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Chinese Media and the Doklam Stand-Off 
  • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chinese President Xi Jinping
    Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chinese President Xi Jinping
The Chinese propaganda machinery has gone into an over drive on Doklam. Not only is the official English language media like Global Times featuring articles supporting their position, articles in other prominent newspapers like South China Morning Post are playing to the gallery and asking India to stand down. More recently, Xinhua released a satirical video showing the ‘seven sins’ that India committed in Doklam. All this is being driven by the Chinese Communist Party in its efforts to show, who is the boss in China, ahead of the 19th Party Congress in October 2017. The Middle Kingdom also has a problem with its international status at this point in history and it realizes that attaining the Chinese dream will require much more than just military power. 

There is always a context for propaganda and psychological warfare as far as China is concerned. That is precisely why the Bhutan factor becomes important. Take for instance, the Convention of 1890 and successive conventions, which laid out the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet. All these pacts were aimed at one thing as far as the British Indian Empire was concerned; i.e., to keep Imperial interests in the region secure. Prior to the 1890 Treaty, UK and Bhutan fought a war in 1864-65 that led to the signing to the Treaty of Sinchula in 1865. A cursory reading of the text of this treaty makes it clear that it is a colonial construct aimed at ensuring the Bhutan remained within the British sphere of influence. In 1949, newly independent India and Bhutan signed a Friendship Treaty that sought to establish the linkages between New Delhi and Thimpu on a new footing. 

In a recent article for the South China Morning Post, well known Bhutanese blogger Wangcha Sangey argues that the 1949 Treaty is “merely a copy of the 1865 Sinchula Treaty”. This is not true; while the language of the two Treaties might have been somewhat similar, the context in which two countries signed the respective treaties was vastly different. In fact, the 1910 Punakha Treaty, which amended the Sinchula Treaty, in particular Article VIII, was liberally quoted in the 1949 Treaty. However, the fact of the matter is that Sinchula in 1865 was a colonial treaty in nature and decidedly intrusive, while the 1949 Treaty (Article 2) clearly recognized the sovereign nature of Bhutan and laid down that India would not interfere “in the internal administration of Bhutan”. Lest we forget, as successor state to the British, independent India inherited many treaties, which the British had signed, including the 1890 Convention and the 1914 Simla Convention. 

In a sense, India in 1949 took upon itself the role of a protector of Bhutan and subsequently, in line with Bhutanese feelings updated the 1949 Treaty and signed a new Treaty in 2007. Significantly, the 2007 Treaty did away with Article 2 in the 1949 treaty by which had Bhutan agreed that its foreign affairs would be conducted by India. This was in return for non-interference by India in Bhutan’s internal administration. Bhutan A historic sense of India-China relations would make it clear that China’s assertion that ‘Modi’s India is as naïve as Nehru’, shows their complete misunderstanding of where India is today. Also, it is not correct to claim that India’s first Prime Minister accepted the 1890 Treaty in toto. Writing to Premier Zhou En-Lai on 26 September 1959, Nehru made the following points:-

·      Under treaty relationships (1949) with Bhutan, the Government of India is the only competent authority to take up with other Governments matters concerning Bhutan’s external relations, and in fact we have taken up with your Government a number of matters on behalf of the Bhutan Government. 

·      The rectification of errors in Chinese maps regarding the boundary of Bhutan with Tibet is therefore a matter which has to be discussed along with the boundary of India with the Tibet region of China in the same sector. 

·      As regards Sikkim, the Chinese Government recognized as far back as 1890 that the Government of India `has direct and exclusive control over the internal administration and foreign relations of that State`. 

·      This Convention of 1890 also defined the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet; and the boundary was later, in 1895, demarcated. There is thus no dispute regarding the boundary of Sikkim with the Tibet region. 

This obviously refers to the Northern boundary of Sikkim with Tibet. Let us not forget that while the Qing dynasty did sign the 1890 Treaty, the Tibetans refused to recognize the Treaty and it was only in 1904 that the UK managed to get Tibet to accord recognition to the 1890 Convention. Also, it is to be noted that Nehru made a distinction between the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet and that between Bhutan and Tibet. Therefore, the tri-junction remains to be settled. 

Sangey also observes in his SCMP article that “India acted rashly at Doklam and is now keen to withdraw. I believe its objective was to assert control over Bhutan, and did not intend it as an act of military defiance against China. For its part, Beijing wants Bhutan to remain as a sovereign buffer between China and India, and not as an Indian-controlled buffer.” 

The repetition of history does not really help us in the current situation because China has taken the first step in altering the status quo in Bhutan and therefore for Wangcha Sangey to assert that it is necessary for India to withdraw from Doklam does not hold water. Unlike the Chinese who claim Doklam as Chinese territory, Sangey at least speaks the truth when he states that Doklam is disputed territory between Bhutan and China. The Indian objective in Doklam is by no means to “assert control over Bhutan” as Sangey claims and “was not intended to act as an act of military defiance against China”. Sangey tries to strike a balance at this point by claiming that India wants to control Bhutan and not defy China militarily. Both claims are fallacious and in fact have no link to each other. 

A unilateral withdrawal by India from the Doklam area is undoubtedly what China wants, but one is not sure about what Sangey means when he asserts that Indian troops should be replaced by troops of the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA). After all, the RBA has a post at Zompelri and as Sangey honestly confesses “on the ground it is not possible for Bhutan to replace Indian troops at the Chinese-controlled territory in Doklam.” Indian troops are on their side of the border at Doka La to prevent China from constructing a road that would threaten Indian security. 

One has no doubt that Bhutan is a sovereign country which wants to establish diplomatic relations with China. The issue establishment of diplomatic relations is more a Chinese desire than a Bhutanese one. A perusal of the record of the negotiations between the two countries and that of Bhutan’s National Assembly make it amply clear that Beijing used the opportunity of the bilateral discussions on the boundary at each and every instance, to pressurize Bhutan to establish diplomatic relations. In this sense, India has an obligation to secure Bhutan’s security in as far as it does not violate the terms of the 2007 agreement and ensures better collective security in the region.