Beijing isn’t hiding its plan to undermine India’s historical ties with Bhutan by alleging New Delhi’s ‘hegemonic’ sway over Thimphu. The storm started when Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering told Belgian newspaper La Libre Belgique that China is a party to the Doklam tri–junction border dispute. In the interview, Tshering also brushed aside all concerns about Beijing constructing villages inside Bhutanese territory – worrying many in India.
Now, we can see Beijing’s lawfare strategy being unveiled against Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh simultaneously.
China cornering Bhutan
The commentaries published by the Chinese State media give us an insight into the pressure Beijing is building on Thimphu – and its lawfare strategy against Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.
While the Chinese foreign ministry is yet to comment on Tshering’s remarks, State-run Global Times has published a commentary in Mandarin, labelling the interview as a “victory” for China and “a setback” for India.
“India’s hegemony and great-power influence in South Asia are not conducive to the development of Bhutan,” Global Times quoted Zhang Yongpan, from the Tibet Research Office of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Frontier Affairs, as saying.
The relationship between Bhutan and China’s Tibet is far closer than Bhutan and India in terms of cultural and religious customs or historical feelings, Zhang further said in his interview with Global Times.
Experts connected to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences have also commented on India’s influence over Bhutan in the last few days.
“India’s control over Bhutan’s security and economic lifeline allows it to interfere in its internal and external affairs, highlighting New Delhi’s regional hegemony in its policy toward Bhutan,” wrote Sun Xihui, an expert in Asian studies from the National Institute of International Strategy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in an article published by China Daily, owned by the central propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Sun had more to add about the relationship Beijing wants with Thimphu.
“It also tries to intervene in border negotiations between China and Bhutan. Since the 1950s, China has resolved border issues with almost all its neighbors, except Bhutan, because India insists on negotiating on Bhutan’s behalf, while China hopes to negotiate directly,” he wrote.
The unambiguous headline of Sun’s article— ‘India’s sway over Bhutan nothing but hegemony’—makes his position clear from the onset. Hence, New Delhi dominating Thimphu is a carefully crafted narrative that somewhat deliberately appears in China’s expert commentary about Bhutan.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences directly reports to the State Council, which is directly involved in policy-making – including on matters of international relations.
Even though it has turned its gaze on Bhutan, China is not letting Arunachal Pradesh out of its sight. Beijing’s latest announcement, which aims to rename 11 locations in the region, has been approved by the State Council and was likely based on recommendations by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The Chinese names assigned to the 11 locations in Arunachal Pradesh are mostly direct transliterations from Tibetan and not new ones.
China considers the 11 places in Arunachal Pradesh to be a part of southern Tibet, which it calls Zangnan.
“Zangnan is part of China’s territory. In accordance with relevant stipulations of the administration of geographical names of the State Council, competent authorities of the Chinese government have standardised the names of some parts of Zangnan. This is within China’s sovereign rights,” said Mao Ning, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson.
The same Zhang Yongpan, who had raised the issue of ‘Indian hegemony and power influence’ while dissecting Tshering’s remarks in his conversation with Global Times, backed and hailed Beijing’s decision to ‘standardise’ the place names in Arunachal Pradesh. He claimed it was well within “China’s sovereignty” to make such moves.
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Deliberate bid to flare tensions
Zhang’s commentary on the issue has been cited multiple times, but it is worth noting that his stature within China’s bureaucratic hierarchy is unclear. In the Chinese version of his remarks, Zhang is called ‘director of the Tibet Research Office of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Frontier Affairs’, but in the English versions, he is referred to as ‘research fellow of the Institute of Chinese Borderland Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’.
The Chinese State media is clearly trying to downplay Zhang’s status to distract the reader from what appears to be a carefully crafted strategy to flare up tensions vis-à-vis Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.
Moreover, besides the expert commentary, Chinese social media has reacted to Tshering’s comments by hailing it as a success for China’s diplomatic efforts. Vlogs calling India a “bully” are rapidly emerging from the country.
A vlogger named Gu Yan Mu Chan from Guangdong made a video alleging that the Bhutanese have realised that India is the “bully”.
“Ah San [a racist term used for Indians], will most likely engage in small-scale conflicts in the eastern section next time India does something. Recently, he [India] has been hyping up issues in Bhutan and the Doklam area, and the infrastructure in the eastern section still needs to be worked hard,” said a Weibo user.
But what are key events that convinced Tshering to make remarks about settling the dispute over some of the non-Doklam areas?
On 13 January, the Chinese and Bhutanese delegations met for the 11th Expert Group Meeting on the China-Bhutan Boundary Issues. Here, the two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on ‘Accelerating the Three-Step Roadmap for China-Bhutan Border Negotiations’. It was these ‘three steps’ that Tshering alluded to in his interview with La Libre Belgique, where he said that Thimphu would be ready to settle its territorial dispute with Beijing after a few meetings.
But even if Beijing and Thimphu can settle their dispute over non-Doklam areas, China isn’t planning to stop claiming the Doklam tri–junction area.
Zhang has even gone on to say that Doklam is “completely a Chinese territory” and “has nothing to do with India.” But it really wouldn’t be the first time Beijing made such a maximalist claim over Doklam.
“After the incident of Indian troops crossing the border, the Bhutanese side told us very clearly that the place where the incident occurred does not belong to Bhutanese territory. The Bhutanese are also very surprised why Indian border troops entered Chinese territory,” reported People’s Daily in August 2017.
The news report by People’s Daily, however, was found to be fake after it was discovered that it was a Chinese official who made the claim, and not the Bhutanese or Indian media.
Beijing’s plan to alter the existing delineation of the border across different sectors is quite evident, especially after it announced its new list of place names for Arunachal villages.
In his defence, Tshering said his statement had been misread by some sections of Indian media and that there was no change in Bhutan’s position on the Doklam tri–junction dispute. But the damage has been done, and Beijing’s pressure on Thimphu to settle border areas is quite evident from Tshering’s remarks.
By carrying out a lawfare strategy, Beijing is posing a full spectrum challenge to the existing status quo along the Line of Actual Control in the Eastern sector. Thimphu would need to understand that Beijing will use a lawfare strategy to return with new claims and settle the border dispute.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He is currently a MOFA Taiwan Fellow based in Taipei and tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)