China's string of pearls to choke India is still in the making. Most of the pearls are in place, strangling India's neck with different degrees of tightness. Others are strung loose and still have some flexibility. But the effort is now to drill a hole in a precious pearl, which had escaped Chinese strategy to hook it and complete the stranglehold on India. Bhutan is in the throes of a struggle to remain a decoration around India's neck, rather than a choker. India has no choice but to resist with all its might as the loss of Bhutan will herald the complete supremacy of China in South Asia.
Bhutan has been pursuing happiness in its own way through deep religious sentiments, preservation of nature and culture, democracy, loyalty to India, sustainable development and an internationalism of restraint and mutuality. King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, whose reign I had a chance to watch from close quarters, was a man of vision, who could have managed a nation many times the size of Bhutan. He was fully aware of the dragon menace to his north, but made a deliberate choice to dance with the elephant. But more importantly, he carried the young generation with him in ushering in democracy, maintaining close relations with India and promoting the environment. Bhutan is the only country in the world with a negative carbon footprint. The succeeding Wangchuks have respected his legacy and followed his vision. India has played a crucial role in promoting Gross National Happiness in the Himalayan Kingdom.
The bedrock of India-Bhutan friendship has been the provisions of the 1949 Treaty between the two countries which made the protection of Bhutan and promotion of its foreign policy India's responsibility and the revised Treaty of 2007 has not made any substantial change in that situation.The Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) has been taking care of Bhutan's security needs just as the Border Roads Organisation unit, DANTAK, built the vast network of roads that now criss cross Bhutan. The first motor car came into Bhutan only in 1968 and the Volkswagen I brought with me to Bhutan was a novelty even in 1971.
Bhutan was not entirely free of nationalism even in my time and there were murmurs among the elite in Bhutan about India's predominant position. Some even suggested that, by being close to India, Bhutan would incur the wrath of China. A way the King found to deal with such criticism was to secure flexibility on the foreign policy front, while not diluting the security arrangement. Bhutan's admission to the UN and flexibility on votes on issues which were not of direct interest to India were manifestations of "independence" in foreign policy that Bhutan enjoyed. For instance, the Bhutanese vote was not the same as India's on issues like the problems of the landlocked states and least developed countries. But on issues of special interest to India like the South Asia as a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Bhutan stood firm with India.
In a classic case of Bhutan not being guided on foreign policy by India, Bhutan recognised Bangladesh soon after India did, without even waiting for a request from India. I had the honour to receive the note of recognition from the then Foreign Minister Lyonpo Dawa Tsering. But that action was received with overwhelming gratitude in India. No one bothered to point out that Bhutan should have waited for India's advice. The King knew how to please India even by violating the Treaty!
China's initiative to change the status quo at the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction is by no means a thoughtless action by a local commander, as may have happened in some of the skirmishes that have taken place on the Line of Actual Control on the India-China border. The Chinese strategy with regard to Bhutan has all along been to show extreme sensitivity to Bhutan's interests, as if in contrast to India's hegemony over Bhutan. The fast way in which much of the China-Bhutan border was settled should be seen in this light. Bhutan was genuinely happy about what happened, since Bhutan had expected the same treatment as India in Chinese hands. Leaving the tri-junction for settlement as part of the final settlement with India was eminently reasonable. China had also respected the Bhutanese claim so far by leaving Doklam as disputed territory. The present claim that Doklam is part of China is patently false and that is why it is suspected that the motive is to enlist Bhutan rather than to threaten India. The Chinese could have selected any other spot on the Indian border, instead of trying to change the status quo at the tri-junction.
China had long entertained an ambition to open a diplomatic mission in Bhutan, which had resisted it on account of an understanding with India that opening of diplomatic relations with other countries would be after consultations with India. Since dialogue with India has been ruled out unless India withdraws from Doklam, an eventual compromise would be direct negotiations between China and Bhutan, which might end the stand-off, but get Bhutan to be eternally grateful to China for its reasonableness and an eventual settlement of its border with China. Such a development will make Bhutan end up on the string as the final pearl.
China and India have grave grievances against each other, but somehow the latest Chinese initiative does not seem to be designed to distance India from the US and Israel or to enlist India in the OBOR initiative. The situation does not give India any opportunity to secure NSG membership or to get Azhar on to the list of terrorists. Doklam is not likely to lead to a boycott of Chinese goods either. On the contrary, the lesson that China is seeking to teach India is that the cosy relationship it has with Bhutan will not last and that the Chinese will complete the string of pearls. The unusual harshness in the Chinese pronouncements and its refusal of dialogue clearly point to that kind of denouement. The suggestion by the External Affairs Minister that both sides should withdraw simultaneously even without a dialogue or preconditions indicates that the message has reached India loud and clear.
By a sheer coincidence, Nawaz Sharif resigned as Prime Minister of Pakistan within days of the eighteenth Kargil Vijay Divas India celebrated this year to honour the martyrs of the Kargil conflict of 1999. I recall the historic meeting Sharif had with President Bill Clinton on July 4,1999 at the Blair House in Washington, which marked a turning point in the conflict that lasted sixty days.This was the first time in history that the US took a clear stand in favour of the Indian position in a conflict with Pakistan.
