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China’s activities in Bhutan, Nepal should ring alarm bells in India. Does Delhi have a plan?

Reports of a 'Chinese village' in Bhutan and China’s hand in Nepali politics is more proof that Beijing sees a leadership vacuum in India’s neighbourhood.

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Three days after Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla returned from Kathmandu last week, where he sought to smoothen the spat caused by Nepal’s decision to incorporate Indian territories in a new map among other issues, Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe flew into Kathmandu for a day-long visit to promote defence cooperation.

General Wei will travel to Bangladesh and Pakistan from Nepal. Meanwhile, next door in Bhutan, satellite imagery from Western and Indian sources revealed that the Chinese have built and populated a village – which they call Pangda – a couple of kilometres inside Bhutanese territory in the Doklam plateau area.

Predictably, Bhutan has rejected the alleged Chinese encroachment, but the truth seems far more complex. According to some, the Chinese had offered Thimphu a deal on settling the un-demarcated boundary between them as long back as the 1990s, but Bhutan did not accept the offer in deference to Indian sensitivities.

Also read: 5 maps that tell you all you want to know about India vs China in Ladakh

“Many know Bhutan was offered a ‘package deal’ from 90’s which is a swap for the Doklam area for bigger concessions in north central Bhutan by the Chinese but Bhutan declined it. Most don’t know it was rejected on grounds of Indian security interests at the Trijunction & ridge [sic],” tweeted Tenzing Lamsang, editor of The Bhutanese.

The Chinese renewed the offer just before the Doklam standoff in 2017 and, in fact, made it better, a Bhutanese political analyst told ThePrint, on condition of anonymity. It seems Beijing was willing to accept a narrower sliver of the Doklam plateau, but there was a catch in the proposal – it would have to include the tri-junction area the Chinese call Gyemochen, close to the Indian border and overlooking the narrow ‘chicken’s neck’ area connecting the northeast to the rest of India.

Again, in consideration of Indian security interests, Bhutan indicated it wasn’t interested. It has now come to light, an Asian diplomat told me, that during the 72-day standoff between Chinese and Indian troops on the Doklam plateau, the Chinese were building alternative routes to the ridge overlooking Indian territory.

For the moment, the Bhutanese say they aren’t overly concerned, but they know that by building and populating a village, the Chinese are sending them a message: If you don’t detach yourself from Indian concerns and settle the border in your own national interest, then incursions will keep happening.

Also read: India wants Bhutan to settle China border issue so it can define trijunction area near Doklam

China’s game plan

“The good old days are over. This is an entirely new playbook by the Chinese and we don’t know what the new rules are,” the Bhutanese political analyst said.

Actually, the character of the new playbook is slowly becoming clear. It is the disruption of the status quo all along China’s southern Himalayan periphery, and the Chinese are using every instrument in their arsenal to keep South Asia off balance.

In India, Beijing has forced 50,000 or so Indian troops to climb the heights and defend its frontier from another 50,000 or so Chinese troops in terribly inhospitable terrain through the coming winter in which temperatures could plunge to -30°C. In Bhutan, it is pushing the elected government to adopt a more independent foreign policy – an idea the Thimphu elite is beginning to warm to, as it looks for more options. And in Nepal, it is influencing domestic affairs through the Communist party brotherhood.

A fortnight before Wei Fenghe’s visit, when a power struggle inside the ruling Communist Party of Nepal began to get out of hand, two people intervened to resolve the matter – President Bidya Bhandari, who is said to be very close to PM K.P. Oli, and China’s ambassador to Nepal, Madam Hou Yanqi.

According to the Kathmandu Post, one day before a meeting of the party secretariat on 19 November, PM Oli and party colleague Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or Prachanda, began to scrap badly, with Prachanda accusing Oli of several inexcusable activities and demanding he resign. Oli threatened to postpone the party meeting.

So President Bhandari summoned Prachanda and Oli separately and tried to make them see sense; while Ambassador Hou met Oli. The party meeting was held. The spectre of a split was averted in the run-up to General Wei’s visit. Nepal’s Communist leaders presented him a united front.

