Bhutan media’s reaction to India-China border standoff has no aggressive posturing
For all the hue and cry in both Indian and Chinese media on the border standoff along Nathu La Pass, their fledgling counterpart in Bhutan— the ‘third party’ in the issue—is relatively quiet.
India and China are engaged in a war of words over mutual allegations of breach of territory in Nathu La Pass in Sikkim, which led to China suspending the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra through the area. China has alleged that India is fighting on behalf of Bhutan, which had opposed the construction of a motorable road by the Chinese military from Dokala in the Doklam area towards the Bhutan Army camp at Zornpelri on June 16. Doklam, also referred to as Donglang, is claimed by both China and Bhutan. Bhutan’s envoy to India had issued a demarche to the Chinese embassy in Delhi asking the Chinese side to stop the construction.
Bhutan’s media is offering only matter-of-fact reportage on the issue if one goes by what is available in the online versions of its newspapers and on social media. There are not too many aggressive editorials or opinion pieces on the issue, in stark contrast to Indian and Chinese media.
Kuensel, the state-owned newspaper, reported that New Delhi had expressed concern over the road construction as it would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India.
The paper said Doklam is one of four disputed areas between Bhutan and China in the western region of Haa and Paro dzongkhags.
Kuensel and other news outlets of Bhutan cited a foreign ministry statement of June 29 asking for maintaining status quo, and conveying that the construction “inside Bhutanese territory” is a direct violation of the agreements and affects the process of demarcating the boundary between the two countries.
In a post that appeared on the Facebook page of another newspaper The Bhutanese, its editor Tenzing Lamsang said: “The Royal Bhutan Army first tried to dissuade the Chinese road construction team that refused to cooperate. This was soon followed by Indian soldiers who entered the area and halted the construction. The Chinese soldiers in response came back later and destroyed a couple of small Indian military outposts.”
Lamsang offered some insight into the issue, saying: “The Chinese side has built a major road till the Yadong town in the Chumbi valley. The attempt by the Chinese is to take as much roads as it can from there to the Indian and Bhutanese borders in the vicinity.”
For India, any roads moving south towards the Chicken neck —a small piece of land that connects its mainland to northeastern states—“is seen as being particularly harmful for its security,” Lamsang wrote.
“The Chumbi Valley is seen by India as a dagger pointing to its chicken neck. However, for the Chinese side its efforts in the region are hampered by the fact that while it has territory in the Chumbi valley, it lacks the ‘strategic shoulders’ due to the narrowness of the entire area with India and Bhutan one both sides.”
“This in part explains why China is claiming 269 sq km of Bhutanese territory in the area…India on its part sees this as a major threat,” he noted.
“Highlighting the strategic importance of the area China in a package deal in 1996 ‘offered’ to ‘give up’ its claims to 495 sq km of land in the Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys in Bhutan’s north-central sector of Bumthang in return for giving up the 269 sq km in Doklam to China,” Lamsang pointed out.
Another newspaper, The Journalist, as well as Business Bhutan, carried similar stories on Bhutan asking China to restore staus quo.
In its report, The Journalist said despite a three-week stand-off with the Indian and Bhutanese militaries, the Chinese army “continue to deploy construction machines in an effort to drive a dirt track along this strategic plateau.”
“Officials of the Indian government said that PLA’s road works are aimed at bringing a road close to Dokola, India’s last military post on the junction in boundary with China and Bhutan,” the report said.
However, in most of the Bhutanese media reports, there is a general sense that the issue may not see a major escalation or a military conflict.