The recent statement by Bhutanese prime minister Lotay Tshering has triggered alarm bells in India. In an interview with a Belgian daily, he said that Bhutan and China agreed on the demarcation of the Northern boundary. He further said the issue will be settled soon with the arrival of the Chinese technical team. While referring to the trijunction issue he said, all three stakeholders (China, India and Bhutan) to settle the issue. Bhutan is a tiny country in South Asia shares borders with India and China.
Bhutan shares a 470 kilometers long border with China and has a dispute with China over territory in the North and West. China claims over 764 KM of Bhutan’s territory in the North and South which includes the Doklam plateau. China claims 269 square kilometers of area in Western Bhutan of which Doklam is a part. Doklam is a strategic plateau close to the trijunction of China, India and Bhutan. It was after the 1962 war the plateau became an issue when both China and Bhutan claimed the plateau belonging to them. The plateau is located between the Chinese Chumbi Valley to the North, Bhutan’s Haa Valley to the East and Sikkim to the West.
If China takes control of the plateau then the Indian military assets in Northern Bengal and Sikkim will be threatened. The most serious threat will be to the Siliguri Corridor (Chicken’s Neck) that connects North Eastern states (7 states) with mainland India. It was in June 2017 reportedly the Chinese PLA moved forward in the plateau and dismantled some of the bunkers constructed by the Bhutanese army. The Indian army interfered and stalled the road construction efforts by the PLA in Doklam. The standoff in the plateau triggered fears of war between China and India. An Indian army contingent is garrisoned in Bhutan for its defense against China. India and Bhutan signed an agreement in 1949 to address Bhutan’s security concerns.
This agreement was revised in 2007. An Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) comprising 18000 of all ranks is garrisoned at Haa town in West Bhutan, 20 kilometers from the Doklam plateau. The team besides the defense of Bhutan also trained the Royal Bhutan Army and the Royal Bodyguard of Bhutan. The trijunction is another disputed location between China and India. India claims the line at Batang la whereas the Chinese claim is the junction 2.5 kilometers of Doka la at Mount Gipmochi. The mount (Gipmochi) dominates the Siliguri Corridor and the distance from the trijunction to Siliguri Corridor is 50 kilometers. The Chinese Chumbi Valley is of immense significance and is projecting toward the trijunction like a dagger.
The threat to the Siliguri Corridor is immense and is of serious consequence to India. The corridor is 200 kilometers long and its narrowest is 20 kilometers wide which connects the North Eastern states with the mainland. If China occupies the Siliguri Corridor which is likely in any future war it cuts off Indian North Eastern states and will provide an opportunity to separatist groups in all states to declare their independence. A similar situation was created by India for Pakistan during the 1971 war. The Siliguri Corridor is heavily defended by the troops of Indian Eastern Command and frequent drills are carried out to counter a possible Chinese invasion.
The Chinese and Bhutanese are closer to a landmark agreement. China has offered to swap the Doklam plateau for the Northern disputed region. At the same time, Bhutan is ready to give control of Doklam to China. Bhutan’s interest is in trade after settling the border issue with China from the North. At present Bhutan is entirely dependent on India. There is a strategic shift in the Bhutanese foreign policy and they have stated that China has an equal say in resolving the Doklam issue. Despite frequent visits by the Indian president, prime minister, and Indian army chiefs, Bhutan is going against India. The strategic shift has shocked India and has reinforced a real future threat to the Indian neck (Chickens’ Neck) and its likely occupation by the Chinese PLA.