In retrospect, it seems as if the three Indian visits to Nepal in the last month – by R&AW chief Samant Goel, Army chief M.M. Naravane and Foreign Secretary Shringla – are a mere interlude in Nepal’s fast-moving, increasingly Beijing-dominated politics. India, already tied down by its own military crisis with China, seems unable to offer real alternatives when Nepalis talk about Chinese encroachment reported in the north. According to the survey department of Nepal’s agriculture ministry, China had gobbled up 36 hectares of Nepali territory as far back as 2017.

Also read: Kalapani, controversial map, travel bubble discussed during Shringla’s maiden visit to Nepal

India must step up, again

As for Bhutan, India cannot expect Thimphu will be forever tied to its apron-strings, whether on the matter of security or economic interests, such as the sale of hydropower. Bhutan’s very respectful elite has begun to ask uncomfortable questions to their Indian interlocutors, as to why Bhutan cannot benefit, for example, from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Perhaps the only thing that will rescue India’s special engagement with these Himalayan nations is sustained political engagement by the highest levels in New Delhi. The Chinese see a leadership vacuum in India’s neighbourhood and have changed the rules in their exercise of power. India needs to change the rules back again.

Views are personal.

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  1. I agree with Col. Vishwanathan. Nepal is a sovereign country. They will have to decide who they want to be friends with who will pose a threat to their sovereignty and who will not. There are enough examples worldwide to figure out where exactly India stands and where China stands when it comes to economic colonization of a country.
    As an Indian, I know one thing for sure — India does have military and economic interests in Nepal.. nothing new or unusual at all. But India has ZERO interest in grabbing Nepalese territory OR threatening Nepal’s sovereignty.
    Given the history, the same cannot be said for China at all. No doubt China is a 7 times bigger and stronger economy than India.
    India must focus on building her own strength. Friends will line up 🙂

  2. A misplaced view. There is a larger picture within which we have to strategies. We can’t here chose our neighbours. With the type of unreliable neighbours we have, across contentious and treacherous borders (in as much as, when both sides claim the same piece of land, it becomes contentious). Diplomacy will take us only so far.The ultimate intention of our hostile neighbours is to keep India under wraps and not allow it to grow into any sort of regional / world power.The only strategy in the circumstance is a two pronged approach.
    1. Develop a well equipped and highly motivated Defence force as all major powers are doing.
    2. Develop the Nation as a self sustaining economy – A robust domestic defence industry is paramount to sustain the economy in that Defence spending is imperative.
    In regard to the minor (but important) neighbours, we need to realize that no country can live on love and free air. We have to be in a position that being a friend of India becomes highly beneficial. Period.
    Now map our actions against this larger picture.

    • Dear Col Viswanathan, both you and Jyothi suffered from hallucination about the source and origin of all the ails that plague India, which is the UK and therefore are prescribing all the wrong solutions for India. Ironically, PM Modi plans to invite Boris Johnson as guest of honour next year, as if India has had not enough of the humiliation from the Brits. Did PMO fail to educate Modi that Boris worships Churchill, whose hands are tainted with the blood of millions of Indians and was key in masterminding the Indian partition?

      • Hi Giorgio,

        Giorgio (real name?) Greetings!
        Firstly I sincerely fail to see what Churchill or Boris J is even remotely connected to my comments.
        Secondly. We are not discussing why India is where it is (no use flogging a dead horse). We are exploring what India should do from here.
        Thirdly: It does not matter who attends or who does not attend our Republic day Parade as long as we are all proud of our Republic and explores ways to strengthen it.


  3. There is nothing India can do to calm all its neighbors fearing when they will be next Sikkim.

    R&AW chief Samant Goel, Army chief M.M. Naravane and Foreign Secretary Shringla were in Nepal to threaten them of regime change, not friendly visit.

