Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Chinese inroads into Bhutan worry India
The strategic scenario on India’s northern borders will get greatly compounded if Bhutan and Nepal were to fall into the Chinese sphere of influence. Bhutan’s neutrality is absolutely imperative as it forms a barrier and buffer to the Chinese desire for expansion towards the Siliguri plains
Brig (Dr) Arun Sahgal   


STRATEGIC concerns about China arise from its emergence as the most influential player in Asia with the ability to shape the future balance of power that could be detrimental to Indian interests.
A Chinese amphibious assault exercise on the Tibetan plateau. Increased military presence and rapid development of infrastructure in Tibet point towards Chinese attempts at upgradation of its operational posture
A Chinese amphibious assault exercise on the Tibetan plateau. Increased military presence and rapid development of infrastructure in Tibet point towards Chinese attempts at upgradation of its operational posture
Despite a dominant Indian desire at cooperation rather than competition with China, the vexed and unresolved boundary issue together with China’s continued military modernisation and incremental upgrade of its military posture in Tibet that enable rapid force deployment, backed by logistical capability and communication infrastructure, complicates the relationship.
China’s attempts at strategic balancing in South Asia by forging military and economic ties with all of India’s neighbours, some of whom have fractious ties with New Delhi, and by expanding its naval power in the Indian Ocean Region further exacerbate bilateral tensions.
Latest manifestation of this is the Chinese attempts to build inroads into Bhutan. Chinese Premier Wen Zia Bao and Bhutanese Prime Minister Jiome Thinley`s meeting on the sidelines of Rio +20 Summit was a result of Bhutan’s ambition for a non permanent seat in the UNSC in 2013, which China appears to have exploited.
Implications of Chinese moves
Chinese success in Bhutan together with moves in Nepal, where it is enhancing its economic, military and infrastructural footprints will have grave strategic implications for India. The landlocked Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has borders of 470 km with Tibet and 650 km with India. India has a special relationship with the Bhutan having signed a Treaty of Friendship way back in 1949, which was updated in 2007, that provides among others unilateral guarantee for the defence of Bhutan. 
While China officially does not recognise Bhutan and has no diplomatic relations, it does conduct periodic talks to reduce border tensions. China claims 300 square miles of Bhutanese territory, mainly in the Chumbi valley, the Torsa Nala, and some areas opposite Haa (western Bhutan) along with some grazing areas in the north.
The strategic scenario on India’s northern borders will get greatly compounded if Bhutan and Nepal were to fall into the Chinese sphere of influence. Bhutan sit’s at the centre of the Sino-Indian eastern sector, and as long as it remains neutral, any Chinese military adventurism in the Chumbi valley and Tawang would largely be through attritional mountain offensives invoking Indian reaction in self defence.
However, if Bhutan and Nepal were to come under Chinese influence, the precarious land route along the Siliguri Corridor, a virtual ‘chicken neck’ for the north eastern states, would become vulnerable to being cut-off by a determined Chinese push – isolating the entire eastern sector. Hence Bhutan’s neutrality is extremely important and absolutely imperative as it forms a barrier and buffer to Chinese desires of expansion to the south towards the Siliguri plains.
Two other issues are important. China is rapidly developing road infrastructure opposite Chumbi Valley, including plans to extend the rail network from Lhasa to Zangmu and Shigatse, and possibly to Yadong at the opening of the Chumbi Valley. These developments point to Chinese attempts at upgradation of operational posture. What should be of concern to India is the fact that in the event of hostilities it is unlikely that China will respect Bhutanese neutrality.  The defence of Bhutan therefore is irrevocably linked to the defence of India.
Strategic perspective
An essential ingredient of the China’s forward policy, Chumbi Valley, a vital tri-junction between Bhutan, India and China, is significant as it is just five kms from the Siliguri corridor. It is also of geostrategic importance to China as it shares borders with Tibet and Sikkim.
It is this geo strategic context that has made New Delhi sit-up and take notice of recent Chinese overtures to Bhutan. China and Bhutan have held a range of boundary talks and are moving towards a joint field survey to harmonise the reference points and names of the disputed areas. The survey focused on disputed areas in the western region constituting pastoral lands of Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulumpa and Dramana.
