|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
In Beijing’s characteristic rotten style, the Chineses representative at the 58th meeting of the Council of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) on June 2-3, 2020 tossed a googly by illegally claiming Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan as Chinese Territory saying that it was “disputed area”. The GEF was established after the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro. GEF Council meeting to decide funding for various environmental projects around the world was shocked by China’s illegal claim and cleared funding for the Sakteng sanctuary after representatives from World Bank, India, Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka, said that Bhutan totally rejected the claim made by China. The Council refused to record China's reason for objection, saying that the footnote would only record that China objected to the project. Bhutan's Embassy in New Delhi issued a demarche to the Chinese Embassy over Beijing's claim over the sanctuary since Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with China. But China has reiterated its claim over the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary and has suggested a package territory solution with Bhutan. China’s foreign ministry spokesman told media, “China’s position remains consistent and clear. The boundary between China and Bhutan has not been delineated and there are disputes in the middle, eastern and western sections, and this is why China calls for a package solution to resolve the dispute. China is opposed to making an issue of these disputes at multilateral forums and China remains in communication with the relevant parties on this issue”. But this is a lie because China has never ever made a claim on Bhutanese territory in Eastern Bhutan.
Prior to 2017 China had offered to give up its claim to a 495 sq km patch in Northern Bhutan and part of a 269 sq km patch in the West in exchange for a nearly 100 sq km area of Doklam Plateau near the Tibet-Bhutan-India tri-border junction. But then China started road construction in Doklam Plateau in 2017 despite a China-Bhutan agreement to maintain status quo till the boundary issue is resolved through talks. This led to the 73-day long India-China standoff which was peacefully called off but soon after China occupied most of the Doklam Plateau, developing roads, defences, observation towers and deployed a brigade-level strength of PLA there. Therefore, the question of providing land to Bhutan in lieu of Doklam Plateau does not arise since China has usurped it as its own territory.
The fresh illegal claim to Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is to create additional pressure point on Bhutan and consequently on India which is to protect Bhutan from external aggression. In addition to the intrusions in Eastern Ladakh, China has mobilised troops along the entire length of the 4,057 km long Line of Actual Control (LAC). She can even create a situation leading to another standoff through Bhutan as well. Bhutan is one of the five fingers of Tibet - the Palm of China, as defined by Mao Zhedong, which China must annex. China will pull out all stops to assimilate Bhutan like Nepal or through salami slicing Bhutanese Territory. In addition to illegally occupying Doklam Plateau, China is also in illegal occupation of the Bhutanese enclave of Darchen (Dar chen) Labrang etc near Mount Kailash (Gangs rin po che, Ti se) used by Bhutanese and Indians for periodic pilgrimage to Lake Mansarovar and Mount Kailash. China wants to open a diplomatic mission in Thimpu and will use every possible means, fair or foul, to pressure Bhutan. China and Bhutan have had 24 rounds of boundary talks. In July 2018, China’s Vice-Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou visited Bhutan and met Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, Foreign Minister Damcho Dorji, King of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his father Jigme Singye Wangchuck.
China will use its illegal claim of Sakteng Sanctuary to pressure Bhutan during the next round of boundary talks which have been pending because of the pandemic. China’s standing in the Global Diplomatic Index 2019 was first perhaps because of number of missions abroad but it is also adept in political warfare and other forms of asymmetric war. Geopolitical dynamics in neighbouring Nepal is proof how China operates slowly but firmly drawing the target country into its vice-like grip. Many a times the victim doesn’t realise what is happening before it is too late. Example of this is Sri Lanka forced to lease Hambantota Port for 99 years to China and Sri Lanka’s present government wanting to renegotiate deal, not much of which is likely to change beyond minor tinkering, that too if Beijing agrees at all. External Debt in Bhutan averaged $1300.04 million from 2003 until 2018, reaching an all time high of $2642.10 million in 2018 and a record low of $405.50 million in 2003. The country’s unemployment rate in 2019 stands a 2.2 per cent, which implies that of Bhutan’s some 7,70,000 population, about 17,000 are unemployed. Bhutan needs more investments to also create employment and China has deep pockets. China’s export of goods to Bhutan have increased manifold over the last decade, with China becoming the third largest source of foreign products to Bhutan; these include machinery, electrical appliances, cement, toys and like.
India and Bhutan have a FTA but what goods India supplies to Bhutan and at what prices with the GST is not known; perhaps not even addressed. How the prices matchup with Chinese goods is the important factor. India and Bhutan have enjoyed a special relationship and have closely aligned their foreign policy on many occasions. But both countries need to be wary of China that has adopted an overtly all around aggressive posture in wake of its bombing the world with China Virus.