The Telegraph
Thursday , August 10 , 2017

Thimphu tightrope walk

- Placed between giants, silence is golden


New Delhi, Aug. 9: Bhutan today stayed silent on Chinese assertions that Thimphu had in diplomatic messages given up claims over the contested Doklam plateau, unwilling to get caught in the crossfire of a seven-week-long border standoff between its giant neighbours India and China.

Neither the foreign ministry in Thimphu nor the Bhutanese embassy in New Delhi issued any statement or comment on yesterday's claims by Wang Wenli, a senior border negotiator at China's foreign ministry.

But two Bhutanese officials told The Telegraph their silence wasn't suggestive of an acceptance of Wang's claim. Instead, they said, Bhutan was jittery about an escalation of tensions between India and China yanking the Himalayan nation into a conflict it has little appetite for - and is desperate to avoid.

Bhutan's desire - which one official described as a "balance" between India and China, and the other as "public neutrality" - may not be ideal for India, which has traditionally counted on Thimphu as its most steadfast ally. Bhutan was the only country other than India that boycotted Chinese President Xi Jinping's Beijing meet on the One Belt One Road (Obor) initiative in May.

But Bhutan's silence, currently in keeping with Delhi's own efforts to keep away from anti-China rhetoric, is also representative of the worries among other smaller nations in the region that do not want to have to pick between India and China.

Nepal's deputy Prime Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara had yesterday told reporters in Kathmandu that his country did not want to choose sides on the Doklam spat. And Bhutanese commentators are increasingly openly asking both India and China to keep their country out of their bilateral bitterness.

"Bhutan does not want India and China to go to war, and it is avoiding doing anything that can heat up an already heated situation," Tenzing Lamsang, editor of The Bhutanese newspaper, wrote in an article earlier this week. "Bhutan is providing the third leg holding up the Doklam stool - allowing both India and China the room for manoeuvre. Remove the third leg and you have the real prospect of the whole stool coming crashing down - to the detriment of both India and China."

The current border standoff between India and China is rooted in a Chinese effort to extend a road in Doklam, an area traditionally claimed by both Beijing and Thimphu, in June. Indian troops, posted at the nearby tri-junction of the three countries, had moved in to block the Chinese construction teams.

Bhutan, which Wang claimed had given up its claim on Doklam, had in late June - its only public statement on the standoff so far - insisted that China violated bilateral agreements. These agreements, Bhutan said, bound Thimphu and Beijing, to preserve the "status quo" on disputed parts of their border till it is settled through talks.

But Bhutan, in that statement, did not mention India or detail whether it had asked New Delhi to enter Doklam. Indian officials insist their troops would not have entered without Bhutan's knowledge and permission.

After Wang's claim yesterday, Bhutan's unwillingness to appear to be picking sides was again tested. But it stayed silent today.

That isn't surprising, according to some analysts who have cautioned against India trying to press its smaller neighbours to cut down on deeper ties with China.

"We aren't comfortable allowing our smaller neighbours to deal with other neighbours," former Indian ambassador Phunchok Stobdan told this newspaper last week. "That is the root of the problem."

For many of India's smaller neighbours, New Delhi and Beijing often offer complementary benefits. China has deeper pockets to invest in these countries, but India offers better healthcare and education options and its aid comes usually at lower interest rates than China's. Competition between the two Asian giants for their smaller neighbours also helps these countries negotiate better deals for themselves. A scenario where they have to pick between the two isn't ideal.

Mahara, the Nepal deputy Prime Minister, yesterday alluded to those concerns, ahead of a visit by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj to the Himalayan country this weekend.

"Nepal will not get dragged into this or that side in the border dispute," Mahara said.

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