Sikkim border row: Bhutan treads cautiously amid India-China faceoff, fears it might become a 'punching bag'

India and China have been engaged in a stalemate in the Sikkim region and the dispute does not seem to be receding with the Indian Army pitching tents and indicating that they are unlikely to retreat. Interestingly, Bhutan, which is a key player in the ongoing dispute, has chosen to remain silent.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Bhutan has only issued a demarche to the Chinese envoy, asking Beijing to restore status quo in the Doka La region. "Bhutan has conveyed to the Chinese side, both on the ground and through the diplomatic channel, that the construction of the road inside Bhutanese territory is a direct violation of the agreements and affects the process of demarcating the boundary between our two countries. Bhutan hopes that the status quo in the Doka La area will be maintained as before 16 June, 2017," the statement read.

However, apart from issuing an innocuous demarche and sending out a diplomatic response, the mountain country has eerily remained silent on the entire issue.

Chinese media has been warning India against making claims on behalf of Bhutan. A report in Xinhua read, "Doka La has long been under the effective jurisdiction of China. Both Bhutan and China have a basic consensus on the functional conditions and demarcation of their border region."

And, India on its behalf has been saying that it won't withdraw troops from the fragile region because Bhutan has asked for New Delhi's help.

Bhutan has kept quiet on the Doka La issue possibly because it does not want to be sandwiched in a hostile war between China and India. "Bhutan has done well, so far, to avoid both the fire from the Dragon on our heads and also the Elephant’s tusks in our soft underbelly," senior Bhutan journalist Tenzing Lamsang wrote for The Wire . Bhutan is probably worried over becoming a punching bag for its giant neighbours. Lamsang, in a Facebook post, wrote, "There are good reasons why the Royal Government of Bhutan has issued a demarche and a statement from the Foreign Ministry and then kept quiet on the Doklam issue."

The Bhutanese media has also refrained from commenting on the dispute. Bhutan's media is offering only matter-of-fact reportage on the issue if one goes by what is available in the online versions of its newspapers and on social media, The Hindustan Times reported.

Vishal Arora, an expert who has covered Bhutan and South Asia, told Firstpost that Bhutan is seen as the most loyal neighbour of India and China seems to be seeking to test Bhutan’s reliance on India for border security. "In other words, Bejing is trying to tell Bhutan that it is more powerful than New Delhi," he added.

Bhutanese leaders have chosen to remain quiet because they would not like to "counterbalance India's influence in Bhutan. They are well aware of how Nepal suffers when it seeks to increase its engagement with China," Arora said.

An India Today report stated that Bhutan cannot afford to anger India because their internet connectivity comes through Siliguri and any occupation by the Chinese could pose a great threat to Bhutan's internet connectivity and contact with the rest of the world. For India, however any road construction by the Chinese in Doka La moving towards the chicken neck is seen as being harmful to its security. The chicken neck is a small piece of land that connects mainland India to its seven North Eastern states.

The report also quoted a source as saying, "We only hope that the two powerful, responsible nations would have the sense of responsibility to de-escalate the situation at the border and bring back normalcy."

Further, the perception of Bhutan as a small state makes it 'vulnerable', as some experts pointed out. Bhutan is considered "tiny" infront of its "mighty" neighbours. Therefore, refraining from a dispute is possibly the best option it has. Bhutan only has about 8,000 members in its military branches, according to Global Security report. Whereas China's People's Liberation Army has about 2.3 million troops, according to a report by LA Times. Bhutan is therefore treading cautiously so as not to anger any of its neighbours and avoid any confrontation with the two countries.

However, it remains to be seen how Bhutan will respond if the tension escalates at the tri-junction.

With inputs from Akshita Jain

Updated Date: Jul 13, 2017 10:18 AM

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