It is true that by now China’s quest on random territories of other nations does not surprise us anymore. In fact, China’s recent adventurism in Bhutan by claiming its authority on Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (which has never been an officially recognised land of dispute in history) reinforces its holy approach of asserting dominance in a place that it never owned or claimed. The ongoing territory disputes over Hong Kong Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Nepal and India’s Ladakh has acquired China a bad name globally. The recent development of Bhutan’s Sakteng Sanctuary concerns India, why, you will know soon.
Background of China and Bhutan border dispute:
Bhutan had shared a strong cultural, ethnic, religious and historical relation with Tibet which were hampered when China took over Tibet in the 1950s. Since Bhutan’s border with Tibet has never been officially demarcated, People’s Republic of China maintains territorial claims on parts of Bhutan to this day. Heavy deployment of troops in Tibet led to Bhutan withdraw its representation from Lhasa, Tibet and eventually loosen its ties with Tibet.
(Image Courtesy: Strat Global News)
China’s tendency to expand stands recognised when one comes across Mao Zedong’s “Five fingers of Tibet” policy which attributes Tibet as the palm and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh as its fingers. According to him, China’s correct boundary includes the five fingers. Right from annexing Bhutanese enclaves in 1959 or including parts of Nepal, Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan in its ancient map, China has made sure to never settle the disputes but keep claiming them, diplomatically or physically.
In 1998, China and Bhutan signed a bilateral agreement for maintaining peace on the border (peace agreement between nations is just formality’s sake, in my opinion). However, China’s building of roads on what Bhutan cites to be Bhutanese territory allegedly violates the 1998 agreement and provokes further tensions.
Global Environmental Facility held a virtual meet on 2nd and 3rd June 2020 where China objected the proposal of funding Bhutan’s Sakteng Sanctuary contending that the sanctuary lies in a disputed territory between Bhutan and China. The objection came as a shock to the council meeting but the GEF Secretariat immediately rebutted the Chinese contention pointing the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary was located within the sovereign borders of Bhutan. In the final draft, China insisted to add a footnote- “China objects to the project as it falls under a disputed area between Bhutan and China”. Later, Bhutan issued a letter to GEF strongly opposing the references put forth by China as it stands as a threat to Bhutan’s sovereignty.
India’s economic, trade, defence and foreign policy ties with Bhutan goes a long way up the line. Occupation of Tibet by China made the bond stronger. In the past, Jawarharlal Nehru had reiterated that any aggression against Bhutan must be seen as an aggression against India. Hence, every force used by China to annex parts of Bhutan urges India to extend support to Bhutan. The infamous 2017 Doklam standoff saw India sending military troops to Dokhlam, defending Bhutan’s sovereignty.
The recent development on Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary(SWS) is a clear threat to India as it borders Arunachal Pradesh which China has highly prioritized in negotiation, AP being one of Tibet’s fingers. Given the ongoing dispute in Ladakh with China, India finds the timing of this “new” dispute of SWS coercive in nature.
With the ongoing pandemic, China’s military flex across the South China Sea islets and various other nations come off as a threat to not only Asia but also the West. The National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong rips it off its autonomy, with the US and the UK condemning the move. We can hope for the QUAD(Japan, US, Australia, India) to be proactive post US Presidential elections.
India’s marine partnership with Australia has witnessed strength in recent times. It is also crucial for India to fight China where it is the most vulnerable- the Indian Ocean. China’s adventurism has made clear that the coming years will observe the formation of a strong ally against its motive of expansionism.
The raising of the new non-existent dispute by China is straight out of its playbook employed against Japan, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines: make a claim, establish a presence, withdraw, then cite that precedent in future negotiations by adding to some vague historical reference followed by miraculously producing ancient maps to buttress its claims.
– Utsari Gupta Bhaya,
Writer, Bharat Bhagya Vidhata