The Telegraph
Saturday , August 12 , 2017

Guarded bonding

- Delhi and Bhutan tiptoe on Doklam

Damcho Dorji shakes hands with Sushma Swaraj. (AFP) 

New Delhi, Aug. 11: The foreign ministers of India and Bhutan met in Kathmandu today amid New Delhi's standoff with Beijing over territory both China and Bhutan claim, but avoided presenting a joint front on the spat that is testing India's most trusted partnership.

The meeting between Sushma Swaraj and Damcho Dorji on the margins of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) talks was their first since the standoff began 54 days ago.

Foreign secretary S. Jaishankar too met his Bhutanese opposite number at Kathmandu, the venue of the talks. Officials confirmed that the face-off between Indian and Chinese troops on the disputed Doklam plateau was a central theme at both meetings.

Still, India and Bhutan - which New Delhi has said it is cooperating with and consulting on the spat - chose to avoid not only a joint statement on the tensions but also any detailed references to the standoff separately.

That silence on any shared plans for a resolution of the face-off - the longest between India and China along their border in three decades - was a conscious decision meant to avoid provoking China, senior Indian officials told The Telegraph.

But one of the officials also conceded that Bhutan was reluctant to appear to be taking sides in the spat between India and China, betraying a caution Thimphu had considered unnecessary just a few months earlier.

"We hope the situation in Doklam will be resolved peacefully and amicably," Dorji told reporters after his meeting with Sushma, refusing to comment further.

The Indian foreign ministry was even more ambiguous when asked whether Sushma and Dorji had discussed the Doklam standoff.

"We have a very intense bilateral cooperative agenda in different areas," Sudhakar Dalela, joint secretary in charge of relations with Nepal and Bhutan at the foreign office, said.

"They reviewed different aspects of India-Bhutan relations, which is very wide-ranging and covers nearly all aspects of human endeavour."

The standoff began after China started extending a road in the Doklam region, which Bhutan also claims, on June 16. Indian troops crossed into the region on June 18 and stopped the Chinese road construction.

China claims undisputed ownership of Doklam while Bhutan has in its only public statement on the spat argued that the region is disputed.

India has claimed that its troops entered the plateau in "coordination and consultation" with Bhutan, and that New Delhi's own strategic interests are also at stake.

The disputed spot lies close to the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction. Chinese control over the plateau will bring it closer to the narrow strip, called the Chicken's Neck, which connects northeastern India with the rest of the country.

India, however, has avoided any rhetoric to counter the flurry of threats from China --- to avoid escalating tensions, officials said --- while Bhutan has in recent weeks signalled its reluctance to fall victim to the geopolitical rivalry between New Delhi and Beijing.

For India, that's a change, even though officials are loath to accept it formally.

In May, when Chinese President Xi Jinping invited the world to a summit in Beijing on his One Belt One Road (Obor) connectivity initiative, Bhutan was the only country that stood by India in not participating.

But with the Doklam standoff heating up in recent weeks, Bhutan -- never too expressive about its foreign policy -- has pulled itself into a shell even deeper than usual.

On June 29, the Bhutan foreign ministry's only detailed statement on the standoff so far failed to mention India or any request for help from New Delhi while accusing China of breaching bilateral agreements on their unsettled border.

Bhutanese newspaper editorials have since asked India and China to keep the tiny Himalayan country out of their larger spat, insisting that the Asian giants need to respect their tiny nation's interests too.

Earlier this week, a senior Chinese diplomat told Indian reporters in Beijing that Bhutan had in diplomatic talks communicated to China that it was no longer claiming Doklam.

But while Bhutanese officials have insisted, requesting anonymity, that their position on Doklam remains unchanged from June 29, they have refused to assert that stand officially.

Troop readiness

Indian military has increased operational readiness along the eastern Indian border with China, Reuters quoted sources as saying.

The sources said they did not expect the tensions to escalate into a conflict and added that the military alert level had been raised as a matter of caution.

"The army has moved to a state that is called 'no war, no peace'," one of the sources said. Soldiers are supposed take up positions that are earmarked for them in the event of a war.

Each year, Indian border troop formations go on such an "operational alert" usually in September and October.

But this year, the activity has been advanced in the eastern sector, the source in Sikkim said.

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