Hedged between India and China – the two giants with differing ideologies and serious mutual problems yet to be resolved - Bhutan's position remains delicate. Its foreign policy options are therefore restricted, as it cannot afford to annoy one neighbour at the cost of the other.
Questions are: Why is Bhutan important to India and China? What options can Beijing exercise? Can it, or will it, annex Bhutan? Can India counter these moves? What are Bhutan's internal worries? And what lies ahead?
Today, the situation in Bhutan is that Chinese and Indian troops face each other at tri-junction (Doklam), a part of Bhutan's territory, over a dispute regarding construction of a road. This has a direct influence on India's security – a historical and geographical fact which cannot just be wished away.
Smaller than the size of Punjab, Bhutan is surrounded by India on three sides. Towards its east lies the sensitive Towang sector in Arunachal Pradesh. Fierce battles were fought there between China and India in 1962.
The Chinese forces managed to descend to the vicinity of Tezpur, through the Sela pass. The battle lines are still drawn. Short of a major flare-up, border disputes have continued to take place intermittently.
Towards Bhutan's west, lies the Chumbi valley, Nathula and Jelepla passes of Sikkim. While a dispute on its 500-mile border with China waits to be resolved in spite of nine rounds of talks since 1984 China has kept its options open.
In any case, it has the military capability to bypass Towang or Sikkim through Bhutan, a process which in these days of air mobility can be carried out within twenty-four to forty-eight hours – that is, in case China decides to annex Bhutan.
If so, Bhutan will afford an access route to China to the Siliguri corridor (India's only land route to its seven north-eastern states), Guwahati, and of course, Bangladesh – India's chief fears. With a buffer zone gone, Indian stakes in this country are indeed very high.
It is worth noting that the Chinese have been insisting upon direct talks with Thimpu, and not through India, or in the presence of any Indian representative. They have had their way. Also, they want diplomatic relations to be established with Bhutan, which at present, are not there. They do not recognize the 1949 Indo-Bhutan treaty, and not for that matter, that Sikkim is part of India.
Their aim remains clear: that is to establish trade with Bhutan and Nepal, seek markets, use Chinese labour for construction of roads, establish industries, and even position Chinese troops in Bhutan in due course, as they did so successfully in Tibet and are now doing so in PoK.
They will also want to establish direct links with Bangladesh, with whom they have a defence treaty, supply weapons and so on. Thus posing serious challenges on India's hold on the north-eastern states. A scenario worse than this cannot be visualized for India's strategists.
What are China's main options? Having completed roads up to the Bhutanese border, two alternatives can be visualized. Either to pose an indirect threat to Thimpu, negotiate and sign mutually beneficial treaties with Bhutan, to permit the entry of Chinese labour, establish industries and so on. But more seriously, to annex Bhutan, militarily.
This would be easy, as Bhutan has no military capability, nor any defence treaty with India or any other country. The question is, can India stop this from happening? Will any country come to Bhutan’s aid? India would have to develop military capabilities to stop Chinese forces from entering Bhutan, and even think of positioning its military formations there, provided there is a mutual defence treaty with Thimpu.
Concurrently, Bhutan's fears are genuine. In the past, in its quest for an independent identity, Thimphu took certain initiatives without consulting India. It signed the non-proliferation treaty in 1985, and entered into a number of agreements with Bangladesh for expansion of trade, and established diplomatic relations with Nepal.
Besides, it is a member of SAARC, Colombo Plan and the UNO since 1971. But it can no longer remain isolated. A time has come for Bhutan to choose between China and India. Being landlocked with most of its communications (land and air) passing through India, Thimphu may now think of signing a defence treaty with India.
A question has been raised frequently, as to whether Bhutan will go the way of Nepal, and limit the power of the monarchy to ceremonial functions. Whatever the ultimate outcome may be, one thing is certain: this is a fear that the young King cannot get over with, although he commands unwavering loyalty from his subjects.
The removal of the Chogyal of Sikkim, the success of the GNLF, elements in Darjeeling, and sometime ago, the success of communists in Nepal, can only send warning signals to the King. It can be said with conviction that as the Sino-Bhutanese road network to the Bhutanese border is through, their initiatives inside Bhutan would increase.
There should be no doubt about that. They are bound to offer road construction programs and other works at “friendship prices” to Bhutan, besides establishing a diplomatic mission. Thimphu would not be in a position to refuse. In the due course of time, China is bound to offer trade and friendship treaties.
Will India be in a position to stop Bhutan from signing such agreements? Most likely, the King will sign these to keep his options open. But that is the starting point for effective Chinese influence, as well as the Nepalese quest for recognition in southern Bhutan.
It would therefore need a deft policy to avoid such a situation from developing. Whatever the scenario, India's security stakes remain very high in Bhutan, and the government must not take things for granted.
About The Author
Maj Gen. VK Madhok is a product of the 1st Course JSW/NDA and was commissioned into the 3 GR. He was the BGS HQ Southern Command and the COS at HQ 4 Corps. He retired as the ADG (TA). He lives in Pune. The author can be reached on Email: [email protected]