China encroachments in Bhutan could emerge as headache for India in chicken’s neck

China’s increasingly assertive approach to international diplomacy is manifested not just in South China Sea or Taiwan Strait but also in India‘s neighbourhood through settlements on Bhutanese territory, a report in the Washington Post has said.

“China’s latest move in the Himalayas is unusually provocative: It is carrying out full-scale settlement in another country’s territory. That country is Bhutan, which lies directly between China and India, close to areas where the two powers have clashed in the past,” Robert Barnett warned in an opinion piece titled ‘It’s time to sound the alarm over Chinese intrigues in the Himalayas’ earlier this week.

Chinese encroachments in Bhutan involves construction of three villages, 66 miles of linking roads, and at least five military or police outposts on land understood for centuries to be within Bhutan, claimed Barnett, a professorial research associate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and an affiliate lecturer at the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London.

“Encroachment by China on this scale – the area involved represents 1.5% of Bhutan’s territory – is unprecedented on China’s land borders. And it has not finished: In May, we discovered a plan by China to construct yet another village in northern Bhutan or, in China’s terms, ‘disputed territory’,” he wrote.

“China’s encroachment in Bhutan is not a simple land-grab. Instead, it is a form of muscular diplomacy, reminiscent of the British use of gunboats in the 19th century. In this case, Beijing is targeting its move at India as much as at Bhutan. China’s goal is to trade the land it has occupied in northern Bhutan for a smaller patch of disputed territory on Bhutan’s western borders that would give China military advantage over India at a strategic flashpoint.”

Bhutan shares an over 400-km-long border with China and the two countries have held 24 rounds of boundary talks in a bid to resolve the dispute. The latest, the 10th Expert Group Meeting (EGM) on Bhutan-China Boundary was held in China’s southwest Kunming city from April 6-9.

In July last year, China had made a surprising claim on Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan at the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Council by opposing funding to the project. Bhutan lodged a demarche against China.

India has always been apprehensive about China’s moves in Bhutan as it brings Chinese military force People’s Liberation Army (PLA) closer to the Siliguri Corridor, or ‘Chicken’s Neck’ – a 60-km long 22-km wide corridor in West Bengal connecting the mainland with the North East – and, therefore, has military deployments in the region.

India and Bhutan consider Doklam plateau as an integral part of Bhutan. China, however, views it as an extension of its Chumbi Valley, the land that lies between Sikkim and Bhutan. The plateau is about 89 sq km in area, with a width of less than 10 km.

China’s resort to hardball diplomacy with Bhutan is thus not primarily about territorial acquisition, Barnett argued. Neither is it merely an attempt to pressure a neighbouring state to accept a major Chinese role in their politics.

“Rather, it appears to be an attempt to force Bhutan to choose sides and to push India to display its hand in Bhutan’s affairs. In other words, it seeks to provoke a redrawing or at least a clarification of the limits of Indian influence in the region.”

Barnett, along with some colleagues, had recently wrote a detailed piece on Chinese encroachments in Bhutan in the Foreign Policy magazine.

China’s unapologetic boldness in diplomacy, even when discarding prior obligations, is linked to another emerging feature in China’s foreign dealings: unembarrassed statements that contradict its actions, he wrote in the Washington Post.

“These actions represent the use by China of tactical provocation, an approach to statecraft that sees conflictual acts as productive ways to push opponents to overreact or to reveal their hands,” Barnett wrote. “It is a tool that China appears likely to use increasingly to promote its interests. It is an approach to diplomacy that the international community might not welcome, but one that it might need increasingly to study and address.”

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