The focus on this sector is important due to its close proximity to Chumbi Valley. Bhutan and Nepal are critical cards for China against perceived Indian military maneuvering. It needs to be underscored, however, that the China- Bhutan reconciliation can only come with the settlement of the boundary issue where China seeks the Dhoklan plateau overlooking Chumbi Valley while making tradeoffs in the grazing grounds in North Bhutan.
The moves in Bhutan together with rapid Chinese inroads into Nepal would greatly contribute towards China’s desire to establish a continental bridge through Tibet. Bhutan on the other hand would provide the PLA with the requisite launch pad to cut off the Siliguri Corridor either as pre emptive action or in concert with larger territorial designs. Trading off some territory in the north to Bhutan in lieu of the pastoral land of the Doklam plateau, therefore, appears to be a pragmatic step towards achieving the larger strategic objective.
Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka are countries where India has ceded strategic space to China through acts of omission and commission, land locking it from North and East. Restoration of diplomatic relations between China and Bhutan therefore would inevitably constitute a strategic shock for India.
India’s strategic calculations
Strategically, Bhutan sits between Sikkim in the West and Arunachal Pradesh in the East. It’s neutrality is an important construct in providing depth to the Chumbi Valley leading to Siliguri Corridor and Tawang -- the centre of Tibetan spiritual abode in India. Should Bhutan diplomatically ally with China, these two vulnerabilities would be greatly exposed with all the attendant military ramifications. Access to Chumbi Valley through Bhutan, in addition to the traditional routes would severe and isolate the north east in the event of a war with China. Simultaneously, Bhutan would open the western flank of Tawang--Tenga sector, exposing the threat to the plains of Assam.
Indian economic investments in Bhutan are exemplified by Bhutan becoming a hydropower exporter to India. By 2020, India expects Bhutan to export 10,000 MW of power to India. There are also a large number of other economic programs afoot. India is considered a trusted friend and an ally in Bhutan. At present, there is no anti-India lobby in the country and, given the geographical imperatives of Bhutan, India is likely to remain the most important partner in its foreign policy calculus in the coming years. Bhutan also leverages India’s role as its strategic partner.
While geopolitics shapes the bilateral relationship in a major way, one needs to take note of the fact that Bhutanese society is changing fast. With the youth constituting almost 50 per cent of the total population, a new generation is emerging in Bhutan. As evident in the India--Bhutan power cooperation, Bhutan is getting increasingly assertive in negotiating various issues with India. India needs to address these growing nuances, which could soon emerge as visible sores in India--Bhutan bilateral relations.
In initiating diplomatic ties with China thus, Bhutan will have to make some stark strategic choices. Replacing India with China would mean economic and ecological trade-offs in a balancing strategy aimed at maintaining harmonious relations with its two big neighbours. the bigger issue is how far Bhutan is ready to become a pawn in the Chinese designs in Tibet and against India. The ultimate formula to settle the boundary dispute would dictate the extent of this engagement between the two.
Bhutan`s strategic choices are thus of great geostrategic and military concerns to India. How it makes them would depend on the range and depth of Indo--Bhutan relations. The above discourse need not only be seen from the perspective of geopolitics alone. Is China pushing reconciliation with Bhutan to convert it into a continental bridge linking with the Bay of Bengal, of course through connectivity with India to create another Silk Route? In this regard the recent resolution of boundary dispute between China and Tajikistan to create an access to Afghanistan in pursuit of its economic investments provides a possible window into Chinese designs. In case China is able to develop close political and economic ties with Bhutan and incrementally bring it into its circle of influence, it will be a win–win situation for China and a matter of grave concern for India.
The issue for India is that as a sovereign independent state Bhutan has the rights to pursue an independent foreign policy commensurate with its larger interests. While being closely aligned with India it has sought to pursue a policy of neutrality. Will the Chinese overtures change this? How should India respond what are the options and policy choices before it, is the dilemma that India needs to deal with.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the School of Geopolitics, Manipal Academy of Higher Education

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