“Tibet, Nepal and Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon,” wrote Lian-yu, the Amban, or Chinese governor of Tibet, in 1907, “are side by side like the molar teeth in a man’s mouth, and the subjects of all three are those of one kingdom”. The next spring, 20 Chinese soldiers started from the Chumbi valley for Bhutan’s capital, escorting Ma Chi Fu, the region’s Popon, or administrator, on a mission to study the country’s agriculture, and its payment of tribute. They bore with them a letter, sternly instructing local officials to serve Fu and his soldiers.
Gongzim Dorji Ugyen, a Bhutanese diplomat, drafted a letter of exquisite politeness. Bhutan, it said, had never been a vassal of China. “Forty years ago, when Bhutan was at war with the British”, it read, “we do not recall China offering her assistance.” The Chinese letter, it was implied, must have been drafted by a rude clerk in error — and was forgiven. But still, the Popon would not be allowed on to the capital at Thimphu.
Since the beginning of June, Indian and Chinese troops have been facing off across a small meadow called Turning Point at the end of that very valley — an 89 square kilometre pasture called the Doklam plateau, which is claimed by China. For the citizens of the three countries, two of them nuclear-weapons states, it is vital that the diplomatic cables flying between Beijing and New Delhi prove as persuasive as Ugyen’s missive.
In an action without precedent, Indian troops have intervened in support of the Royal Bhutan Army, after the Chinese People’s Liberation Army refused to stop work on a road leading through the disputed territory towards Doka-La, India’s last post overlooking the plateau.
For now, both sides have contented themselves with waving flags at each other and calling on the other side to go back — but in 1967, a similar situation led to military clashes, and a not-dissimilar one sparked tensions in 1986-87. Is the next China-India crisis now brewing on the Doklam plateau?
The heart of the dispute is the Chumbi valley, a gentle, 3,000 metre high Himalayan passageway covered with flowers in the spring, which served as the trade route from Gangtok through Yadong and Gyantse on to the Dalai Lama’s court at Lhasa. For centuries, salt, yak tails and silk made their way over the mountains, taxed by mountain warlords operating in an inner-Himalayan world where the dominant power was the Dalai Lama’s court at Lhasa, in turn loosely linked to China from the time of the Yuan dynasty.
Interestingly, this strategic enclave had almost eluded China’s grasp. In 1904, the imperial military officer Francis Younghusband had led British forces into the Chumbi, following the epic battle of Karo-La, fought by Gurkha and Sikh troops at altitudes of 5,700 metres.
Younghusband imposed indemnities of Rs 7.5 million on the Dalai Lama’s court, knowing it would take decades to pay back — a ruse to hold on to the Chumbi and its trade routes forever. However, in 1905, anti-foreign Tibetan lamas rose up in fierce revolt against French missionaries, Christian converts and Chinese officials. The rebellion strengthened British officials who believed keeping the Chinese in power was necessary for regional stability.
For modern India, the Chumbi valley is a dagger pointed at the so-called chicken’s neck sector, the narrow strip of territory that links the country to its Northeast. In recent years, China has built a highway that allows the 500 kilometre journey from Lhasa to Yadong to be completed in eight hours or less. In two years, a branch of the Beijing-Lhasa railroad too will be completed, allowing for rapid movement of troops and armour right up to India’s gateway, the Nathu La.
But this sword cuts two ways. Sikkim is one of the few sectors where India has a strategic advantage. In the event of war, India’s Brigade-sized military presence inside Bhutan, stationed at Ha, allows it to attack the Chumbi valley from two sides, potentially cutting off Chinese troops stationed facing Sikkim.
From Bhutan’s point of view, though, the Doklam standoff will have implications for even larger territorial conflicts. To the north of Doklam lies a 180 square kilometre region of eastern Bhutan, sprawling across Sinchulumpa and Gieu in Ha. China has already built the Yadong-Lhasa highway through this territory. In the north, China claims 495 square kilometres of territory in the Jakarlung and Pasamlung areas.
Until 1959, China made no claims on Bhutan, asserting in one official communication that there were no discrepancies in its maps and those of Bhutan at that time. But now, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs cites the 1890 China-Britain treaty, which states that the border runs west from Doka-La along the ridgeline — that is, south of the Doklam plateau.
Bhutan disputes this, noting that the 1890 convention applies to the borders of India and China, not Bhutan and China. Herders, it says, may have made payments under PLA coercion in some areas, but maps show Doklam was Bhutanese.
Either way, China first began to turn up the heat along the Chumbi valley in the late 1960s, escalating sharply in coming decade with a growing programme of road works construction. Faced with sharp Bhutanese protests, a status quo agreement was signed in 1988, and border talks began. In 1990, in the seventh round of talks, China offered a deal swapping their northern claims for those east of Chumbi — that is, those of most advantage against India. Then, in 1999, China made a territorial deal contingent on establishing full diplomatic relations.
Left to itself, Bhutan might well have gone for the deal: business lobbies in the country wanted greater trade with China, and parliamentary representatives from the border areas, settled rights for herders.
From 2004, China sought to settle the issue by escalating the pressure. That year, road construction work started from the Langmorpo stream towards the Zuri ridge. Then, the PLA began a series of intrusions into the Charithang valley, stretching all the way to the Royal Bhutan Army’s outposts at Lahrigang, several kilometres behind the country’s claim line. Further road construction work began in 2009 on bridges along the Zuri and Phuteogang ridges, overlooking the Charithang valley.
Like in 1907, more than a few Bhutanese diplomats wondered whether China could be trusted to keep its word even if a deal was made — or whether its strategic ambitions did not stretch to reducing Bhutan to a vassal, just as it had threatened early in the century, and on some occasions even later.
This explains why Bhutan has allowed India to intercede on its behalf, after the Royal Bhutan Army was brushed aside by the PLA patrol constructing road works in Doklam. For China, this demonstration of resolve has been a major surprise. Bhutan knows it is taking a risk. The PLA could, for example, retaliate by stepping up construction work in other disputed enclaves. Bhutan clearly hopes, however, that China would be loath to be seen as a bully — and that India would stand by it militarily should push come to shove.
For now, the most likely outcome is that both sides will back away, giving diplomats and military strategists time to think through their options: India’s decision to commit militarily in Bhutan has changed the game for all sides. But no one is walking away from this century-old game just yet.