A tense standoff between India and China in the high Himalayas is being played out not on the disputed borders between the two Asian giants, but on a plateau claimed by China and Bhutan. Many analysts say the face off is also a play for power in the tiny, strategically located country, which is India’s closest ally in South Asia, but where Beijing wants to increase its presence.
Indian troops obstructed a Chinese road-building project at Doklam Plateau around mid-June. The area also known as “Chicken’s Neck” is hugely strategic for India because it connects the country’s mainland to its northeastern region.
New Delhi cites its treaties with Bhutan, with which it has close military and economic ties, for keeping its soldiers in the area despite strident calls by Beijing to vacate the mountain region.
As the standoff drags on, there are fears in New Delhi that Beijing is also testing its ties with Bhutan, the tiny nation that has made gross national happiness its mantra, but where worries are growing about a big power conflict on its doorstep.
Analysts point out that China wants to wean Bhutan away from India and expand ties with a country with which it has no diplomatic ties.
“At a strategic level, China would like to separate India from Bhutan, they would like to open up Bhutan to their greater influence, that goes without saying,” said Manoj Joshi, a strategic affairs analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
One small move at a time
According to political analysts, it is not the first time the Chinese have built a road in a disputed area in Bhutan, which has a disputed border with China at several places in the high Himalayas.
“They have done the same in other areas, built roads in mountains and valleys and then claimed it was their territory during border negotiations,” said a Bhutanese political analyst who did not want to be identified. “It has been a hot button issue here, and has been repeatedly debated in parliament.”
These “encroachments” are seen as efforts by Beijing to muscle into Bhutan in the same manner as it has done in South China Sea. Analysts call it a “salami slicing” tactic.
But Bhutan, which worries about being drawn into the rivalry between the two large neighbors, has maintained a studied silence on the latest dispute, except to issue one demarche calling on Beijing to restore the status quo in the area.
“Bhutan has done well, so far, to avoid both the fire from the Dragon on our heads and also the Elephant’s tusks in our soft underbelly. We must keep it this way,” Bhutanese journalist Tenzing Lamsang wrote for The Wire.
Despite some calls in Bhutan to settle its border with China without worrying about Indian interests, political analysts say public opinion largely favors New Delhi’s firm stand on the Doklam plateau.
Influence at stake
While keeping the Chinese out of the strategic plateau is India’s immediate concern, there is also concern about maintaining its influence in Bhutan, which is a buffer between China and India.
India has watched warily as Beijing has steadily increased its presence in its neighborhood in recent years as countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka have also been increasingly drawn into the Chinese sphere of influence by the promise of massive investments in roads, ports and other infrastructure.
In India there are concerns that the same should not happen in Bhutan, its most steadfast ally. Saying the Chinese have been applying pressure on the Bhutanese border, analyst Manoj Joshi said. “If Bhutan were to go the way of say Nepal, where Indian influence is now questioned, it would make a difference, that buffer would vanish.”
India’s foreign secretary S. Jaishankar this week expressed confidence that India and China have the maturity to handle their latest dispute and it will be handled diplomatically. "I see no reason why, when having handled so many situations in the past, we would not be able to handle it," he said.
But while in the past such border standoffs have been resolved quickly, this time around there are no signs the issue is getting resolved, nearly a month after it erupted.