View from Bhutan: China Has Always Had Its Eye on Doklam

As India and China face off, scholars from Bhutan share why China has always set its sights on Doklam.

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World
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As India and China are locked in a face-off, scholars from Bhutan share how China has always set its sights on Doklam.
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The recent India-China border dispute over China making a road in Sikkim’s Doklam area has another player involved – Bhutan.

The incident has happened near the tri-junction where the borders of the three countries meet, just a few kilometres from one another. China with its soldiers and equipment, was making inroads into the Bhutan Army camp at Zompelri.

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“Whenever there have been attempts to change the status quo on the ground in the past Bhutan has protested and brought up the matter with its counterparts on the Chinese side”, wrote Tenzing Lamsang, the editor of The Bhutanese Newspaper.

After the Chinese refused to listen to the Bhutanese Army, Indian troops entered the area to halt construction. This provoked a Chinese retaliation, which destroyed some small Indian outposts in the territory, as Lamsang wrote.

The area through which China is trying to build the road is Bhutanese territory, which is also claimed by the Chinese and is part of the ongoing annual boundary negotiations.
Tenzing Lamsang, editor of The Bhutanese Newspaper

Dr Karma Phuntsho, a Bhutanese scholar and regional politics expert, said that it was “disturbing to see that a disputed area of Bhutan has become a battleground” for Bhutan’s two biggest neighbours, in a recent interview to India Today.

Border Issues

Bhutan and China’s border issues date back to 1959, when the PLA started Tibet’s invasion and Bhutan started shutting its borders. This was also the time that Bhutan and India forged closer ties.

China also refused to recognise the traditional watershed principle that had decided the boundaries between Bhutan and Tibet. In the 1950s and 60s, China kept publishing maps that claimed sections of Bhutanese territory with no clear basis.
Tenzing Lamsang’s article in The Bhutanese Newspaper

From 1984, Bhutan started handling its own border talks with China and since then till 2016, there have been 24 rounds of talks between the two, as both Phuntsho and Lamsang said.

Phuntsho also said that some have begun to speculate that the decades-old border tension between India and China worsened after Prime Minister Modi met US President Trump.

Our foreign office has already issued a demarche requesting China to stop construction of roads in the disputed area because the areas are claimed by both Bhutan and China and as there is an ongoing process of negotiation, any unilateral action wouldn’t be favourable to the negotiations. 
Dr Karma Phuntsho to India Today

Strategic Games

China has built a major road in Chumbi Valley till Yangdong town. China is attempting to take as many roads as it can from there to the Indian and Bhutanese borders in the vicinity, Lamsang wrote.

However, especially for India, any roads moving south towards the chicken neck is seen as being particularly harmful for its security. The chicken neck is a small piece of land that connects mainland India to its seven north eastern states, some of which have restive militancy related problems.
Tenzing Lamsang’s article in The Bhutanese Newspaper

India sees the Chumbi Valley as a “dagger pointing to its chicken neck”.

But China doesn’t have the ‘strategic shoulders’ due to the narrowness of the entire area with India and Bhutan one both sides, Lamsang explained.

This in part explains why China is claiming 269 sq km of Bhutanese territory in the area as it would get the necessary strategic shoulders and space to operate more freely. China in 1996 ‘offered’ to ‘give up’ its claims to the 495 sq km of land in the Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys in Bhutan’s north-central sector of Bumthang in return for giving up the 269 sq km in Doklam to China.
Tenzing Lamsang’s article in The Bhutanese Newspaper

Phuntsho, however, said that he doesn’t think China harbours any malice toward Bhutan and that it would support Bhutan’s sovereignty. He also said that both China and India should take steps toward making a more positive relationship as such issues impact them much more than a third country like Bhutan.

I would certainly encourage engagement both between China and Bhutan and the two big neighbours. I am very positive in terms of having a diplomatic relationship. Bhutan should have very good relations with India and should sustain the same but Bhutan should also in its own time start diplomatic relations with China.
Dr Karma Phuntsho to India Today

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