India and China standoff in Bhutan over roadworks.
It can probably unanimously be said that the Eastern world is a constant source of news. Whether it’s the floods the southern part of the continent is facing, the Philippine drug war or – just for a change – Kim Jong-Un’s current bear-poking antics, all eyes seemed riveted on Asia. Yet despite the constant scrutiny, one country’s plight seems to have been overlooked: the tense stand-off in Bhutan. A country little heard of on this side of the globe, Bhutan is currently facing a situation so tense it rivals the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds.
Sandwiched between India and China, the small country of Bhutan is perched in the Himalayas, a precarious position for any nation, especially for one with a population of only 800,000. Yet so far, Bhutan seems to have done fairly well for itself. When China’s Communist party took over half a century ago and moved to occupy the neighbouring country of Tibet, Bhutan accepted India’s offer of protection. But with recent developments which have brought the two great Asian superpowers at loggerheads with each other, Bhutan runs the risk of being ‘the meat in the sandwich’, as Pema Gyamtso, the leader of the opposition party in Bhutan’s National Assembly, so elegantly put it (New York Times).
For two months now, Indian and Chinese forces have been at a standoff on the Doklam Plateau. ‘Earlier this summer, China began extending an unpaved road in the disputed territory, and India sent troops and equipment to block the work’, reports the New York Times. This may seem an extreme reaction to road work, however it is worth noting that the road in question would have led ‘towards the strategic Jampheri Ridge, which overlooks India’s most vulnerable point’ (Financial Times). With power balances constantly shifting in Asia, one can understand India’s somewhat jumpy reaction.
This see-saw of power runs even deeper. According to the New York Times, many believe that India is utilising its’ smaller, more vulnerable neighbour as a buffer against China. Indeed Brahma Chellaney, a strategic studies professor at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research, claims that ‘China has been trying to dominate the Himalayan region because it believes unless it does, it will not be able to retain firm control over Tibet,’ (Financial Times). No surprises therefore, that India would attempt to keep Bhutan out of Chinese reach. However, it would seem that Bhutan is now looking to reduce its’ dependence on India by expanding its’ relations with China, something which, according to Shashank Joshi, a fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, would cause great detriment to India.
The current situation can therefore be viewed as a power-fuelled tug-of-war with Bhutan in the middle. India claims to have ‘intervened to help its smaller neighbour fend off China’s attempt to alter the status quo on disputed territory. But Beijing has accused India of an “invasion” aimed at further consolidating its grip over a smaller, vulnerable neighbour.’ (Financial Times). In the meantime the Bhutanese government – though they have asserted claims over the contested territory – has remained silent as to whether or not India’s intervention was called for, and the standoff, so far, has involved no Bhutanese forces. ‘“Bhutan does not want India and China to go to war, and is avoiding doing anything that can heat up an already heated situation,” wrote Tenzing Lamsang, editor of The Bhutanese newspaper’ (Financial Times).
Yet while some have viewed this situation as a reenactment of Sophie’s Choice – Gyamtsho quoted stating, ‘“it shouldn’t have to be a choice,” [referring to his nation’s ties with India and China] but it is at the moment.”’ (New York Times) – others seem to have taken a more optimistic approach. Wangcha Sangey, head of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry believes that the crux of the matter is Bhutan’s rights to sovereignty; ‘“We have the right to live the way we want to live and to have the foreign relations we want to have.”’ (New York Times). This empowering statement should have us cheering for the underdog and hoping for a peaceful outcome which, according to Professor Steve Tsang, Director of the SOAS China Institute, is likely as ‘“neither side wants a conflict at this point’’’ (The Independent). One must hope that, based on these predictions and aspirations, this will be the case. Yet, as also pointed out by Professor Tsang, ‘we do have a lot of boys with a lot of fancy toys facing each other in an emotionally charged area, so the risk of things getting out of hand cannot be eliminated’ (The Independent). Therefore, if we wish to avoid another Sino-Indian war, it is time for Bhutan to take a stand, sit this bizarre love triangle down and talk it out, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Eleftheriou-Smith, Loulla-Mae. “India and China ‘Preparing for Armed Conflict’ If Bhutan Solution Not Found.” The Independent, 15 Aug. 2017.
Kazmin, Amy. “China and India Rivalry Smoulders in Bhutan.” Financial Times, 13 Aug. 2017.
Myers, Steven Lee. “Squeezed by an India-China Standoff, Bhutan Holds Its Breath.” The New York Times, 15 Aug. 2017.
[The Indian Army’s headquarters in Haa, Bhutan, near a disputed border with China. A standoff between India and China set off by an incursion has lasted over 50 days. Photo: Gilles Sabrié for The New York Times]