The Doklam stand-off isn't just about China changing the status quo by building a road into the strategically significant plateau at the India-China-Bhutan trijunction. Beijing is perhaps attempting to change another kind of status quo in India's relations with Bhutan.
The Doklam stand-off isn't just about China changing the status quo by building a road into the strategically significant plateau at the India-China-Bhutan trijunction. It is also about Beijing attempting to change another perhaps more important kind of status quo: in India's relations with Bhutan. In Beijing, there is a growing clamour to scale up its engagement with Bhutan, with which China does not have diplomatic relations. This has become all the more apparent in the weeks since the June 16 stand-off.
When some of China's top strategic experts gathered in Beijing on July 25 for a Doklam brainstorming session at the Charhar Institute, a think-tank in west Beijing, the consensus among two dozen experts, including former diplomats who had served in India and long-time "India hands", was the need for a new Bhutan approach, possibly following the playbook in Nepal and Sri Lanka, where Beijing has persistently sought to erode India's influence.
This has even been hinted at by a Chinese foreign ministry statement on August 2, which pointed out that "since the 1980s, China and Bhutan, as two independent sovereign states, have been engaged in negotiations and consultations to resolve their boundary issue", the key word being "sovereign", as the widespread view in Beijing is that India's "intervention" in Doklam had come without an invitation from Thimphu.
The statement added that the China-Bhutan boundary issue "has nothing to do with India" and that "as a third party, India has no right to interfere in or impede the boundary talks between China and Bhutan, still less the right to make territorial claims on Bhutan's behalf". "China," it added in a thinly veiled dig at India, "has all along respected Bhutan's sovereignty and independence." High-level exchanges between the two countries, despite no formal ties, are on the rise. In June 2012, then prime minister Wen Jiabao told the former Bhutan premier Jigmi Thinley when they met in Brazil that China was "ready to forge formal diplomatic relations on the basis of the five principles of peaceful coexistence".
This statement was repeated with even greater emphasis last year, when foreign minister Wang Yi told his visiting counterpart Damcho Dorji at the 24th round of border talks in Beijing that "an early establishment of diplomatic relations not only conforms to the common interests of the two countries, but is beneficial to safeguarding regional stability and development".
Qiu Yonghui of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences argued at the Doklam brainstorming that it was inevitable that India would lose influence in Bhutan. "Yes, in recent decades, Bhutan has been under the care of India, especially energy and economy," she said. "Nepal also was, in the past. But now, Nepal has already gradually moved away from India's control. After Bhutan joined the United Nations in 1971, it has even publicly opposed India a few times. The clear trend is Bhutan will become more and more independent." Given the opacity of Chinese intentions, it will be impossible to tell with certainty if the road through Doklam was aimed precisely at this objective. The widespread view in Beijing is that India has stymied the 24 rounds of border talks, where China had in 1996 offered a deal giving up 495 sq. km in the middle sector and a part of the 269 sq. km disputed in the western sector in exchange for prized access to around 100 sq. km in Doklam near the trijunction, which would bring China closer to India's vulnerable 'chicken's neck' or Siliguri corridor.
At the Beijing gathering, former diplomat Mao Siwei suggested Bhutan had initially accepted the offer, but "because of a variety of reasons, and perhaps because of the Indian security problem, they finally didn't agree". Beijing believes that may not forever be the case.
The belligerent back and forth between India and China over a road the Chinese intend to build in the disputed Doklam plateau shows no sign yet of abatement, as Chinese officials reiterate that the movement of Indian troops is akin to an invasion of territory. Unsurprisingly, new data from the Washington-based Pew Research Center, released on August 1, shows that Indians view the growing Chinese power and influence as a major threat. However, most Indians, like their counterparts in the 38 countries surveyed, name ISIS as the "greatest threat to national security". In March, the Union ministry for home affairs said 75 Indians were being investigated for alleged links with ISIS.