CHINA’S BHUTAN GAMBIT
boundary talks between China and Bhutan, still less the right to make territorial claims on Bhutan’s behalf”. “China,” it added in a thinly veiled dig at India, “has all along respected Bhutan’s sovereignty and independence.” High-level exchanges between
The Doklam stand-off isn’t just about China changing the status quo by building a road into the strategically significant plateau at the India-ChinaBhutan trijunction. It is also about Beijing attempting to change another—perhaps more important—kind of status quo: in India’s relations with Bhutan. In Beijing, there is a growing clamour to scale up its engagement with Bhutan, with which China does not have diplomatic relations. This has become all the more apparent in the weeks since the June 16 stand-off.
When some of China’s top strategic experts gathered in Beijing on July 25 for a Doklam brainstorming session at the Charhar Institute, a think-tank in west Beijing, the consensus among two dozen experts, including former diplomats who had served in India and long-time “India hands”, was the need for a new Bhutan approach, possibly following the playbook in Nepal and Sri Lanka, where Beijing has persistently sought to erode India’s influence.
This has even been hinted at by a Chinese foreign ministry statement on August 2, which pointed out that “since the 1980s, China and Bhutan, as two independent sovereign states, have been engaged in negotiations and consultations to resolve their boundary issue”, the key word being “sovereign”, as the widespread view in Beijing is that India’s “intervention” in Doklam had come without an invitation from Thimphu.
The statement added that the China-Bhutan boundary issue “has nothing to do with India” and that “as a third party, India has no right to interfere in or impede the