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.