China is fast-tracking its boundary talks with Bhutan as is evident from the 21-24 August negotiations between the two countries held in Beijing.
The joint communique, obviously drafted by the hosts with the visitors playing second fiddle, emphasises on speeding up the resolution of their territorial dispute.
Importantly, the acceleration has grave ramifications for India’s border defence and national security.
New Delhi has reasons to worry as the motive behind President Xi Jinping’s government expediting the boundary talks with Bhutan is to compel it to formally and officially hand over Doklam to China as quickly as possible.
China's Coercive Diplomacy With Bhutan
The plateau at the tri-junction of India, Bhutan, and China witnessed a dangerous standoff in 2017 after Indian troops clashed with Chinese troops and stopped them from constructing a road on Bhutan’s soil as it posed a threat to India’s defence.
Six years ago, soldiers of the two nuclear-armed nations withdrew from Doklam after a stalemate lasting over two tension-filled months as South Asia held its breath.
Now, China wants Doklam on a platter by browbeating Bhutan — one of the world’s smallest countries nestling in the Himalayas — into parting with it through coercive diplomacy.
China’s boundary talks with Bhutan, in geopolitical terms, are aimed at India and India alone. Beijing is piling pressure on Thimphu, but its objective is to harass and intimidate India which is undoubtedly a cause for concern.
It’s another matter that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government not only has its ear to the ground but is mentally prepared to do everything and more to ensure that Bhutan doesn’t buckle under tremendous pressure and signs away Doklam to get Beijing off its back.
The strategic importance of Doklam, which has been a part of Bhutan until now, for both China and India can’t be over-emphasised. If China wrests control of Doklam, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can easily overrun the “Siliguri Corridor”, a thin strip of Indian territory linking the mainland to the northeastern region.
The Strategic Importance of Doklam
Doklam borders the “Siliguri Corridor”, also known as the “chicken’s neck” because it is as narrow as 22 km, underlining its vulnerability in the event of a limited invasion. That’s why the take-over of Doklam is such a priority and a mouth-watering proposition for Beijing. Conversely, New Delhi simply can’t let China gain such a crucial military advantage over India under any circumstances.
If the northeast is cut off from the rest of India, the PLA can swoop down and annex Arunachal Pradesh which China illegally claims as an extension of south Tibet. Even the latest standard map released by Beijing this week shows Arunachal Pradesh within China.
Fundamentally, India would be at the receiving end every which way if Bhutan agrees to give Doklam to China.
For years, China has been preparing the grounds for forcing Bhutan into parting with Doklam by staking its claim not only to Doklam in west Bhutan but also to Jamparlung and Pasamlung valleys in north Bhutan and even the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in east Bhutan since 2020. In order to achieve its goal, Beijing is persistently offering to give up its claims in the north and the east in lieu of Bhutan ceding the high-value Doklam in the west.
Beijing seeks to project itself as the paragon of reason, fair play, and magnanimity by offering to completely forego its claims in the north and the east in exchange for what it is seeking in the West. To strengthen its case, it even points out that the territory in the north and the east which it is prepared to give up is much bigger than what it wants in the west! But India has seen through the sweet talk and firmly advised Bhutan not to fall for it.
Today, China’s urgency to bag Doklam is manifested in the increased frequency of China-Bhutan Expert Group Meetings (which handle border talks) in 2023. The 13th EGM was held from 21-24 August in Beijing.
The 12th EGM took place in May in Thimphu only four months after the 11th EGM was held in Kunming in China’s Yunnan province in January. In contrast to three successive engagements so far this year, the 10th EGM was held way back in April 2021, laying bare China’s tearing hurry in 2023 after a long lull of 20 months in boundary negotiations.
That China is bent upon forcing the pace of talks is also borne out by the establishment of a Joint Technical Team which held its first meeting on the margins of the 13th EGM and has been officially described as an “important outcome”. Moreover, an announcement was made to hold the 14th EGM as soon as possible to “keep up the positive momentum.”
For India-China: Ladakh, G20, and now Doklam
Significantly, China wants to grab Doklam by bullying Bhutan even as there is no resolution of the China-India conflict triggered in April-May 2020 by the PLA’s territorial aggression in Ladakh.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar keeps describing the situation at the China-India frontier as “abnormal”. The dispute is so complicated that the two sides don’t agree even on how long the border is. India insists that the border is 3488 km long while China says it is only 2000 km.
And after last week’s Xi-Modi meeting in Johannesburg, Beijing promptly declared it was held on Modi’s request to show India in poor light as a supplicant.
Additionally, there is no confirmation yet of X’s in-person participation in the G-20 Leaders’ Summit India is hosting early next month. Contrast this with US President Je Biden’s announcement that he would be in New Delhi from 7 to 10 September for the grand G-20 event.
But the suspense over Xi is giving India no respite.
As far as China’s obsessive overdrive to take control of Doklam is concerned, India should use the carrot-and-stick policy to keep Bhutan on a tight leash so that it holds its own and doesn't capitulate.
And, if necessary, India should not hesitate to get its partners in the Indo-Pacific grouping Quad — US, Australia, and Japan — to call out Beijing for bullying Bhutan and express solidarity with Thimphu and New Delhi.
(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)