Aug 23, 2012

China, Bhutan, Nepal And India: Strategic Reflections On Quadrilateral Relations

By: Keshav Prasad Bhattarai

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai
During the UN Conference on Sustainable Development at Rio de Janeiro last month, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao exhibited his surprisingly new found enthusiasm for a meeting with his Bhutanese counterpart Jigmi Y Thinley – the first ever high level meeting between the two countries that are yet to establish diplomatic relations. Next to India, a gripping fact is that China does not have any negotiated border agreements with its tiny neighbor in its South – Bhutan.

According to Xinhua both leaders expressed their willingness to establish formal diplomatic ties and Chinese premier highly appreciated Bhutan’s staunch support for its policy on Taiwan and Tibet.

Chinese Prime Minister pledged for his commitment “to forge formal diplomatic relations with Bhutan on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”. Wen further assured Prime Minister Thinley that it respects Bhutan’s choice for its developmental path as per its national conditions and revealed eagerness to conclude the border demarcation at an early date.

The agreement between Bhutan and China in 1998 that was aimed to maintain peace and tranquility on the Bhutan-China Border was considered as a major diplomatic feat for Thimpu. In an explicit term, the agreement, for the first time had acknowledged Bhutan as a sovereign country with a promise to respect the “territorial integrity and independence of Bhutan”. Quite contrary on the other hand, India recognized Bhutan as a sovereign independent country only on February 2007, after both the country revised the 1949 Treaty that used to have a provision that read- “The Government of India undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan” and in return “Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations”. (Article 2)

But in the updated treaty in 2007 the article as mentioned above is revised as follows -” . . .the Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Government of the Republic of India shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither Government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.”

And obviously since 2007, Bhutan in both principle and practice has been enjoying the status of an independent sovereign country with its new found national confidence in building its international image. However for all practical purposes; India shall continue to make close monitoring of Bhutan’s external dealings and if necessary will try to mentor it. Even so, the huge strategic transport and communication facility including five access roads built by China around Bhutan and the huge global geo-political weight that China has gained of late, will continue to confront India with its role in South Asian affairs including Nepal and Bhutan.

Bhutan is a UN member since 1971 and has its permanent missions in New York and Geneva. It has widened its diplomatic relations with 39 countries, has its embassies in Bangkok, Brussels, Dhaka, Kuwait and New Delhi, but in Thimpu only Bangladesh and India have their embassies. None of the five permanent members of UN Security council have diplomatic relations with Bhutan. But once it maintains diplomatic relations with China, U.S. will immediately follow it and soon Bhutan’s geo-political location will accumulate worldwide attraction. Unfortunately, if Bhutan fails to manage it with strong will and diplomatic skill, it may confront similar challenges that Nepal faces today.

The Dragon at the door of India’s vulnerable “Chicken Neck”
Chumbi valley, a vital tri-junction between Bhutan, India and China is just 5 kilometer away from one of India’s vital life line – the narrow stretch of land with just 20 km wide and 200 km long called as ‘Siliguri Corridor’ bordering Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. The strip of land is also known as ‘India’s ‘Chicken Neck’ joining India’s mainland with its seven states in the North East that makes it the most vulnerable strategic part of India.

Bhutan and China share about 470 km long adjoining borders and have disputes over some territory since China annexed Tibet. After the 19th round of border talks in Thimphu on January 2010, both countries are near to resolve their disputed areas covering some 764 square kilometers – 269 sq km in the North West and 495 sq km on Central North. Interestingly, while Bhutan and China started the border meeting they had some 1000 square kilometer of disputed area. But now it is narrowed down only 764 and even from among the 764 it is learnt that China has proposed an exchange of Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys with an area of 495 sq km with 269 sq km pasture land in some parts of Chumbi Valley in the North West – a sensitive geo-strategic location adjoining Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet and close to Siliguri Corridor.

Chumbi valley on the one side is flank by Paunhuri peaks and the other by Chomulhuri peaks that joins the tri-junction of China, Bhutan and India looming large over Siliguri Corridor. If Bhutan is prepared to concede the other 269 sq km disputed area in Chumbi valley to China, the huge neighbor in the North may reward Bhutan with a lucrative large chunk of territory and other benefits that Bhutan wants. And the elected government of Bhutan and the oxford educated young and energetic king Khesar Jigme Namgyal Wangchuk may find it hard to reject, if China comes with such a concrete proposal including returning to 1951 border line that has existed between Bhutan and Tibet.

China is said to planning to extend its railway networks at least at four points in South Asia from Nathu La (Sikkim), Chhumbi Valley (China, India- Bhutan), Kodari (Nepal) and Nyangtri (Arunachal Pradesh). Bangladesh has also requested China to extend railway link to China from Dohazari in Chittagong via Mynmar. Besides China has developed railways as well as extensive all weather road and advanced communication networks in border areas joining neighboring South Asian countries.

This way, as China has increased its geo-political weight in South Asia, it has stirred India at an alarming level. According to Times of India Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during his meeting with some editors in September 2010 came up with unusually blunt remarks when he said “China would like to have a foothold in South Asia and we have to reflect on this reality. We have to be aware of this.”

China’s second defense line and India’s northern security
The high rise of ethnic politics among the people of Mongol origin and tribal communities in Eastern hills of Nepal may have cross border implications upon Gorkhaland agitation in West Bengal. The predominantly Mongolian and tribal population of Bhutan, Sikkim and mainly North Eastern Indian states engaged in decades long insurgencies since Indian Independences sooner or later may find a sense of unity and affinity with Nepali ethnic states. And in due course of time with increased transport and communication with the people across the border, the sense of unison seen among people of Nepal’s Terai with people across border and strategic challenges Nepal has to confront with, may be repeated among people of Mongol and tribal communities living in Northern belt of South Asia extending from India’s North East to Western Nepal with people across border to North. When identity based politics goes stronger a new geo-political scenario may appear in South Asia.

On the other hand, Indian leaders and top officials have described Maoist insurgency as the single biggest internal-security challenge the country have ever faced. It has spread rapidly over one third of India’s 626 districts. Obviously they have gained inspirations from Maoist in Nepal – that has emerged as the largest political party of the country. The division in ruling Maoist party in Nepal and formation of a new under “Kiran” may give Indian Maoist a new boost – making strong presence along the Indian hart land contiguous to Silliguri Corridor.

According to Indian media sources radical communist and other separatist groups that are trained and sheltered in Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Burma may create havoc in case India is attacked by Pakistan in Kashmir and by China in Arunachal Pradesh. In such a situation Chinese forces stationed in Chhumbi valley may be lured to share the pie in India’s Chicken Neck.

Apparently, stronger voice raised in Nepal in favor of ethnicity based communal political forces from Tarai to Himalayan region and the demand for the provinces clearly demarcated along ethnic line are supposed to have political and financial support from India and some Western countries. This on the one hand has alienated large number of people enlightened with western and Indian political and cultural values. On the other hand, those alienated this way have been looking China as a great friend of Nepali nationalism.

Together with this if Nepal in future is forced to create ethnic provinces in hills and Himalayas, by nature of ethnic affinity they will oriented more toward China in reaction against India supported Madhesh based politics in Nepal. In such a situation a weak and fragile central government may not run its writ throughout the country. Resultantly China might be engaged extensively with hill based provinces that will work as a second line of its defense next to Tibet that will indubitably be detrimental to Indian security in general and its Northern belt in particular.

Courtesy: The Reporter, August 20, 2012

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