New Delhi’s Intervention In Doklam Is In The Interests Of Both India And Bhutan

The Bhutan border.
  • If Indian troops vacate Doklam now, as some foreign policy analysts and commentators are suggesting, it would amount to handing Northeast India on a platter to China.

    And it would also lead to Bhutan being embraced by China in a suffocating bear hug. Any person who suggests that is surely not a patriotic Indian.

Opponents of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have found the prolonged standoff between Indian and Chinese troops at the Doklam Plateau on the India-Tibet-Bhutan tri-junction another stick to beat Modi and the ruling party with. Some foreign policy experts, strategic analysts and commentators and a section of India’s politicians have held up the standoff as a foreign policy crisis. They have also argued that since Doklam is in Bhutan, India needs to get off it and leave it to the Bhutanese to deal with the Chinese.

This criticism is ill-informed and motivated, and does not stand the test of reason and logic. New Delhi’s intervention in Doklam Plateau – Bhutanese territory, no doubt – is necessary to safeguard the interests of both India and Bhutan. No country can be faulted for safeguarding its own interests, and to suggest that Indian troops should vacate Doklam and let Bhutan defend its own territory would amount to playing into Beijing’s hands and favouring China over India.

Dokhlam, indeed, is Bhutan’s territory that is being claimed by China on the grounds that the territory was once administered by the Dalai Lama from (Tibet’s capital) Lhasa. The expansionist Chinese assume that since they have annexed Tibet in 1950, all territories that the the successive Dalai Lamas administered, even fleetingly and sporadically, belongs to China.


Dokhlam, which overlooks the narrow Chumbi Valley, was undemarcated and since it was barren, the rulers of Tibet and Bhutan did not have much interest in laying firm claims over it. The roughly 600 square kilometre Doklam Plateau is inhabited by nomads, who used to move freely through it down to Chumbi Valley.

The Chumbi Valley was an important trade route between India and Tibet. The Tibetans call this valley ‘Dromo’ after an eponymous hamlet that was the final customs check-post for all goods entering or leaving Tibet. Such was the importance of Dromo that it had four different names: the British gave it the name Chumbi, the Newar merchants from Nepal called it ‘Sher Zingma’ while the Chinese called it Yatung (now they call it Yadong).

Doklam is a derivative from the Tibetan ‘Drok Lam’, meaning nomad’s path. But that does not mean it was under Tibet’s firm control. It was only after the British invasion of Tibet in 1904 under Francis Younghusband that the plateau assumed strategic importance in the eyes of the Tibetans, the Bhutanese and the British themselves. Records dating back to the early twentieth century show that the British realised that the plateau, which they started calling Doklam, needs to be kept under British control. A military despatch from Younghusband reads: “Any power controlling this plateau will be able to rule over the plains of Bengal and Assam right down to the Bay of Bengal, and thus it is imperative that the plateau remains under the firm control of the British”.


If anything, the strategic importance of Doklam has only increased since the. That’s because modern military hardware like long-range field guns and missiles can easily be used from afar (the Doklam Plateau) to dominate, threaten and even attack the plains of Bengal and cut off the strategic Chicken’s Neck corridor that links Northeast India with the rest of the country.

China and Bhutan have held 24 rounds of talks since 1984 to resolve their boundary disputes without any conclusion. The fact that the talks have remained inconclusive for so long is evidence of the fact that the boundary dispute between the two countries is serious. And commentators – both Indian and foreign – who advocate India leaving Bhutan to it’s own fate miss the vital point that had it not been for India, China would have long made Bhutan its subservient client state, if not annexing it like Tibet. And that would have had serious and gravely adverse security implications for India. There is no way a tiny Bhutan would have been able to resist the Chinese bully for long. And fact is, China has a murky reputation of being a bully; Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and Philippines and some other countries would readily vouch for that.

The crafty Chinese nearly had their way when, at the end of the 10th round of talks with Bhutan in 1996 to resolve the boundary dispute, Bhutan fell for the time-tested Chinese strategy of Sun Tzu, a master military strategist and author of The Art Of War (read this and this article on the Chinese art of negotiations). Bhutan had agreed, in principle, to give up its claims over Doklam Plateau in return for the Chinese giving up its claims over Bhutan’s territory to the north.


That is when alarm bells set off in the Indian defence and foreign policy establishments. New Delhi intervened directly with Thimpu and made it realise the diabolic nature of the Chinese negotiators. The Bhutanese negotiators, inexperienced in the art of hard bargaining and geopolitics, had been tricked by the Chinese into believing that Doklam was a part of Yadong.

China’s flawed logic at the negotiating table was that Doklam was an extension of Yadong (or Chumbi Valley) or Dromo. China’s reasoning was that a valley’s boundary does not stop at the foot of the mountains surrounding it, but at the ridge line of those mountains so that the valley is secure and impregnable from foreign invasions. The Chinese argued that the Doklam Plateau was the natural extension of Dromo (or Yadong) that makes for one compact geographical entity.

The Chinese negotiators also very cleverly promised a lot of aid and soft loans for infrastructure development in return for Bhutan giving up its claims over Doklam. They held out the prospects of a grand signing ceremony at Beijing (the details of which were to be worked out at the 11th round of negotiations) with the King of Bhutan being honoured by the Chinese President. A number of other benefits would flow to Bhutan from China, promised Beijing. Bhutanese negotiators, naive and inexperienced as they were, fell for the Chinese ploy.


This was when New Delhi stepped in and made Thimpu realise the dangers of handing over Doklam to the Chinese. Thus, at the 11th round of negotiations 15 months later, Beijing’s negotiators received a shock when the Bhutanese not only refused to concede Chinese claims over Doklam, but also claimed territory beyond the plateau. The Chinese were thus defeated at their own game with Bhutan employing the Chinese tactic of placing demands well beyond its due. The Chinese realised the Indian hand behind this, and have been fuming ever since.

After the 11th round of negotiations, the Chinese started producing doctored land revenue records showing that Doklam Plateau was under the control of the Dalai Lama at Lhasa. The Chinese, it must be mentioned here, are experts in producing fake documents to substantiate their claims over foreign territories. They have been applying the same dirty tricks and tactics in the case of the South China Sea as well.

But Doklam has been only intermittently under the control of Lhasa; there are only some records of junior Tibetan officials visiting the plateau, but none of Lhasa collecting any revenue from this territory. A major part of Doklam was under the administrative control of Bhutanese nobleman Kazi Ugyen Dorje, who provided refuge to the 13th Dalai Lama when the latter fled from the invading Qing army to Darjeeling and then to Kalimpong in 1910. Had Doklam been Tibetan territory, the Kazi would not have been able to provide the Dalai Lama refuge and would have been surely punished by the (last) Chinese emperor Pu Yi. This nails the lie being propagated by the Chinese about their claims over Dokhlam.


If Indian troops vacate Doklam now, as some foreign policy analysts and commentators are suggesting, it would amount to handing Northeast India on a platter to China. And it would also lead to Bhutan being embraced by China in a suffocating bear hug. Any person who suggests that is surely not a patriotic Indian.

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