China has proposed a ‘package solution’ for resolving its territorial disputes with Bhutan. And in that lies the answer to its recent outlandish claims over Bhtan's Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary.
The solution that China has proposed to Bhutan is essentially aimed against India.
China has told Bhutan that it will be willing to give up its claims over Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Bhutan bordering Tawang and West Kameng districts of Arunachal Pradesh if Bhutan accepts China’s claims over Doklam in the tri-junction of India, Bhutan and Chinese-occupied Tibet (CoT).
Doklam holds immense strategic importance for both India and China. The two countries were locked in a tense 73-day military standoff at Doklam in 2017.
The standoff ended with PLA troops backing off.
Doklam is a plateau that has CoT’s Chumbi Valley to its north, Bhutan’s Haa Valley to its east and Nathang Valley in India’s Sikkim to its west.
The Doklam plateau descends into the Dooars area of North Bengal, or the crucial ‘chicken’s neck corridor’ that is the vital landlink between North East India and the rest of the country.
China has always eyed the Doklam plateau since that would give its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a huge strategic advantage over the Dooars that is a vital choke point for India.
If the PLA gains control over Doklam, the PLA will gain dominance over the Dooars and can easily cut off Northeast India from the rest of the country.
Incidentally, this is what radical Islamist Sharjeel Imam had also advocated during the anti-CAA stir last year.
Till China sprung a nasty surprise last month by laying claim to the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary that does not even border CoT, only three areas in Bhutan — Pasamlung and Jakarlung in northern Bhutan bordering CoT and Doklam in western Bhutan — were considered disputed territories.
In the 24 rounds of talks between Bhutan and China over territorial disputes, the Chinese had never come up with any claim over Sakteng.
Thus, when China made a fresh claim over Sakteng, the move confounded many in India and Bhutan.
Especially because Sakteng does not have a border with CoT.
But now it is abundantly clear why China made that false and sinister claim.
“This is a blatant and shameless move by China to pressurise a small country like Bhutan to part with a piece of its territory that is strategically important for China. China hopes that Bhutan will be under intense pressure now to agree to the tradeoff that Beijing has proposed,” a senior officer in India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) told Swarajya.
At a media briefing in Beijing on Tuesday (31 July), China’s Overseas Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told journalists that the boundary between Bhutan and China “is yet to be demarcated”.
Wenbin said that there are disputes over western, northern and eastern parts of Bhutan and “China advocates a package deal to resolve these disputes”.
Beijing Trying To Influence Public Opinion In Bhutan
Beijing also wants the territorial disputes with Bhutan to be resolved bilaterally “without interference from a third country”.
That means Beijing is encouraging Bhutan to disregard advice from India on the issue.
China is also trying to mould public opinion in Bhutan in favour of resolving the country’s territorial disputes with China bilaterally instead of involving India.
China has, over the past few years, aggressively courted Bhutan’s youth and young adults by offering generous scholarships for study in China and sponsored trips to young adults from all walks of life and professions to visit China.
Cultural exchanges between the two countries have also increased in recent years.
“There exists in Bhutan a constituency, primarily among its young adults, that is favourably disposed towards China. Beijing is leveraging its influence over this constituency to create public opinion in favour of accepting the ‘package deal’ that China is offering and resolving the territorial dispute with China once and for all,” said the MEA officer.
The impression that Beijing is trying to create among the people of Bhutan is that if territorial disputes with China are permanently resolved, Bhutan will have a lot to gain since China is a global economic and military power with very deep pockets.
It is also trying to convey to the people of Bhutan that Doklam is a small part of that country and holds no strategic importance for Bhutan.
The benefits of Bhutan surrendering Doklam will be manifold and will result in a huge inflow of funds that will benefit the masses of the tiny Himalayan kingdom.
A section of Bhutan’s youth and young adults are enamoured of China and want their country to scale up ties with China.
Right now, China does not have a mission in Bhutan and the Chinese embassy in New Delhi is tasked with maintaining ties with that country.
Bhutan also liaises with China through its embassy in New Delhi.
The Chinese have also been telling the Bhutanese that India should not be allowed to play a major role in their country’s affairs.
Beijing realises that India can prevail upon Bhutan against parting with Doklam, and hence it wants Bhutan to keep India out of its negotiations with China over territorial disputes.
India’s Counter Moves
But India has a very strong constituency in Bhutan, especially in the country’s military, political, bureaucratic and diplomatic establishments as well as in academia and civil society.
New Delhi, said the senior MEA official, “has a lot of friends in Bhutan” and the monarchy is also close to India.
Unfortunately for China, its expansionist designs in the South China Sea and in the eastern Himalayas (Ladakh) are not lost on the Bhutanese.
China’s recent territorial and maritime disputes with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and India, its trade and other disputes with the USA, EU, UK, Australia and New Zealand and its opacity over the Covid-19 pandemic have created a very negative impression about China.
“The Bhutanese are devout Buddhists and China’s brutalities in Buddhist Tibet and atrocities on Tibetans is also something that the Tibetans are well aware of. The Dalai Lama is deeply revered in Bhutan and the Bhutanese are aware of how he was forced to flee Tibet and how China has been maligning the religious figure. A large majority of Bhutanese are extremely wary of China and rightly view China with deep suspicion,” said the senior official posted at the MEA’s Northern Division that looks after relations with Nepal and Bhutan.
Given these realities, India’s task of thwarting China’s diabolical gameplan to wrest Doklam out of Bhutan is not a difficult one.
“We need to make the Bhutanese aware of the dangers posed by China and highlight examples of China’s predatory practices and its expansionist designs around the globe. We are doing that, and successfully,” said the MEA official.
India has also drawn up plans to step up development aid to Bhutan and deepen people-to-people ties with that country.
A long-term plan to intensify cultural, economic, academic, scientific, development, diplomatic, political, military and other ties at multiple levels is already under implementation and has started showing good results.
But the challenge is to sustain the campaign against China and continue to highlight Beijing’s evil designs in Bhutan for a long period of time.
That’s because China has a long-term plan to take over Doklam and will keep on piling pressure on Bhutan to part with Doklam.
“We have to keep on shielding Bhutan from China’s pressure and pernicious influence. For that, our diplomatic and political resolve has to be sustained and there can be no flagging of our efforts,” the MEA official added.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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