 2014 during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India lasted close to a month despite the issue being raised at the highest level by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Nevertheless, this time around, there is an increasing feeling that China’s calculation is different. There are thousands of Chinese People’s Liberation Army and Indian army troops present around the region, making the situation somewhat precarious, even if we assume that the political leadership in both countries is sufficiently mature to handle the crisis through diplomatic means. What is not clear is whether China wants to go the diplomatic route this time.

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The anti-India rhetoric in China across media, think-tankers, academia and the official circles suggest that this may be more than the usual border stand-off. Chinese media, especially Global Times and even the more sober People’s Daily have gone overboard reminding India of what happened in 1962. On the other hand, it is the Indian media, usually blamed for being jingoist, which has been muted and measured.

The current stand-off began when the Chinese PLA engineers began to construct a road on territory that is disputed between China and Bhutan. India, which has a friendship treaty with Bhutan, felt obligated to come to Bhutan’s defence when it was asked to do so, though the treaty is not explicit in stating this obligation. The treaty (Article 2) simply says India and Bhutan “shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.” Though this may appear to put India on a slightly weak wicket because India can defend Bhutan only if Bhutan asked, nevertheless, New Delhi also has reasons to believe that current Chinese effort at gnawing into Bhutanese territory has grave implications for India’s security. India reaching out to Bhutan has enraged the Chinese leaders, who have argued that this is at best a territory disputed between China and Bhutan and that India has no role in it. Beijing has also warned that New Delhi must pull back unconditionally before any diplomatic efforts can begin. Thus, China makes a differentiation between the previous stand-offs such as the one in Chumur in 2014, which have been near the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

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For India, the Chinese efforts to construct infrastructure so close to India’s borders could have long-term security implications. Location of Doka La near the strategic tri-junction of Bhutan, Chumbi Valley in China and Sikkim in India overlooks India’s Siliguri corridor, a narrow of 27 km wide  strip that connects India’s northeast with the rest of India. China is reported to have built such roads on territory that is claimed by Bhutan as well as within Bhutan. There is a chance that China might prefer to resolve the border dispute with Bhutan directly and gain a better foothold close to the Indian border areas. China has systematically used its version of history to justify claims to other countries’ territories, followed by construction of roads and other infrastructure and thus changing the status quo.

This crisis is significant from two angles. One, it is part of a bigger Chinese strategic game. China does not want to see a more influential India rising to challenge China’s dominance. But India will never let Asia be dominated by one single power. India was never comfortable playing balance of power games but today China’s actions in India’s neighbourhood in South Asia and Indian Ocean are having the effect of New Delhi embracing the US, as well as US allies such as Japan and Australia in an aggressive diplomatic maneuvering. But as John Garver points out, China is possibly of the view that because India is not an ally of the US, the US may not get involved and so it is time to teach India a lesson.

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Two, it is important to understand the implications from a tactical and operational perspective. China’s growing infrastructure in the border areas, now further boosted by Xi’s Belt and Road initiative has strategic consequences. China has established all-weather road and railway links in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and on the Sino-Indian border areas. There are also sizeable number of PLA forces close to the border region in addition to logistics and oil depots which demonstrate China’s intent to deploy them for a relatively long stretch of time. China’s highway connectivity in the TAR – the Western Highway, the Central Highway and the Eastern Highway – are strategically significant in its ability to amass troops to Indian border with relative ease and in a timely fashion.

Indian anxieties also come from the fact that the Indian infrastructure network in the Sino-Indian border areas are still in a pitiable condition. Most of the Indian roads in the region fall well short of the Indian side of the LAC whereas the Chinese roads almost the reach the LAC. In areas around Siliguri corridor, India has sufficient troop presence but additional troop requirement could put India at a slight disadvantage. The infrastructure network in Sikkim for instance is poor. The road density in the state is just 28.45 km per 100 sq. km. As for road links, there is just one that connects Gangtok and Nathu La, and there is another 5 m-wide, landslide-prone road that connects the state with the rest of India. There is almost next to nothing as far as the railway network is concerned. This is the result of a long-held Indian (political, civil and military bureaucracy) view that India need not build any infrastructure, because if it did, it would actually compromise Indian security by permitting rapid advance of attacking Chinese ground forces. This policy changed just a decade back when the Cabinet Committee on Security sanctioned the building of 73 strategic roads, including six in Sikkim. Several road projects including the Flaghill-Dokala in Sikkim have been held up on account of a number of issues including environmental clearances. While the border infrastructure build up has picked up pace under the Modi Government, the delay and the strategic consequences are significant.

Indian decision makers need to focus on the fact the current crisis is not just about the border but has larger implications. The border stand-offs are a mere manifestation of a larger malaise that exist in Sino-Indian relations. The key question is whether China is willing to accommodate a rising India and share the Asian strategic space. If China is willing to do so, a lot of Indian calculations could potentially change but it is highly that China will change its course. 

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