Why Doklam and Bhutan matter: India can’t be seen to abandon its allies
As the standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction continues, it is important to take a step back and look at the problem through the prism of the larger foreign-policy stakes for India at play. The available details at the time of writing are patchy and buried in claims and counterclaims, very few of which can be verified by non-governmental analysts. Compounding this problem is an attitude of been-there-done-that bravado among a section of the strategic community in Delhi who seek to downplay the standoff as yet-another-round of jostling between India and China. But the fact of the matter is that the current impasse has a completely different geopolitical contour with far-reaching consequences for India’s (often understated) grand strategy of regional primacy.
Rising beyond minutiae, the gist of the current standoff is simple. It has been implicitly accepted by the Chinese as such and explicitly highlighted by the Indian foreign office and defence minister. Both sides seem to agree that the geographical locus of the dispute lies in a small sliver of land in the Doklam region, claimed both by China and Bhutan. (The settled Sikkim-Tibet border is a red herring.) Faced with Chinese road construction on territory it considers sovereign, the government of Bhutan allowed Indian troops present in the area in the Sikkim sector to resist this encroachment, triggering the ongoing stand-off.
The road through Doklam could allow the Chinese to further run roughshod over a key precept of India’s foreign policy. As strategist C. Raja Mohan described it in a 2006 article, it has been that of “an [Indian] veto over the actions of outside powers” in South Asia, thereby establishing Indian primacy in the region. While India eschews enunciation of a South Asian ‘Monroe Doctrine’ that would demarcate India’s sphere of influence in southern Asia, recent Chinese actions have clearly sought to negate any future Indian move to consolidate its position as South-Asia’s pre-eminent power.
Whether it is constructing roads through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir or drowning Sri Lanka in debt in order to gain eventual political leverage, Chinese push-back of Indian influence – and interests – in the region in the recent years has been alarming. Knowledgeable analysts now speak of pernicious Chinese influence in the domestic politics of Nepal. China wants to fund new ports in Bangladesh, some of which have dual-use potential. It is China that wants to circumscribe the foreign-policy choices of India’s smaller neighbours.
Enter Bhutan. It does not have formal diplomatic ties with China. Its military is close to non-existent. Through the 2007 Friendship Treaty, India serves as a virtual security guarantor of Bhutan. Bhutan on its part has allowed Indian nationals unfettered access to its territory which is not the case for, say, Americans. Most importantly, unlike Nepal in the recent years, it has carefully avoided playing its two behemoth neighbours against each other. One could argue that the closest India has ever come to being a mutual security ally of any country, albeit tacitly and informally, is with Bhutan. Of course, a less charitable reading – one that the Chinese seem to have in mind – is that of Bhutan as an Indian protectorate.
Whatever be the interpretation, one of the key Chinese objectives in initiating the Doklam standoff seems to be testing India’s resolve to stand by Bhutan. It should be an Indian imperative to not fold in this trilateral poker, for doing so has two far-reaching consequences. One, should India stand down, Bhutan will receive a message that its policy of relying only on India has not borne fruit. In that event, Bhutan will be tempted to open up to China by establishing formal diplomatic ties. China – having cornered Bhutan in face of an absentee protector – will invariably seek to change territorial facts on the ground as the ‘cost’ of its détente with that country. This, in turn, will change the subtle balance of forces in the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction in favour of China further imperilling the strategically-sensitive Siliguri Corridor.
Two, if India was to abdicate its responsibilities towards Bhutan, India’s other neighbours will, in effect, be told that India’s bark is far worse than India’s bite – and that relying on India as a countervailing force to the Chinese juggernaut is foolish. That surely cannot be good for India’s elusive pursuit of regional primacy. Aspiring hegemons do not abandon allies.
Abhijnan Rej is a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation
The views expressed are personal