Even as the world’s eyes watched China and India face off on the Doklam plateau, Royal Bhutan Army patrols were heading out, unnoticed, into the wall of mountains that mark the kingdom’s borders with Tibet. The two powers announced Monday that their troops were disengaging — but patrols were still being prepared to relieve troops at distant outposts, and pack-animals loaded with supplies. “No photographs,” said a soldier standing guard on the road to Damthang, a rutted single-lane highway that at places was indistinguishable from mud and rock. Here, the most unequal military contest in the world is continuing, uninterrupted.
Inside Bhutan’s tiny military, with less than 10,000 active-service personnel, the Doklam crisis had sparked fears that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) might aggressively seize disputed territory along the kingdom’s western borders. Fears of a bid to coerce the kingdom into breaking ranks with India have receded now — but they have underlined the kingdom’s military vulnerability.
Less than 15 km as the crow flies from the Royal Bhutan Army’s main China-focussed base at Damthang, the high-altitude pastures at Doklam, Sinchulumpa, Charithang and Dramana are a two-day trek for foot-mounted troops. These troops will be responsible for monitoring Chinese patrols into disputed territory, including Doklam — just as they were before the crisis.
From their outposts above the pasture-lands, military sources familiar with the region say, Bhutan’s troops can see PLA troops using at least three roads — among them, the highway from the town of Yatung to Lhasa — and several minor tracks to patrol territory the kingdom claims.
Even though Monday’s disengagement deal has raised sighs of relief in Bhutan’s government, sources say it continues to fear that the end of the crisis might prove to be punctuation, until China and India resolve their wider strategic disputes.
“This crisis has brought about some real questioning about Bhutan’s position and vulnerabilities for the first time in decades,” a senior official said. “This isn’t to say there is a crisis in the Bhutan-India relationship — there isn’t — but there is going to be a lot of hard thinking on what needs to happen next.”
For generations, Narphu Tshering’s family has depended on traversing the mountains that separate Tibet from Bhutan: once, Haa was a staging-post for trade in salt and wool, hauled over the mountains to the town of Yatung, and on to Lhasa. Now, he still takes yaks from villages like Hatay up to graze in the summer pastures, drying their cheese for sale in markets as far away as Darjeeling and Kalimpong. “The herders from Tibet come to their lands, and we to ours,” he says. “But if our soldiers were not there, perhaps there would be problems. I have heard there were problems in the past, because the PLA soldiers would try to drive us away from our lands.”
Problems in the grazing lands, older herders in the Haa region say, in the 1960s, with PLA guards sometimes using force to drive them away at gunpoint. This activity likely had nothing to do with grazing rights. Tibet’s Chumbi valley, shaped like a finger pointing southwards, is one of the few regions where India has a strategic advantage. Taking control of Doklam and other disputed high-altitude territory offers the PLA a valuable buffer against being cut off.
Bhutan’s army has now closed the web of mountain paths leading west and south-west from Damthang to the high-altitude pastures, to all but herders taking yak up from Haa and Paro.
In 1980, Bhutan opened negotiations with China in an effort to resolve the issue. The talks stalled, though, after Bhutan refused to agree to a territory swap, involving giving up the western border sectors sought by China in return for the northern sectors. From 2006 to 2009, the PLA used increasingly blunt means to mount pressure. In 2009, for example, China began building a road from Zuri along the Phuteogang ridge, overlooking the Charithang valley, simply overlooking five formal protests, and the text of a 1998 agreement barring “unilateral action to change the status-quo”.
The previous year, Bhutan’s government reported 21 intrusions into its territory — and though public reporting of these incidents has disappeared, in an effort to avoid raising diplomatic tempers, evidence keeps surfacing of the PLA pushing the boundaries.
In the midst of the 2013 elections, for example, PLA troops pitched tents in disputed territory in the northern district of Bumthang — a gesture that was widely interpreted as a warning to politicians of the costs of failing to resume border talks on terms favourable to Beijing.
For most in Bhutan’s border regions, however, the pasture lands issue to have little real emotional sting. In Haa, ever-smaller numbers of rural families are actually involved in herding — and the economic stakes in the issue are therefore low. Narphu’s own children have acquired an education at government-run boarding schools.
For many in Haa, the Indian military long presence has long been a blessing: the training mission-run hospital remains the district’s only functioning military facility, though a civilian one has just been completed. Large numbers of young people from the district have studied at colleges in India; the country’s economy is also overwhelmingly dependent on Indian trade — and aid.
But strains, though, are beginning to show, with some younger Haa residents campaigning online for the Indian military to vacate Haa dzong — the traditional fort and monastic centre which serves as each Bhutan district’s administrative centre.
The dzong has served as the training mission’s offices since Indian troops arrived in 1960, and online petitioners say it is an affront to the country’s sovereignty. “I don’t think this is a very big issue in itself,” says a senior Thimphu-based politician with links to the region, “but it does reflect the rise of a new generation with nationalist leanings, for whom the annexation of Tibet by China is no longer a seminal political memory.”
“This question will be asked more and more: though India is our primary ally and benefactor, how far can we go in risking conflict with China because of this relationship”?
— (Tomorrow: Bhutan-China border talks still deadlocked, despite end of Doklam crisis)