Thursday, August 16, 2018

Chinese pressure: India dilutes its commitment to defend Bhutan and leaves it to deal with the Dragon on its own

Behind-the-scenes story of confrontation between India and China on Doklam theatre, how China built pressure on India through its media and diplomatic channels and forced  Bhutan to inch closer to it.
 In Official Testimony to MPs, Government Revealed Full Story of Doklam Chinese and Indian Army troops. Credit: PTI/Files

Raj Rishi

The standing committee members quizzed senior Indian government officials repeatedly on mediareports about continuing build-up of Chinese troops and improving accessibility in the Doklam region.In official testimony to MPs, Government revealed full story of Doklam.Officials observed that any further Chinese build up in the upper reaches of the plateau would be a matter between Thimpu and Beijing. 

Here is the  crucial element  of  the Friendship treaty between India and Bhutan
Treaty of Friendship

On August 8, 1949 Bhutan and India signed the Treaty of Friendship, calling for peace between the two nations and non-interference in each other's internal affairs. However, Bhutan agreed to let India "guide" its foreign policy and both nations would consult each other closely on foreign and defence affairs.--- share a 'special relationship', making Bhutan a protected state.

Under the previous treaty, India was to “guide” Bhutan on foreign and defence policies. The language of the 2007 treaty, is meant to respect the sensitivities of Bhutan regarding its sovereignty. But the reality is that the Indian military is virtually responsible for protecting Bhutan from the kind of external threat that the Chinese military poses

Bhutan inching closer to China

Beijing-based Himalayan analyst Rupak Sapkota said voices in Bhutan advocating closer ties and more cooperation with China were becoming louder and “gradually gaining momentum.  Bhutan will try to have more room for diplomatic manoeuvre in the future, since China can offer Bhutan more economic support and tourism exchanges than India,” he said

Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou

 According to the Hindu, Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou  met Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, besides foreign minister Damcho Dorji claim Chinese news sources.

China and Bhutan have discussed their boundary dispute and reached many agreements during a two-day visit of Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou, the Foreign Ministry said.

Mr. Kong also invited Bhutan to take part in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) during the visit.

This is the first time a senior Chinese official has visited Thimphu since last year’s Doklam military stand-off with India.

A press release issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the visit  of  Kong Xuanyou  said that  during his talks that the two sides should continue to push forward the border negotiations; abide by the principled consensus reached; jointly maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas; and create positive conditions for the final settlement of the border issue between the two.

Commenting on the latest developments, strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellany said: “The timing of Chinese vice foreign minister’s surprise visit to Thimphu underscores Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in India’s backyard. Having quietly seized control of much of Doklam Plateau, which Bhutan regards as its own integral part, China is now mounting pressure on Bhutan to allow it to open an embassy in Thimphu. This kind of pressure is extraordinary. If Bhutan lets China open an embassy, it will represent a watershed moment in New Delhi-Thimphu relations.”

What led India to dilute its relations with Bhutan

A draft report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs on Sino-Indian relations, including on Doklam, provides a detailed account of the government’s view on the unfolding of the 72-day stand-off, with the help of testimonies from former foreign secretary S. Jaishankar and his successor Vijay Gokhale, as well as defence secretary Sanjay Mitra.

In a meeting with the parliamentary panel on the issue of Doklam, the government said that it intervened during China’s road-building exercise in southern Doklam due to the danger of the tri-junction being pushed further south and directly threatening the Siliguri corridor, but observed that any further Chinese build up in the upper reaches of the plateau would be a matter to be dealt between Thimpu and Beijing.

Tensions high

 According to Devirupa Mitra  of  the Wire, while Chinese rhetoric continued to  soar, with PLA spokesperson reminding India about “historical lessons”, senior Indian functionaries, including defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman and national security advisor Ajit Doval, were visiting China for various BRICS-related meetings.

It was the July 7 chat between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping at the G-20 Hamburg summit that “initiated diplomatic communications with the Chinese side in Beijing to seek resolution of this issue”, reiterated Jaishankar. At that time, the MEA had only said that both leaders had a “conversation on a range of issues”.

Overall, Jaishankar said that “13 rounds of diplomatic discussions were held”, led by then Indian ambassador to Beijing Vijay Gokhale and augmented “from time to time” by officials from Delhi.

As talks went on behind the scenes, the official Chinese propaganda continued at a high pitch, with statements every other day from official spokespersons, newspaper articles and briefings for foreign countries.