    They are still fresh in memory of how RAWS massacre their entire Royal family, and several blockade of their borders to blackmail change of Nepal Constitution law to give 4Mils illegal Indian migrants bigger power in Parliament.

    India has invaded Nepal and occupied large swath of its lands since Brits Raj era. Not contented, it encroached into its border lands this year, forcing Nepal army to intervene forcefully.

    Bhutan royals and its gov are hold hostage with forced “Friendship Treaty” that stripped all Bhutan sovereignty. It can’t has foreign relationship without India approval. Large IA is stationed inside to threaten them continuously.

    Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives are anxious when they will be annexed by India forcefully like Sikkim, J&K, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, …Goa,….

    Pakistan and Bangladesh have both suffered under India hands. India even called Bangladesh pest.

    So naturally all South Asians will look up to China for protection against India threat, and prosperity of trades that poor India can never provide.

    In fact, all have well surpassed India in development, Bangladesh in this year, except Pak & Nepal awaiting for CPEC to grow quickly.

    Myanmar too suffering huge Western land grabbed by India (NEastern 7 states) and sponsoring of all Myanmar rebels( Project Leech).

    P.s. Nepal has officially rebuked India propaganda lies on China encroaching their land. Writer shouldn’t repeat the falsehood here.

  4. Remember, we Nepal is not in the Indira Gandhi’s time, we Nepal now is in the global time. Got it!? And always keep in mind that we have not been enslaved like you’ve been. Give and take takes place but bullying or inducement takes no place.

    • You want to be enslaved by China then? If China gobbled up Tibet and has already snatched Nepali territory, don’t you think Nepal will be swallowed by China over lunch?

  5. NO…delhi does not have a “plan”….
    After so much of “experience”..the writer equates criticle, nuanced & fluid matters of geo strategic issues with “plan”…

  6. Delhi sure has a plan,.. but here are few problems:
    1. Opposition who do not understand national security and politics.-led by a juvenile leader(so called).
    2. India’s foreign affair strategic grop which is apolitical and have only national security as priority.
    3. Media that has no clue what it is supposed to do ends up playing into foreign hands.
    4. People who have no sense of direction.
    5. Above all Poor economic situation.

  7. The headline:
    China’s activities in Bhutan, Nepal should ring alarm bells in India. Does Delhi have a plan?
    The next question should be ” DO WE HAVE A BUNCH OF BAFOONS SITTING IN DELHI”?
    A very innocent question is loaded .

  8. They call it Comprehensive national power. China carries a bigger stick and its haversack is filled with more carrots. While the geopolitical competition is manifest, not everything China does in South Asia should be seen through this lens. Theirs is now almost the world’s largest economy, deeply integrated through trade and investment. By putting SAARC to sleep, we are accentuating the asymmetry and vacuum. Our diplomats are better than theirs, speak better English too, but the wolf warriors have a better hand to play. Political engagement one is deeply sceptical about. How much genuine political engagement do we see in our own Parliament for that matter. International relations are not guided by transient considerations – I have given up trying to keep track of who Australia’s PM is, as I had earlier for Japan.

    • Yes. Its a very good question. Actually our offers to Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh will be much better than Chinese. Allow our people to set up industries in Pakistan. Reliance, Tatas , Hero group, Airtel, etc. Let TCI, Infosys, etc start there. Give each country one or two IITs. From the Chinese too we can top industries like bullet train engines, Ultra large turbines making factories, etc. especially making shipping containers where our iron can be used. The scope is so vast. Not to forget chip making industries.

  9. I understand India should think more about its own interests than that of its neighbouring countries Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, etc. Because it seems these countries have started taking India’s large-heartedness as granted. When someone gets something for free, they want more. That’s what happened with Nepal. China is completely self-centered, either you accept what is CCP leaders want or face the stick. No other neighbouring country except India and Russia has the will and power to go against China’s will.

  10. Can we stop using the phrase “alarm bells”. Its sensationalist and not true to the nature of strategic policy formulation as it appears reactionary.

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