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Lessons from the Doklam Pass: how little Bhutan faced down China over a border dispute

In one of the less reported stories of the summer, India and China came to a stand-off over a plateau in the Himalayas called the Doklam Pass.

This small strip of land separating the Indian state of Sikkim from its neighbour Bhutan is one of several areas disputed by China and Bhutan. After the Chinese started building a road on the controversial territory in June, India, with its own interests at stake and as Bhutan’s former representative on external relations, stepped up to engage with China.

Border disputes between Bhutan and China have a long history dating back to the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s. The recent episode arose on May 18, when China objected to two concrete observation bunkers built by the Indians in the disputed area. Three weeks later Chinese troops destroyed one of the bunkers with a bulldozer, leading to scuffles with local Indian patrols. India responded by sending more troops to the area, escalating tensions.

The disputed area of the Doklam Pass. Author provided (no reuse)

The incident acts as a reminder of the unsettled border between Bhutan and China as well as the areas of direct border disputes between India and China. Under the original terms of Article 2 of the 1949 Treaty of Friendship between India and Bhutan, Bhutan agreed to be “guided” by India in its “external relations”.

As a result, in the 1950s, India asserted its right under the 1949 treaty to negotiate border disputes with China – a stance that the Chinese authorities rejected. The disastrous 1962 Indo-China conflict further worsened relations between the two countries with Bhutan firmly held by India.

President Xi of China and prime minister Narendra Modi of India have both acquiesced in border issues with Bhutan. epa, CC BY-SA

Restraint vs rhetoric

This grasp was loosened, slightly, to allow Bhutan to begin a series of private talks with China in 1984. Unfortunately, although the talks appeared to be moving towards a settlement in 1997, Bhutan revised its claims on its position. Observers and indeed many Bhutanese thought that this change in position was due to India’s strong influence on Bhutan.

Bhutan surprised many observers in 2007 when it secured Indian agreement to changes to the 1949 Treaty. In a new treaty signed that year, India’s right to “guide” Bhutanese foreign affairs was removed. The amended Article 2 provides that the two countries will “cooperate closely with each other … Neither … shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.” The change effectively gave Bhutan control of its foreign policy.

The Doklam incident is noteworthy for the nationalistic rhetoric that flowed from the main protagonists India and China, and the remarkable restraint of Bhutan. There are important lessons to be learned from this recent incident.

In July, as the conflict escalated, the Tibetan historian, Tsering Shakya, voiced his belief that Bhutan could handle its own affairs. His belief was well founded for Bhutan did, after a tense eight weeks, secure Chinese withdrawal from the disputed area. Bhutan managed to assert itself despite its diminutive size. But there are wider lessons from the Doklam incident.

Political potential of social media

The online debate in Bhutan highlights the importance of modern social media. Online newspapers and discussion forums were used by ordinary Bhutanese to express their concerns and views on this incident. In a country that only allowed television in 1999, this shows the remarkable change that has occurred. Indeed, with the exception of leading newspaper The Bhutanese, the mainstream media in Bhutan barely mentioned the stand-off, reflecting the government’s restrained handling of the Doklam incident.

As Bhutan approaches its 10th anniversary as a parliamentary democracy next year, the Doklam incident appears to suggest a new phase of political discussion and engagement emerging. Many of the views expressed throughout were deeply critical of the Indian media. More worrying for the Bhutanese government, which has close ties with prime minister Modi, is the widely expressed view that India continues to seek to control Bhutan.

Bhutanese blogger Sonam Tashi openly suggests in an online post that there is “an unwritten ‘no go zone’ in Bhutanese politics and media”. The focus of Tashi’s post is on India and its economic influence over Bhutan. However, what his post reveals is a new emerging aspect of Bhutanese political discourse – a challenge to existing political taboos.

Prime minister of Bhutan Tshering Tobgay showed great political acumen in dealing with the two superpowers on Bhutan’s doorstep. epa, CC BY-SA

Bhutan and its current government, led by the prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, have emerged from this recent border dispute enhanced by restraint and a display of political acumen. The Bhutanese may now wish finally to settle the ongoing border disputes with China. The rhetoric of the superpowers undoubtedly is seen for what it is – mere rhetoric. Yet the Doklam Pass incident ought to provide an incentive to Thimphu to reflect on its long-term relationships with its neighbours.

The maturity displayed by the Bhutanese government in its dignified handling of the Doklam incident deserves respect. Following the first bilateral talks since the incident, India’s prime minister Modi and China’s president Xi both agree it should not happen again.

The Doklam incident may boost support for Tshering Tobgay’s ruling party next year in the National Assembly elections. What is certain is that the democratising effect of social media will make the 2018 elections distinctly different from the first and second elections held in 2008 and 2013.

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