In the first week of August, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a 15-page note titled ‘The Facts and China’s Position Concerning the Indian Border Troops’ Crossing of the China-India Boundary in the Sikkim Sector into the Chinese Territory’, based on which the Chinese deputy chief of mission held a media briefing in Delhi.

      S. Jaishankar. Credit: PTI

During his testimony, Jaishankar admitted that “none of us at least in recent memory have seen this kind of ratcheting up of political tensions that we saw during those 72 days”.

A side-effect of the crisis was that the Chinese and Bhutanese were more engaged in Delhi during the stand-off. “…The China-Bhutan contacts in Delhi are a relatively new and temporary practice, which arose because of this particular crisis,” Jaishankar said

Meanwhile, on August 15, 2017, there was an unusual physical encounter between the Indian and Chinese troops on the shores of Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh, with stone throwing and jostling.

From India’s perspective, the entry of Chinese troops at Zompelri would not only allow them higher ground over the Siliguri corridor, but was also an attempt to move the tri-junction point further south. India considers the meeting point of the international boundaries of the three countries near Batangla Pass, while China views that it has a more southern location at Gymochem.

Jaishankar noted that India even conveyed that “on our part, as a gesture of goodwill, we were willing to take the first step to break the impasse”.

After about eight weeks of talks, India’s MEA announced “expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site at Doklam has been agreed to and is on-going”.

In Beijing, the foreign ministry spokesperson stressed that India had first withdrawn on August 28 at 2:30 pm from the stand-off site, followed by the Chinese troops.

The following day, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson maintained that Beijing’s options remained open in answer to a question on whether the PLA would now stop building roads in Doklam.

Jaishankar defined a transgression of the August 28 status quo as “what I can see very directly in front of my eyes, which would be that if the Chinese came down where they were there to the face-off site and then proceeded downwards into the Jampehri (Zompelri) ridge with the construction equipment”.

In contrast to the Doklam face-off site, Jaishankar was not willing to be explicit about Chinese presence in the rest of plateau.

 “I would say that as per our reports that we have, it is possible that there are Chinese troops in northern Doklam but on a real time basis, I would hesitate to comment because firstly, it is not in our line of sight.”

Jaishankar insisted that the presence of Chinese soldiers in northern Doklam “was an issue with which Bhutan would be focussed on”.

     Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale. Credit: MEA

Similarly, Gokhale also stressed that if there was a Chinese military presence in the rest of Doklam which was not directly threatening the Indian periphery, it would not be a matter of India’s direct concern but for “China and Bhutan to sort out”.

“…So, to that extent, we had only a limited objective. Beyond that, if there is a build-up, if they are doing some activity that is a matter for China and Bhutan to sort. It is not for Government of India to tell the Chinse side that you construct infrastructure elsewhere along the border.”

The standing committee also observed that while confirming Chinese activities, Indian officials expressed a more “ambivalent view” about “other areas” of the Doklam plateau. While there may not be a direct threat from Chinese troops, the parliamentary panel urged the government to “err on the side of caution”.

Defending previous decisions not to intervene

Strategic analyst Manoj Joshi said that the Indian government has been “very careful to say that there is no change of status quo”. “But there is a change of status quo 200 metres away from the face-off site, where the Chinese have done changes.”

Joshi said that one of the biggest unknowns in this official account is the lack of Bhutanese voices. “After all, they are a very significant actor in this entire episode.”

Joshi pointed out that there was not much clarity on why India had not objected to previous Chinese road-building in Doklam, which had enabled them to start eying the Jampheri (Zompelri) ridge.

In 2007, a Chinese patrol team destroyed bunkers of the Indian army in the Batang La area. India had, however, not directly blocked any of these Chinese ‘transgressions’ in north Doklam till June 2017.

After listening to the official testimonies, the  parliamentary panel concluded that PLA took advantage of the absence of Bhutanese troops on the Batangla-Merugla-Sinchela ridge line. “The Committee would, therefore, recommend that India should persuade Bhutan to increase its troop deployment in the area of North Doklam so as to dissuade PLA from making direct ingress into Southern Doklam in future and trying to shift the tri-junction point towards Siliguri, causing a security threat for India”.

Gokhale added in his evidence to the committee in February this year that he did not “want to give the wrong picture” that India would only take steps about incursions into Bhutanese territory if Indian interests were threatened. “We have a treaty with Bhutan, and we would obviously take into account anything which the Bhutanese government would say to us.” --The Wire

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