( August 2, 2017, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) By encroaching upon Bhutanese territory, the PLA was the first one to tie the knot. If argued with Chinese characteristics, it must be the first to untie. This can lead to a sequenced or simultaneous withdrawal
Last Friday, senior Colonel Zhou Bo and this writer were together on the China Global Television Network (CGTN) (CCTV-NEWS) The Point programme titled ‘Doklam and India-China relations’. It was competently and impartially anchored by the vastly experienced Geneva-returned Liu Xin. Some of our nationalistic anchors and their sidekicks, who commandeer the debate, could learn a lesson from the cool and relaxed Bo-Xin duo. Bo’s central point was: How did India have the ‘courage’ to enter Chinese/Bhutanese territory, emphasising that “you had no right to do that…you were not invited by Bhutan”. This is the familiar party line. He referred to the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 2007, stressing that it gave “you no right to jump in when we (China and Bhutan) are having talks’”. This discussion took place while National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was in Beijing, trying to defuse the stand-off.
It is clear that despite Royal Government of Bhutan’s (RGB) demarche of June 20, and a Press release of June 29, read together with the Indian External Affairs Ministry’s (MEA) Press release of June30, and linked with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s statement in Parliament on July 20, no reference is made about RGB or the Royal Bhutan Army requisitioning help of Indian personnel to stop the People’s Liberation Army from its road construction work. Instead, the July 30 Press release stated “in coordination with RGB, Indian personnel, who were present at Doklam, urged the PLA construction party to desist from changing status quo.’ The MEA spokesperson ducked a question on this from a reporter as it is not relevant in the current context.
Bo’s objection was to India meddling in China-Bhutan relations. Neither the Indian nor the Bhutanese Press release mentions the India-Bhutan treaty. This has allowed multiple Chinese interpretations of the alleged Indian troops overreach. Article 2 of the revised India-Bhutan Treaty 2007 states that both countries shall cooperate closely with each other on issues of national security and interest. Neither Government shall allow use of its territory for activities harmful to the other. The operative part is ‘use of territory harmful to national security’.
What is not incorporated in the Treaty is a Memorandum of Understanding dating back to the 1950s that India will be responsible for the defence of Bhutan. After the 1962 war against China, in a revamp of its overall defence preparedness, an Indian military training team was deployed in Haa valley, Bhutan, with joint Indian-Bhutanese check posts located near the Bhutan-Tibet border like it was done in Nepal. While in Nepal the training support missions and JCPs were wound down, in Bhutan, the training team was enlarged under a two-star General with direct access to the King. In addition, formations of the Eastern Army Command at Kolkata were earmarked for the defence of Bhutan and Special Forces stationed at Thimpu for the protection of the King. Battalions of the Army and Squadrons of Eastern Air Command at Shillong have trained regularly in the campaign season to deter and destroy Chinese ground offensive in west Bhutan. The primary restriction by RGB was that Indian troops keep a low profile. Then, as now, the presence of Indian troops is a sensitive political issue but it worked well till the King reigned and ruled.
In post-democratic Bhutan, some wrinkles may have appeared in this arrangement, which require to be straightened out. Not just the visibility of Indian soldiers, other political irritants have delayed the passage of the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal regional connectivity network.
In a country of less than 800,000 people, with the majority living outside Thimpu, there is substantial goodwill for India though pockets of resentment exist. Bhutanese have not forgotten that India turned a Nelson’s eye when RGB systematically expelled 100,000 Bhupalese (Bhutanese of Nepalese origin) in September 1990 to avoid Sikkimisation and maintaining Drukpa majority. According to a 1981 census, 53 per cent of the population was Nepali and Drukpas in minority. All this happened after the movement for democracy had taken root in south Bhutan, inspired by easterly winds from Nepal for democratisation.
The ethnic cleansing is perhaps forgotten but scars remain as Nepalese had turned against Nepalese. On a happier note, RGB cooperated enthusiastically to dismantle sanctuaries of Bodo, United Liberation Front of Asom and Kamtapuri militants in 2003 in Operation All Clear and in 2008 RBA busted two India Maoist camps inside Bhutan.
The fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who in 2006 abdicated in favour of his son, present King Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, used to say: “I have put all my eggs in India’s basket. It is a full embrace accepting to be part of the India security system.” Further, he triggered off the democratic process in 2007-08 while compressing the transformation of Bhutan from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy in just five years. Although changes in Bhutan have been controlled, they are substantial: From one newspaper Kuensel, to more than 10 newspapers, magazines and TV channels.
The MEA has done well in Bhutan, in spite of itself creating an impressive amount of goodwill. Bhutan is the single largest budget head, biggest recipient of aid running into billions of dollars. Thanks to Bhutan’s hydropower wealth it enjoys, the highest per capita income in south Asia, having rocketed from $662 in 2005 to $2,750 in 2016, accounting for its supreme bliss of Gross National Happiness and contentment. For India, Bhutan is the most important country, making it Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first port of call on assumption of office.
The stand-off in Doklam is drawing Bhutan directly into China’s new strategy of segregating Bhutan from India and creating fissures in their relationship. Bo said that the Chinese are adamant about the precondition that Indian troops must withdraw first before any meaningful conversation. India may keep harping on diplomatic channels being open at various levels but there will be no dialogue as NSA Ajit Doval’s failed mission showed.
Instead, New Delhi has to remind the Chinese of their own saying about those who tie the knot must be the first to untie it. By encroaching on Bhutanese territory, the PLA were the first to tie the knot. If argued cogently and with Chinese charecteristics, this could lead to a sequenced or simultaneous withdrawal. Otherwise a long winter awaits Indian and Chinese soldiers at Doklam as Beijing keeps chipping away at Thimpu and creating new pressure points across the 3,488 km Line of Actual Control (as seen at Barahoti last week) where it has manifest tactical advantages. But Bo and his colleagues have to be informed that at Doklam, New Delhi will not let Thimpu down.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and strategic affairs expert)