China’s recent claim on Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan is seen as another move to corner India in the region. Experts suggest that China wants to occupy Doklam and is ready to exchange other regions with Bhutan to pressurize India.
China’s sudden interest in its neighbour – Bhutan is raising suspicions. Brahma Chellaney, an expert on strategic affairs said that China has never raised this issue before and now suddenly filed a claim on it. It simply means that China can make any new claim, anywhere and at any time.
China defended its territorial claim over the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan, saying the boundary between the two countries is not yet demarcated. Beijing further came up with a “package solution” to resolve the dispute.
China’s position remains consistent and clear. The boundary between China and Bhutan has not been demarcated and there are disputes in the middle, eastern and western sections. So, China advocates a package solution to resolve the dispute.
China and Bhutan do not have any diplomatic ties but maintain contacts through periodic visits by officials. The two countries have held 24 rounds of boundary talks in a bid to resolve the boundary dispute.
In China’s old package offer, it was believed that China asked Bhutan to give up claim on Doklam in exchange for Beijing ceding territory in the central section. This though has been resisted by Bhutan, apparently at India’s behest.
“China has occupied the Bhutan-claimed Doklam plateau, other than the 2017 standoff site located in one corner. And now with its territorial claim to a sizable chunk of tiny Bhutan’s eastern territory, China may be seeking to replace its old package offer with a new one,” said Chellaney.
Experts talking to the EurAsian Times believe that what China tried to do in Doklam, what Pakistan tried to do in Kargil, the Chinese PLA have already done in Easter Ladakh by occupying strategic locations. India cannot go to war and neither can they let the Chinese hold on to vital positions, it’s very challenging.
India has always worked towards having stronger ties with Bhutan. Recently, a new trade route opened between India and Bhutan on 15 July. The most noteworthy show of strength between India and Bhutan was displayed during the 2017 Doklam standoff when the Chinese troops stealthily moved into the Doklam and started building a road in the region.
This was seen as an effort to alter the status quo maintained for years in the disputed plateau. To counter China, India moved its troops in the region to stop the Chinese from constructing the road. It went on for 75 days and was the longest military standoff between India and China.
Besides military cooperation, India and Bhutan share strong economic ties. The annual trade between the two neighbours was worth Rs. 9228 crores in 2018. India’s one-third of the imports is electricity produced through Hydropower plants in Bhutan.
According to Pavan Varma, former Indian ambassador to Bhutan, India’s importance for Bhutan can be understood by looking at the map.
“For our strategic development and safety, Bhutan is important for India. That is why India has the best relations in the world with Bhutan”. Verma believes that China has been making efforts with Bhutan for years and will continue to deepen its ties with the kingdom.
China had earlier accused India of meddling between China-Bhutan relations. During the Doklam dispute, China’s state-run tabloid, Global Times (GT), alleged that India has unnecessarily hung its legs at Bhutan’s border post.
GT wrote “There have been many incidents on the China and Bhutan border in the past. All have been resolved between the Royal Bhutan Army and the Chinese Army. There is no need for Indian soldiers in this”.
Bhutan is considered as the buffer zone between India and China. Verma explained that if China manages to get into Bhutan, it will come very close to the the “chicken neck” (Siliguri corridor) near the Indian border which will put tremendous pressure on India. “In such a situation, China keeps trying to get Bhutan in its favour either by pressure or by temptation.”