Doklam standoff: Why China wants India to stop defending Bhutan

Doklam standoff

The site of ongoing standoff in Doklam area lies on the Bhutan-China border and India is in the picture only due to its security arrangement with Thimphu.

With both India and China refusing to back off from Doklam area in Bhutan, the stand-off between the two armies is nowhere near its end. India and China have mobilised their troops in thousands in the region to put pressure on the other side.

The site of ongoing standoff in Doklam area lies on the Bhutan-China border and India is in the picture only due to its security arrangement with Thimphu. Bhutan, after issuing demarche to China, requested the Indian Army to help in checking Chinese incursion in the area in the name of road construction.

Bhutan is the only neighbour of China which does not have a diplomatic relation with Beijing. China has been a bully to Bhutan forcing it to make concessions in its territorial jurisdiction. The root cause of the present military tension between India and China lies in the border disputes between Bhutan and China.


Bhutan shares about 470 km-long boundary with China in the west and north while India surrounds Bhutan for 605 km in the east, south and west. China has overlapping claims on or along Bhutan border in seven pockets including the one along Arunachal Pradesh-Bhutan border near Tawang.

The total area of conflicting claims between Bhutan and China is about 4,500 sq km in patches located in west and north. Before China took over Tibet in 1959, the question of well defined boundary was not as important for Bhutan for it had open cultural and religious exchanges with its both neighbours – India and Tibet.

While China has experienced border disputes with 13 of 14 neighbours, Bhutan did not find itself in similar situation ever. The Himalayan kingdom continued to take pride in its happiness index instead of harbouring any geostrategic ambition.


Friction began when Chinese started making claims on territory traditionally recognised as part of Bhutan. It began border talks with China in 1972 under guidance from India as the 1959 friendship treaty made it obligatory for Bhutan to take advice from New Delhi in the matters of foreign relation.

The Bhutan-China border talks continued till 1984, by when Beijing had started insisting that Thimphu came to negotiation table free from Indian influence. The India-Bhutan friendship treaty did not allow such possibility frustrating China’s ambition to take Bhutan in its sway.

Chinese response was hostile as in 1986 it began asserting in Chumbi Valley which protrudes as a dagger between Bhutan and Sikkim. Towards its end lies the tri-junction where India, Bhutan and China meet. The meeting point is the bone of contention right now between the three countries leading to force build in Doklam region.


Depending on Chinese version of the boundary with Bhutan at different points of time, there are seven pockets where their territorial claims overlap. The seven pockets are spread over three regions including the Arunachal-Bhutan border area.

The Doklam plateau in western Bhutan remains the most disputed. It is located adjacent to Yadung province of China in Tibet. This is the present theatre of eyeball encounter between Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army of China.

In 1996, China offered to give up its claim on the northern pockets if Bhutan agreed to forgo its territorial jurisdiction in the west, that is, Doklam.


The northern pockets of Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys have an area of about 495 sq km against 265 sq km of Sinchulumpa, Dramana and Shaktoe in Doklam plateau in western Bhutan. China also promised financial aid in Bhutan.

The offer still exists officially. However, there is catch here. Many reports suggest that China had, by then, encroached vast tract of land in the snowy mountains of the northern region.

Still, Bhutan is said to have been ready for the swap of territorial claim to avoid conflict. But, under its friendship treaty with India, it could not have taken a final call unilaterally. India did not agree to the deal as it affected India’s security interests.

Chinese presence at Doklam brings China dangerously close to what is called the Chicken’s Neck, which connects the northeastern states of India with rest of the country. However, getting green signal from Bhutan, China had begun road construction in Doklam and Chumbi Valley in 1997.

In 1998, China and Bhutan signed the “Agreement on The Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility in the Bhutan- China Border areas-1998”. But, Chinese have been encroaching Bhutanese land.


In 2007, India and Bhutan revised their friendship treaty. Now, Bhutan was free to maintain its foreign relations as per its own will.

Under mounting pressure from China and its encroachment policy, Bhutan revised its map. Its new map, shown to the members of Parliament, excluded the tallest mountain of Bhutan – Kula Kangri or KK. Bhutan lost its glacial reserve as a gift to China.

The new map was approved by Bhutan’s Parliament and signed by its king. But, this did not end its border disputes with China, which had some other ideas. China has not officially accepted territorial control over Kula Kangri.

The map, which shows the Chinese version of Bhutan’s territorial expanse and which was presented to the parliamentarians of Bhutan, highlights seven pockets of disputes. China claims all these seven pockets as its own.

If Bhutan accepts China’s claim, it will lose about 4,500 sq km land or 10 per cent of its territory. Until 1990, before Chinese incursions began, total area of Bhutan was about 47,000 sq km. At present, it is about 38,394 sq km – thanks to Chinese grabbing and Bhutan’s generosity.

Bhutan now understands that China may be executing its Salami Slicing policy of Himalayan states in its territory. It is also reminded of the fate that Tibet met after Chinese invasion. Further, the Chinese expansion in the region poses a challenge to India’s security forcing New Delhi to take a tough stand in Doklam. The India-Bhutan collaboration in Doklam is hurting Chinese game-plan. It is good enough reason for China to oppose Indian presence in Bhutan.



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