India must find a face-saving pretext and withdraw from Doklam
Wangcha Sangey says Delhi’s interference in the border talks between Bhutan and China was intended to assert control over Bhutan. Having failed, it must pull back its troops, and leave the other two to conclude their talks
India has to withdraw from Doklam. There is no alternative. War is neither a wise nor affordable choice.
The so-called “chicken neck” – the narrow valley that links India’s mainland with its northeast, and the apparent reason for its intervention in the Doklam row – was not and is not in any security danger.
The two countries that have claims over the disputed border in Doklam are Bhutan and China. Bhutan never wanted India to interfere with the Sino-Bhutan border talks. Indeed, Bhutan has never considered itself a “protectorate state”, neither of British Raj India nor the Republic of India.
The 1949 treaty between Bhutan and India was simply a copy of the 1865 Sinchula treaty, imposed on Bhutan by a better-armed British India. At that time, Bhutan was following an isolationist policy and external affairs were irrelevant. Under the Sinchula treaty, British India took away some territories of Bhutan, including the “chicken neck”, in exchange for an annual cash payment to Bhutan to compensate for its lost revenue in taxes. Bhutan had to be content with that.
Over the years, however, Bhutan has become more open to the world.
In 1971, Bhutan became a member of the United Nations of its own free will – not under any advice from India. Before that, in 1962, Bhutan had joined the Colombo Plan – again with no advice from India. That year, Bhutan was invited to attend the committee meeting in Melbourne, Australia, as an observer. But the head of Bhutan’s delegation to the meeting, Ashi Tashi Dorji, the sister of then prime minister Jigme Palden Dorji, represented Bhutanese interests so well that Bhutan was invited to become a full member there and then.
In line with these developments, in 2007, Bhutan and India revised their 1949 treaty and removed two clauses: one, that Bhutan foreign affairs would no longer be guided by India, and two, that India no longer has to make an annual payment to Bhutan. Thus, India agreed to refrain from interfering in Bhutan’s foreign affairs, and Bhutan absolved India from the annuity payment.
India acted rashly at Doklam and is now keen to withdraw. I believe its objective was to assert control over Bhutan, and did not intend it as an act of military defiance against China. For its part, Beijing wants Bhutan to remain as a sovereign buffer between China and India, and not as an Indian-controlled buffer.
Having failed in its initial objective, India does not wish to aggravate the crisis with China. But how can the Indian government stand down without being attacked by the opposition parties in Parliament? The ideal solution is for India to withdraw and claim that Bhutanese troops are replacing Indian forces at the disputed site. If India made such a claim, Bhutan would neither deny nor confirm it, even though on the ground it is not possible for Bhutan to replace Indian troops at the Chinese-controlled territory in Doklam.
Perhaps to ease India’s embarrassment, Bhutan could double its deployment at the Zom Pelri outpost, from around 10 soldiers now to 20 soldiers. This arrangement could last through the winter, with numbers dropping back to normal next spring. Bhutan cannot waste its army resources on an unimportant task.
This is something India has to do for itself. Bhutan cannot be the one saying its troops would replace Indian soldiers in Doklam, as such a statement would be tantamount to confirming Bhutan is a protectorate state of India, which it is not.
Bhutan is not anti-India; it simply wants to close the border deal with China and have a proper relationship with Beijing, in line with its own national interests. Both neighbours are important to Bhutan, but neither is an overlord of Bhutan.
Wangcha Sangey is a well-known blogger in Bhutan