A month into the ongoing Doklam standoff between Indian and Chinese troops at the tri-junction with Bhutan, Beijing continues to hold a hardline stance. In a rare move of brinkmanship, it has publicly refused to negotiate until the Indian Army withdraws from the plateau, while at the same time issuing an ultimatum that its People’s Liberation Army will not wait indefinitely. In contrast, India has taken a more cautious approach in public, using far more measured rhetoric and expressing a willingness to negotiate and execute a mutual withdrawal.
This is a familiar strategy that New Delhi has employed somewhat successfully several times before, during frequent India-China border disputes. Such a restrained approach allows India more flexibility in negotiations, minimizes the risk of escalation and garners the approval of the international community. However, in the case of the Doklam standoff, this cautious approach is unlikely to be fruitful.
The fundamental flaw in the current Indian thinking is assuming this crisis to be the result of a bilateral dispute rather than viewing it as the trilateral signalling exercise that it is. Nothing exemplifies this more than the plethora of commentary produced in the Indian press, most of which practically ignores Bhutan. It must be recognized that China’s aggression is not directed towards New Delhi but towards Thimphu.
It is remarkable that China has broken from its decades-long “charm offensive” diplomatic policy to threaten a much weaker country (Bhutan) over an issue that is of minor significance from its perspective. By challenging Bhutanese security, Beijing hopes to put a strain on the India-Bhutan “special relationship”. Should Bhutan perceive any sign of hesitation in India’s commitment to the alliance between the two countries, it would likely leave a lasting scar on the relationship—to China’s gain.
To meet this challenge, India must take a hardline position against China in public, even at the risk of escalation. This is not to say that New Delhi should engage in a “game of chicken” for the sake of just appearing aggressive. Rather, it should recognize that the ultimate goal of this standoff is not to settle the immediate future of the Doklam plateau but to reassure Bhutan of the credibility of India’s commitment. Seen from this lens, the current crisis is not just a negotiation between New Delhi and Beijing, but an act of posturing for the benefit of Thimphu.
The import of the current crisis is further heightened by the fact that India’s alliance with Bhutan is perhaps at its most precarious since 1947. For decades, Thimphu has proven to be the only all-weather friend that India has ever had in the world. However, in recent years, this relationship is being threatened by larger historical undercurrents at work in south Asia.
In the past, India’s political domination of Bhutan has been a result of three factors. First, colonial India could assert far more power in the northeastern region of south Asia—Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim—than China, in the first half of the 20th century. Independent India capitalized on this history to gain lopsided treaties and institutional relationships with these buffer states. Second, India spends a disproportionate amount of resources and energy to retain Thimphu in its orbit. Bhutan is the largest recipient of India’s foreign aid—Rs31,500 crore since 2000. Nearly 80% of Bhutanese imports and 90% of its exports are traded with India. India’s ambassador to Bhutan is often a senior diplomat who exercises oversized sway in the country. The Indian military maintains a permanent presence in the country. Third, and perhaps most significant, is the disinterest that China has historically shown in this part of south Asia. Partly due to internal turmoil and partly due to the external pressures on its other borders, Maoist China never undertook any significant, sustained efforts to enhance its presence in the Himalayan kingdoms. India enjoyed largely a free hand in the region, to the extent that it was able to annex Sikkim without much international opposition. The post-Mao China, wedded to the policy of “peaceful rise”, also proved reluctant to ruffle any feathers in this region, once again allowing Indian domination to continue unchecked.
However, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the world is witnessing a more powerful and assertive China. This change in global geopolitics is beginning to be felt in this corner of Asia as well. In the 2010s, China has steadily increased its influence in Nepal at the cost of India’s presence. The most recent instance of this trend was the transit treaty signed by the two countries in 2016 after India supported a blockade against Nepal. Now Beijing has set its sights on Bhutan. Apparently, it has decided that Thimphu is too close to New Delhi to be won by a carrot alone. Instead, it has chosen to use a stick. By flexing muscle on the Bhutanese border, China hopes to put strain on the India-Bhutan relations.
India needs to rise to this challenge. It must take a firm stand in the current Doklam standoff to demonstrate its commitment to its ally. Whether by more heated rhetoric in the public or by increasing military presence on the ground, it must communicate to Beijing and Thimphu that it has much more to lose in the crisis than China has to gain. Its influence over Bhutan is a finite commodity, inherited by historical contingency. Once lost, it would be near impossible to replenish, especially when competing against a richer and more powerful Beijing.