The timing of India-China standoff in Bhutan is peculiar. It came to news at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was visiting the US to have bilateral talks with President Donald Trump. Several opinion pieces in Chinese state daily Global Times were
over critical of the beginning of what seems to be a new era of India-US relationship.
The recent face-off between Indian and Chinese soldiers reportedly took place over road construction on the borders of 269-sq.km Doklam plateau in Bhutan, but claimed by Beijing. The face-off was followed by China pushing back Indian pilgrims and stopping them from the Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra.
Diplomatic sources have told The Indian Express that recent face-offs, which was followed by strongly-worded statements from Chinese officials and media, could be the “worst crisis” in relations between the two countries since they confronted each other at Daulat Beg Oldi in 2013. At the root of the present face-off appears to be China’s claim on the Doklam plateau, which overlooks the strategic Chumbi Valley. However, a larger Chinese design, in its long-standing strategy to contain India from all sides, cannot be denied.
A Global Times report quoting Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang says the Doklam area belongs to China, not Bhutan and India, which has been proven by history and legal principle. BJP leader and senior journalist Chandan Mitra writes on NDTV.com, “Undoubtedly, Beijing is unnerved by New Delhi’s close association with Washington and is sending a message to both capitals against bolstering equations between India and the US.”
The Chinese media report also claimed that recently Indian border troops crossed the China-India boundary at the Sikkim section and entered the Chinese territory, obstructing Chinese border troops’ normal activities in Doklam. China has also asked India to “immediately withdraw” its border guards “who have crossed the boundary and do a thorough investigation of this matter.”
According to IE, the clash on Doklam plateau clash involved troops serving India’s Brigade-sized mission at Ha — a formation for training Bhutan’s armed forces. But it also deploys Royal Bhutan Army to patrol the borders with China.
A senior Indian official told IE that India has never acted in defence of Bhutan’s interests. But the Chinese are very upset by the Indian assertion. PTI reported Bhutan’s ambassador to India Vetsop Namgyel as saying that his country had issued a demarche to China over the construction of a road towards its Army camp in Zomoplri area of Doklam. The demarche also asked Beijing to restore the status quo.
China, however, calls the road construction legitimate. “China’s road construction in Doklam area, which is our territory, is legitimate, and any other party has no right to interfere,” Lu was reported as saying by the Global Times. Lu claimed that the recent face-off took place at Donglong, which is a part of the disputed territory between Bhutan and China. He further claimed that the Indian troops had crossed the boundary on the Sikkim side into Chinese territory.
Details of the clash have note been confirmed by Indian officials. Two Indian officials, however, told IE that China had privately complained of Indian troops attacking a Chinese road construction unit on June 4-5. This led to an unarmed brawl and two Chinese personnel suffered minor injuries. China retaliated on June 5 by destroying Indian bunkers on the Bhutan side of the border.
China is heavily invested in the Doklam plateau. According to IE, China is upgrading 500-km Lhasa to Yadong road, which would allow to complete the journey in 7 hours. Passing through Bhutan, the road has enhanced China’s military logistics in the region. It is also considered a threat to India for its proximity to the so-called Chicken’s Neck, through which all roads to the North-East pass. China is also expanding Beijing-Lhasa high speed railway to Yadong.