By Amitava Mukherjee*
In addition to the diplomatic retreat that India had to swallow over its relations with Nepal, especially with China gaining a new strategic depth in that Himalayan country in the wake of the blockade over the Madhesi issue, a more serious strategic threat to India may emerge if the Sino-Bhutan joint field survey over the Druk Kingdom’s disputed western border with China accedes to Beijing’s demands. Interestingly, a total silence is now being maintained by both China and Bhutan over the said field study which is supposed to have taken place in September 2015 after the conclusion of the 23rd round of Sino-Bhutan border negotiations.
India’s concern centres on the Chumbi valley, an arrow like protrusion of a part of southern Tibet separating Bhutan from the Indian state of Sikkim. It is a tri-junction of China, India and Bhutan and enjoys unparalleled strategic importance in the whole of eastern Himalayas. As it is situated very near to the Siliguri corridor, the only entry point to the north-eastern India, any Chinese thrust down the Chumbi valley and then taking control of the Siliguri corridor will cut off the north-eastern Indian states from the main land of the country. It will also mean grave threats to Kolkata and the north Bihar plains.
The disconcerting aspect from India’s point of view is the fact that Thimpu had earlier endorsed a previous technical survey of September 2013, instituting to settle the dispute arising out of China’s claim over certain areas of Bhutan in the northern sector of the country. There was no word of disapproval from China over the recommendations of the survey. Perhaps it had satisfied Beijing’s claims.
Sino-Bhutan border problem dates back to 1954. After a long series of negotiations Beijing ultimately renounced its claims on 495 square kilometers of Bhutanese territories in the northern sector of that country but continues to stake claim on 269 square kilometers of areas in the west and north-west which are abutted by the Chumbi valley. The reason is obvious. The Chumbi valley is extremely narrow, only 30 miles wide in its narrowest stretch, for any military manouvre and therefore China wants to extend its expanse by incorporating the neighbouring Doklam plateau of Bhutan into it.
The 24th round of Sino-Bhutan border negotiation is slated to take place sometime this year. But there are unconfirmed reports that in 2013 China forcibly occupied 8229 sq.km. of territories in northern Bhutan by demolishing several forward posts of the Royal Bhutan Army and has staked new claims to strategically important areas like the Charithang, Sinchulimpa and Dramana pasture lands in the western sector. Moreover Beijing has constructed new roads in the Zuri and Pheeteogang ridges which overlook the Charithang valley.
It is obvious that China is working with a plan. In 2014 Xi Jinping, after his return from a tour to India, had exhorted the People’s Liberation Army to win any regional war. If Xi Jinping’s statement is juxtaposed with the massive Chinese infrastructure build up in the Tibet Autonomous Region(TAR) which borders Bhutan, then the strategic and military threat to both Thimpu and New Delhi becomes complete.
In August 2014 China opened a highly strategic railway network connecting Lhasa, the capital of the TAR, with Shigatse, a prefecture level city of the TAR, situated not only very near the Indian border in Sikkim but quite close to China’s border with Nepal and Bhutan. Secondly construction is going on to connect Nyingchi, a place very near to India’s Arunachal Pradesh, by railway line with the principal railway network emanating from Lhasa. This project is likely to be completed in 2021.
But the most threatening Chinese infrastructure project for India will be Beijing’s grand design of Lhasa–Shigatse- Gyirong-Yadong railway network which Beijing intends to complete in 2020. Already Gyirong has a checkpoint which connects it with Yadong which, in turn, opens up to the Chumbi Valley, a military nightmare for India. If a railway network between Gyirong and Yadong comes up then the already existing threat to the Siliguri corridor would take a menacing proportion.
Indo-Bhutan relations have now reached a crucial stage. That both Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, and Pranab Mukherjee, the President of India, have paid visits to Bhutan in recent times underlines the strategic importance of the Druk Kingdom to New Delhi. India still accounts for 75 percent of Bhutan’s imports and 85 percent of its exports. But a lot will depend on how the Sino-Bhutan boundary negotiation shapes up.
*Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator writing on issues related to Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Indian North-East. He can be reached at: [email protected]