Bhutan in a Bind Amid Himalayan Standoff Between China and India

A newly assertive China flexes it muscles in disputed territory.

Indian activists shout anti-Chinese slogans over a border row between the two Asian powers during a protest near the Chinese embassy in New Delhi on July 7, 2017.

For the past two months, China and India have been locked in a standoff over disputed territory in the Himalayas.

The standoff began when China began extending an unpaved road southward into the Kingdom of Bhutan from a disputed area along the China-Bhutan border.

On June 16, India sent troops into Bhutan in order to block further Chinese road construction. Soldiers from the world’s two most populous nations, both of them nuclear powers, now face each other in rugged, uninhabited territory only a few hundred yards apart.

Few observers expect all-out war at this point, but experts say that small clashes could escalate into something bigger. And the standoff has stirred nationalistic feelings on the home front on both sides.

A brief but bloody war in 1962 between China and India over another border dispute in another part of the Himalayas is in the back of everyone’s mind.  Hundreds of soldiers on each side were killed or wounded, but the war was widely regarding as having been a defeat for India, because of territorial advances made by China.

In that war, India appears to have miscalculated China’s capabilities and willingness to go to war over disputed territory against India’s forward positions and outposts.

Bhutan’s Frustration

During the standoff in Bhutan, a number of Bhutanese commentators have gone public regarding their frustration over what they regard as India’s attempts to block an improvement in relations between China and Bhutan.

Bhutan wants the trade and tourism that China might bring to the poor, landlocked kingdom. More than half of Bhutan’s trade is with India, and trade with China, where the border is closed, is limited.

Bhutan, with a population of just under 800,000 people, gave India effective control of Bhutan’s foreign relations under a 1949 treaty. At the time, the Communist Party was taking power in China, and India offered to defend the kingdom.

Bhutan was influenced by the flight of thousands of Tibetan refugees to Bhutan following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the annexation of Tibet in 1951. The refugees brought with them stories of the killing and torture of Tibetans and the repression of Tibetan Buddhism.

Bhutan shares strong religious and cultural ties with Tibet, and anti-Chinese feelings were then widespread.

But over time, a number of Bhutanese have grown to believe that India’s influence has become overbearing.

India apparently failed to get an explicit approval from Bhutan when it sent troops into the kingdom in June.

According to a New York Times report from Bhutan published on Aug. 16, Bhutan has condemned the Chinese road building but has “studiously avoided saying whether it asked India to intervene.” The Indian government, for its part, has avoided responding to questions about this.

Many interviewed by the Times in Bhutan expressed more concern about India’s actions than China’s, with some asserting that India’s dispatch of troops undermined border negotiations with China that could have led to closer economic ties.

The Chinese perspective

China’s assertive posture on Bhutan fits with China’s growing willingness in recent years to shift to more forceful behavior in international relations, including more open threats to use force if needed.

Sun Yun, a senior associate at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Stimson Center, said that China is taking a strong stand in support of its road work in Bhutan in line with its growing presence and influence in Asia.

According to Sun, China’s President Xi Jinping long ago abandoned the late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to “bide our time and keep a low profile” on the world stage.

Xi, unlike Deng, she says, “isn’t a ‘keeping a low profile and biding our time’ kind of guy.”

Sun, an expert on China’s foreign policy and its relations with neighboring countries, says that China finds India’s national security concerns over Bhutan to be “irritating.”

According to Sun, Chinese officials and experts are asking, “Why is India’s construction of roads on their side okay when it comes to our security while the construction of a road on our side infringes on their security?

India’s perspective

Seen from India, the contested Doklam Plateau where China has been extending its unpaved road is a strategic point leading down to a narrow Indian valley connecting India to its landlocked northeastern states.

India has nicknamed this valley the “Chicken’s Neck.”

While India proposes that both sides withdraw their troops, China defends its territorial claim to the area in dispute, a desolate plateau said to be populated mostly by Bhutanese shepherds.

The Washington Post, in a report from New Delhi on Aug. 17, says that the standoff reflects “an expanding geopolitical contest” between the two Asian powers.

The Post asserts that with China fortifying disputed islands in the South China Sea, Beijing’s “dominance of Asian affairs is growing, as is its unwillingness to brook rivals.”

India, the Post says, “is seen by some as the last counterbalance.”

So far, only one minor dust-up has been reported to have occurred during the current standoff inside Bhutan. It took place on Aug. 15 in the Himalayas, but far to the west of Bhutan in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir.

Quoting sources in New Delhi, the Reuters news agency said that “an altercation” involving India and Chinese soldiers took place on Aug. 15 when Indian soldiers foiled an attempt by Chinese troops to enter Indian territory in the Ladakh region of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

According to Reuters, some of the Chinese soldiers carried stones and iron rods. In the melee, both sides suffered minor injuries, the news agency said.

The Associated Press cited an Indian intelligence officer who said that a confrontation involving stone throwing occurred after Indian soldiers intercepted a Chinese patrol that had veered into Indian territory after apparently losing its way because of bad weather.

If nothing else, the incident helped to show how accidents and miscalculations can easily occur along a poorly demarcated border.

The Chinese defense and foreign ministries didn’t immediately respond to requests for comments.

But some commentators saw more in the stone-throwing clash than a minor incident.

E. Jaya Kumar, writing for the Hong Kong-based internet newspaper Asia Times, said on Aug. 18 that the Chinese Army’s incursion in Ladakh “may have been to embarrass India on a day when it was celebrating 70 years of freedom from colonial rule.”

Others suggest that the incursion was also meant to send a signal that the People’s Liberation Army was capable of attacking anywhere along the two nations’ more than 2,000-mile long shared border.

But Kumar also noted that both sides continue to send mixed signals.

While Indian and Chinese troops hurled stones at each other in Ladakh, other soldiers at various border locations exchanged sweets to celebrate India’s independence, wrote Kumar.

Dan Southerland is RFA’s founding executive editor.