By Wendy Min (31 August 2017) – The end of the standoff between Chinese and Indian troops at the Doklam border region has stirred mixed feelings among members of the public in both countries, but citizens of Bhutan and Nepal, which are both sandwiched between China and India, have felt a huge surge of relief.
While many of them believe such an outcome is vital given their geographic location and ties with India, they are worried that a bellicose India may continue to dominate their diplomacy and internal affairs.
This concern doesn’t come from nowhere. The Kingdom of Sikkim, also a Himalayan polity located between India and China, was annexed by India back in 1975.
Some people in Nepal and Bhutan worry that the growing presence of India in the region may mean their nation’s fate will mirror Sikkim’s. Landlocked Nepal learned a lesson in 2015 when an undeclared blockade on the country was imposed by India.
A tour guide named Tenzin in Bhutan said that “Sikkim was not so lucky …We Bhutanese know all too well about it but since it is a very tough and sensitive issue, we do not expect anyone to be too overly vocal about it – at least not from the officials.”
Bhutan’s economy is strongly tied to India. India-led hydroelectric projects currently account for around 20 percent of Bhutan’s GDP and 90 percent of the country’s products are exported to India. The Indian rupee is widely used in Bhutan and India helps to train Bhutan’s military.
So during border talks with Beijing, Bhutan had to take New Delhi’s concerns and feelings into account. The Doklam incident, which should have been a matter for China and Bhutan to discuss, led to the presence of Indian soldiers.
Politicians who have tried to warm ties with China have seen their political fortunes fall. After moving closer to China and even meeting then Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in 2012, Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley saw his party lose power in the 2013 national elections. Prior to the ballot, India had put economic pressure on Bhutan and his opponents run on a platform of deepening ties with New Delhi.
Many Bhutanese noted to the reporter that China recognizes Bhutan as a sovereign nation.
“I don’t see China as an enemy. We have our own voice and we will not be hijacked by anyone,” said a Bhutanese national named Pema. “We Bhutanese mind our own business yet the standoff is making us nervous.”
Another Bhutanese named Leki hopes that “China can remain patient and sort out whatever issue our two countries can have.”
Despite not having a formal diplomatic relationship and historical territorial disputes, Bhutan and China have remained friendly towards one another and have been participating in border talks for over two decades.
Some locals expressed that bilateral dialogue should not be dominated by a third party regardless of “friendship treaties.” Until 2007, such a treaty meant that India was allowed to “guide” Bhutan’s foreign policy.
The near three-month standoff has already caused losses to the locals. When Global Times reporters visited the Haa Valley in western Bhutan this month, local business people revealed that they were influenced by the standoff.
A local shop owner called Namgyal said he not only buys Chinese products but also sell Bhutanese fungus to China. Due to the standoff, his road to China has been blocked.
“We’re a small country, and a war would ruin everything I have,” he said.
Landlocked Nepal is similar to Bhutan in that both countries have been the victim of Indian economic pressure. Starting in September 2015, an undeclared blockade has meant that Indian fuel imports and roads were cut off for Nepal which had a devastating effect. Fuel prices soared and supplies dwindled. Many speculated that the measures were taken by New Delhi as the Indian government was dissatisfied with changes to the Nepalese constitution.
While the India government denied that they were responsible, India’s The Economic Times confirmed the order to “intercept fuel shipments to Nepal” and a journalist from the Indian Express wrote that “India … demanded specific changes to the new Nepali constitution.”
Strengthened economic ties
Throughout the standoff, India has courted other nations in the wider region from Vietnam to Mongolia in an attempt to broaden a two-nation grievance into a regional, or even a global, spat.
But at the same time, economic ties between India and China are strengthening. The $2 billion of trade that was conducted between India and China in the early 2000’s has risen to the $72 billion that was seen in 2016.
Now policies in both nations are outward-looking. After more than 1,000 years of exchanges, it is still possible to have economic ties and conversations even if mistrust and lack of understanding exists.
From the six proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) projects that will take place in India, China has welcomed India’s participation in the China-led AIIB initiatives as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
The latest press release from India’s Ministry of External Affairs reads “At the invitation of the President of People’s Republic of China, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Xiamen in China’s Fujian province during September 3-5, 2017 to attend the 9th BRICS Summit.”
The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries comprise of about 40 percent of the world’s population has a combined nominal GDP of around 23% of gross world product.
China confirmed Monday that India has removed its troops from Chinese territory in the Doklam area, marking the end of the standoff which began when Indian soldiers illegally crossed the border on June 18.
While the standoff did not lead to a war, many believe that an air of tense mistrust and misunderstanding will continue to exist between India and China.
Some Indian commentators clearly see the conclusion of the standoff as an Indian victory. The Daily News and Analysis in India published an opinion article titled “Doklam: India has won the diplomatic battle but the war is far from over.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a press conference that “Chinese border troops will remain stationed in Doklam and keep patrolling the area.”
Many grass-roots Indians hope the two countries can maintain a harmonious relationship.
Sharma is a former lieutenant in the Indian army who took part in the 1962 border war between China and India. Throughout his career, he had contact with other nations’ troops in the region notably the Bhutanese army and also the People’s Liberation Army.
“I often travel to China and I am very impressed with her growth. Don’t you find that the two have so much in common?” he asked.
The two countries’ relationship is sometimes dated back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when Chinese monk Xuanzang went on a pilgrimage to India and brought back Indian religious texts to China.
Sharma added that “those who have participated in war will understand how pointless it is. You have two neighbors both heavy in history and culture yet they don’t understand one another.”
On October 20, 1962, China launched an offensive on the Sino-Indian border after India increased military provocations in the region and attempted to gain territory by force. In a previous Global Times interview, Chen Qungeng, director of the 1962 border war veterans association in Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, claimed that 4,885 Indian soldiers were killed in the war and on the Chinese side, the death toll was 722 .
According to another Indian soldier, they have usually had a friendly relationship with their Chinese counterparts in recent years. “One thing that the media will not talk about is how friendly border troops are. I was stationed at the border and saw Chinese troops daily yet we were always cordial towards one another,” he said.
This article first appeared in Global Times