India’s 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. Despite a dominant Indian desire at cooperation rather than competition with China, the vexed and unresolved boundary issue together with China’s continued military modernization 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 IOR further exacerbate bilateral tensions.
Latest manifestation of this is the Chinese attempts to build in roads into Bhutan. The Chinese Premier Wen Zia Bao and Bhutanese Prime Minister Jiome Thinley`s meeting on the side lines 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 serious strategic implications for India. The landlocked Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has borders of some 470 km with Tibet and 650 km with India. India has a special relationship with the Bhutanese Kingdom 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.
Whereas China officially does not recognise Bhutan and has no diplomatic relations, however it does conduct periodic talks to reduce border tensions. China claims some 300 sq miles of Bhutanese territory mainly in the Chumbi valley, the Torsa Nala, and some areas opposite Haa (Western Bhutan). The Chinese also claim some grazing areas in the north.
Strategic scenario on India’s Northern borders will get greatly compounded if Bhutan and neighbouring Nepal were to fall into the Chinese sphere of influence. Bhutan sit’s at the centre of Sino Indian Eastern sector, 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 within the Chinese sphere of influence, the precarious land route along the the Siliguri corridor a virtual Chicken Neck of seven north eastern states would become vulnerable prone to being cut off by any determined Chinese push – isolating the entire eastern sector. It is for this reason 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. Chinese designs in Bhutan plainly pose a threat in being to Indian security.
Two other issues are of importance. China is rapidly developing road infrastructure opposite the Chumbi Valley including plans to extend railway network from Lhasa to Zangmu, as well as 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.
It can thus be surmised that the Chumbi valley forms 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 located mere five kilometers from the Siliguri corridor—the chicken neck which connects India to North East India and Nepal to Bhutan. At the same time, Chumbi Valley is of geostrategic importance to China because of its shared 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 both sides are moving towards a joint field survey, in order to harmonize the reference points and names of the disputed areas. The focus of the joint-field survey was supposed to be on the disputed areas in the western sector which constitute the pastoral lands of Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulumpa and Dramana.
This exclusive focus on the North-Western sector is important due to its close proximity to the Chumbi Valley. China realizes that to get requisite leverage against India, which it considers moving rapidly towards strengthening its military posture through structured modernization and communication infrastructure build up. For China Bhutan and Nepal are critical cards against perceived Indian military maneuvering. It needs however to be underscored 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. This complicates the China threat theory.
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 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 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 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 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 10000 MW of power to India. In addition, there are a large number of other economic programmes afoot. As per Medha Bisht of IDSA, 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 need 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 tradeoffs in a balancing strategy aimed at maintain harmonious relations with its two big neighbours. Bigger issue is how far Bhutan is ready in becoming a pawn in 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. Above discourse need not only be seen from the perspective of geo politics 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 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 become a win – win situation for China and matter of grave concern for India.
The issue for India is that as sovereign independent nation state it 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 policy choices, is the dilemma that India will need to deal with.