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Chinese dialectics over Bhutan and their correlation with developments in the South China Sea

Nilesh shukla / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Remember the “Doklam incident”, when, three years ago, the Chinese started building a road on Bhutan territory and were stopped by Indian forces, Bhutan’s legal and lawful protecting power? The Doklam plateau high up in the Himalayans is locally of high operative value for military strategists. Who possesses it, has a view on approaching adversary troops. It is part of Bhutan’s sovereign territory, whose inviolability is being guaranteed by India based on an Indian-Bhutanese Treaty. That part of the mountainous border is not disputed, unlike other long stretches of the Chinese-Indian border in the Himalayans. Apparently, Indian forces played their role professionally and well, when they managed to stop illegal road building by the Chinese.

Now, three years later, the Chinese come up again with aggressive illegitimate claims in that area. They declare three areas in Bhutan as “disputed” and are offering a “package deal” by which Bhutan would accept Chinese claims and a sort of Chinese-inspired “territorial swap” and would get in exchange the recognition by China of Bhutan’s sovereignty over (remaining) Bhutan territory. That is grotesquely blunt; China offers a textbook example for the old and vicious communist dialectic principle: “what is mine is mine; what is yours, we will negotiate”. Of course, Bhutan, that tiny Himalayan kingdom (ruled by a very decent dynasty, by the way), has no military means to oppose Chinese bullying. Bhutan has legitimacy, decency and … the protection of India, the other Asian giant with one of the largest armies of the world.

India’s record of dealing with Chinese provocations is mixed. Since India’s military defeat in the only open war between the two giants in 1962, Indian governments have always been hesitant when challenged by Chinese claims. China is for India the unadmitted trauma, next to the open trauma of Pakistan as the sworn enemy. Now, that India is led by the openly nationalistic populist Modi, neighborhood policies have changed, at least rhetorically. Modi is pretending to be more self-assured when defending Indian interests. Some individual acts of the recent past may have illustrated the assumption that the current government will develop more outspoken policies against Chinese provocations and contribute to international efforts of containing China’s aggressive expansion in the region. More and more driven by a morally abject anti-Muslim obsession, however, Modi has taken to unwise if not insane moves against everything non-Hindu, which is dramatically discrediting his reputation in the world. Particularly unwise was his recent decision to lift Kashmir’s autonomy. Kashmir, the only Indian state with a Muslim majority population, had been convinced to stay with the newly created Indian Republic of India, when in 1947 the then Muslim leader Djinnah imposed on the Subcontinent the Partition and created the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Since then, Pakistan stood for religious intolerance and India for a tolerant, secular state. Today, India is becoming more and more a “Pakistan for Hindus” ruled by Hindu ideology and all the intolerance which goes with it. Modi’s destruction of the delicate balance in Kashmir’s politics has turned the state’s Muslim population into hostages in their own country. This unfortunate development may well encourage Pakistan to invite its old strategic partner China to also intervene in Kashmir. In this strategic concept, China would take over Pakistan’s claim of allegedly acting “on behalf of persecuted Muslims”. In reality, however, China would, on behalf of Pakistan, bring forward new territorial claims against India. Thus, India would be targeted in the Himalayans by Chinese expansionism from its Northwest to its Southeast. And it does not seem realistic that the Modi government would be fit to counter such an important aggression, whose strategic coherence has been less obvious until now.

Regarding Chinese expansion in its region, the world looks first of all at the South China Sea. There, the communist regime of the “Middle Kingdom” is turning international waters clearly defined by the international community’s “Law of the Sea” into Chinese waters by disregarding the legitimate claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and others on their own territorial waters. Here, the US Navy is currently counteracting Chinese expansionism by cruising through those waters and, thus, demonstrating the world’s entitlement to a free and open sea also in the South China Sea. The US endeavors of keeping maritime lanes open are certainly in the interest of a rules-based world order and therefore completely legitimate, but possibly happen too late. History will teach us.

At least ongoing events on the open sea should remind the world  - and India -  that respect for land borders like in the Himalayans, too, depends on the will and the power of governments to impose respect, if necessary with military means. Whether India’s current government is willing and able to “do the right thing” remains to be seen. Modi’s rhetoric of forceful self-assurance may be useful in domestic politics, but is not an effective strategic tool.

31st July 2020 / Philippe Welti

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