India-Bhutan ties post Doklam

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Guests: Bharat Karnad, Research Professor, National Security Studies, CPR; Jayant Jacob, Sr Asst Editor, Hindustan Times; P. Stobdan, Former Ambassador & Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

The Doklam standoff on the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan is well into its second month and Beijing continues with its hardline position and refuses to negotiate on equitable terms. What it aims to gain out of this crisis has been subject to much speculation in New Delhi. Most likely, it hopes to peel Bhutan away from India’s orbit. However, perhaps it should recall the last Doklam crisis between India, China and Bhutan in 1966. That imbroglio only ended up strengthening the India-Bhutan alliance.

Sino-Bhutanese relations first took a nosedive in the late 1950s, mirroring the growing tensions between India and China over their boundary dispute. From 1958, Chinese maps began showing large swathes of Bhutanese territory as part of China. In 1959, as it suppressed the Tibetan rebellion, China also took over certain Bhutanese enclaves in Tibet. At the same time, around 4,000 Tibetan refugees entered Bhutan, straining the country’s limited economy.

Thimphu viewed these developments with alarm and responded by closing its northern border. It also moved closer to India and embarked on an ambitious project to modernize the country’s military and economy. While it had a special treaty relationship with New Delhi since 1949, the two countries did not share any formal defence arrangement until then. Fear of China changed the situation. The Indian Army began training Bhutanese forces. India also began pouring in economic aid into the country (increasing it by 1,000%), most of which went into building roads and airfields of strategic value.

The 1962 Sino-Indian war nudged Thimphu even closer to New Delhi, culminating in a formal security guarantee announced by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1963. For the rest of the decade, the threat of China always loomed over Bhutan, as the People’s Liberation Army maintained a large presence in Tibet. Accusations of border intrusions by both sides remained a common occurrence, usually followed by fiery rhetoric.

The most significant of such incidents occurred in October 1966, when Bhutan accused Chinese troops of intruding into the Doklam region. The Bhutanese trade adviser in Kolkata issued a press statement requesting India’s help. New Delhi immediately issued a note of protest to China along with the Bhutanese view that “the area was traditionally part of Bhutan and the Chinese government had not so far disputed the traditional boundaries which ran along recognizable natural features” (at the time, the Indian media misspelt the name of region, causing confusion for later historians).

The news generated an outcry in the Indian Parliament, with Balraj Madhok calling for the government to take a hard line. Atal Bihari Vajpayee even used the incident to urge India to develop a nuclear weapon. Four days after the initial statement, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi renewed India’s vow to protect Bhutan against any aggression. The minister of state for external affairs, Dinesh Singh, was immediately dispatched to Thimphu to assure the Bhutanese government of Indian commitment. China’s response, which called the news of intrusion an “out and out lie” and accused India of bullying its neighbours, stoked even further resentment in New Delhi.

While the Chinese troops withdrew from Doklam by the end of the month, the whole incident led to a flurry of exchanges between India and Bhutan and served to strengthen their defence ties. By 1969, 3,400 Indian military personnel were in Bhutan training its army, up from 100 a decade earlier. Hundreds more were attached to the Border Roads Organisation which was building roads in the country. A separate contingent of Indian police trained the Royal Bhutan Police.

In fact, in the mid-1960s, India and Bhutan had differences of their own. Bhutan’s internal politics was in turmoil (the Bhutanese prime minister was assassinated in 1963 by some of his own generals). More significantly, at the time, Bhutan was keen on receiving greater aid and investment from the rest of the world and joining international organizations like the UN. India was reticent on the issue, considering it “premature”. Either of these two factors could have easily derailed the bilateral relationship, had it not been for the constant Chinese threat highlighted by incidents like the Doklam intrusion.

By the end of the decade, the Chinese hostility had begun to recede, largely due to an unexpected development. From 1967, Radio Moscow began reporting Chinese troop movements on the Bhutanese border (often inaccurately). By this time, China and the Soviet Union were on the brink of war over their own boundary disputes. Russian reports were likely a menacing signal from the Soviet Union to the Chinese leadership to back off. By the beginning of the 1970s, China did soften its approach to Bhutan and many of its claims on Bhutanese territory stopped appearing on Chinese maps. However, by then the India-Bhutan alliance was stronger than ever before.

In 1966, it was believed that the Chinese intrusion into Doklam was an attempt to force Bhutan into a bilateral border negotiation, without Indian involvement. It is likely that Beijing hopes to go a step further with the current Doklam standoff. In the long run, a Sino-Bhutanese border resolution would be mutually beneficial, as would a Sino-Indian boundary agreement. However, forcing the issue by aggression is no way to go about it. If India remains firm in its commitment to Bhutan, the standoff will only serve to deepen the India-Bhutan alliance even further.

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