The details of the Clinton-Sharif meeting have been revealed in the writings of Strobe Talbott, Bruce Reidel and Bill Clinton himself. My own book, ‘Words, Words, Words’ has a chapter entitled, ‘Nuclear Winter, Kargil Spring’, which contains the information given to me as the designated representative of the Embassy throughout the day of the meeting by Rick Inderfurth.
It is clear that Sharif went to Washington in desperation to end the conflict, but made a heroic effort to drag Clinton to undertake a mediation mission like he had done in the case of the Israel- Palestine situation. “Sharif was concerned that the situation that Pakistan had created was getting out of control, and he hoped to use my good offices not only to resolve the crisis, but also to help mediate with the Indians on the question of Kashmir itself”, says Clinton in his autobiography, ‘My Life’.
Clinton’s attention was drawn to the Kargil conflict on account of the intelligence he had received that Pakistan was contemplating to use nuclear weapons in case it was defeated in the Kargil conflict. He wrote letters to the two Prime Ministers to seek a resolution, abandoning the traditional hyphenation between India and Pakistan by saying clearly that the solution was for Pakistan to withdraw to the LOC and for India to refrain from crossing the LOC in retaliation.
Clinton was impressed that even after Pakistan crossed the Line of Control (LOC) and captured Kargil, India refrained from crossing the LOC to repel the aggressor. Moreover, the United States condemned Pakistan’s “infiltration of armed intruders” and went public with information that most of the seven hundred men who had crossed the Line of Control were attached to the Pakistani Army’s 10th Corps. This completely contradicted the Pakistani claim that the intruders were freedom fighters of Kashmir.
The initiative to seek the good offices of Clinton to resolve the issue came from Sharif as he felt that Pakistan would not get the support from the US to continue the conflict. But Clinton made it clear to Sharif that he should come only if he was willing to agree to withdraw the Pakistani forces. But in a special gesture, the President agreed to spend the US National Day to discuss the issue with Sharif. He informed Vajpayee about the visit and invited him also to join. But Vajpayee declined because of India’s position against any third country intervention in India-Pakistan issues. Clinton informed Vajpayee that he would convey the gist of the discussion to him as the talks proceeded.
Although Clinton had made it clear that unconditional withdrawal was the only option for Pakistan, Sharif’s opening proposal was a ceasefire to be followed by negotiations under American auspices. His fallback was to make Pakistani withdrawal conditional on Indian agreement to direct negotiations sponsored and probably mediated by the United States. After a day of gruelling negotiations, during which Clinton threatened to declare failure of the talks, Sharif agreed to “take concrete and immediate steps for the restoration of the LOC. In return, Sharif got an assurance from Clinton that he would take “personal interest to encourage an expeditious resumption and intensification of the bilateral efforts once the sanctity of the LOC had been fully restored.” The decision on withdrawal was firm and explicit, while the face saving given to Sharif was virtually meaningless. Instead of Clinton mediating, the assurance was only to encourage an expeditious resumption of the bilateral efforts, which was not against the basic Indian position. Still, I made a reservation on that formulation when Rick Inderfurth read it out to me after the meeting.
According to US Sources, Clinton telephoned Vajpayee twice during the day to seek his views, but Vajpayee was totally noncommittal. Even when the news of the agreement was conveyed to him, Vajpayee’s reaction was only, “What do you expect me to say, Mr.President?” In other words, he kept his distance from Clinton’s efforts even though he may have been grateful about the outcome.
Interestingly, Sharif had gone to Washington with his family, hinting that he might not be able to return to Pakistan if he did not secure US support for Pakistan’s position. But apparently, Clinton leaned heavily on him to agree to withdraw. He refuted the suggestion that Kargil was similar to Israel-Palestine situation and that it was the duty of Clinton to mediate. Clinton clarified that in the Israel-Palestine situation, he had requests from both sides to intervene, while India was clearly against his mediation. Clinton compared the Kargil situation to the Cuban crisis, which had brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war. When Clinton told Sharif that he had information that Pakistan army was ready to use nuclear weapons, Sharif expressed total surprise.
The discussion took the whole day essentially because Clinton was careful not to give Sharif a sense of defeat, leading to Sharif staying on in the US as a political refugee. It was important to keep his credibility with the army intact so that he could return to Pakistan with a face saving device to order the army to restore the sanctity of the LOC. Clinton proved to be a master negotiator in this particular case as he was convinced that the military adventurism by the Pakistan army should be sternly rebuffed.
According to Talbott, at one point,”Clinton had worked himself back into real anger—his face flushed, eyes narrowed, lips pursed, cheek muscles pulsing, fists clenched. He said it was crazy enough for Sharif to have let his military violate the Line of Control, start a border war with India, and now prepare nuclear forces for action. On top of that, he had put Clinton in the middle of the mess and set him up for a diplomatic failure. Sharif seemed beaten, physically and emotionally. He denied he had given any orders with regard to nuclear weaponry and said he was worried for his life.”
India-US relations have a long history of ups and downs and many of the downs have been on account of the US support for Pakistan. But Kargil was the one case in which spring broke out in India-US relations after they were frozen in the wake of the Indian nuclear tests. Kargil victory belonged to India, but the decisive step taken by Clinton and the role of Nawaz Sharif in it may well have prevented a catastrophe.