Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering recently said that China has an equal say in resolving the Doklam plateau dispute. Now the question arises as to whether Tshering’s statement marks a remarkable shift in the ongoing dispute over the strategically important area. In fact, the plateau lies at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan. This area has been a source of tension between the three countries since the 2017 Doklam standoff. In an interview with Belgian Daily La Libre, Tshering said, “It is not up to Bhutan alone to solve the problem. There are three of us. There is no big or small country, there are three equal countries, each counting for a third.” These remarks from Bhutan’s PM have come six years after Indian and Chinese soldiers faced off in Doklam. India believes that the high-altitude plateau has been illegally occupied by China. India has been making all possible efforts to ensure that China does not succeed in extending its footprint in Doklam as the plateau lies close to the sensitive Siliguri corridor, the narrow tract of land that separates India’s Northeastern states from the rest of the country. India wants Bhutan to steadfastly stick to its position of not accommodating China which wants to usurp huge chunks of lands in the plateau. Needless to say, Thimphu understands the intentions of Beijing. But, Bhutan premier’s statement on China having a stake in finding a resolution to the territorial dispute should be a cause of concern for India. The Bhutanese leader is indicating that Thimphu is ready to negotiate the status of the tri-junction in Doklam between India, China and Bhutan. He was of the view earlier that no side should do anything near the existing tri-junction point between the three nations unilaterally. In fact, China wants the tri-junction to be shifted approximately 7 km south of Batang La to a peak called Mount Gipmochi so that the entire Doklam plateau could legally become a part of China. This is not acceptable to India. India has been opposing any Chinese action near the plateau. New Delhi has been reaching out to Thimpu frequently to ensure that any bid by Beijing to increase activities in the region is thwarted timely. In 2017, Indian and Chinese soldiers were involved in a standoff lasting more than two months when the Indian soldiers tried to prevent China from extending an illegally constructed road towards Mount Gimpochi and Jhampheri in the Doklam plateau. India is well aware that China’s presence at Jhampheri will help it have a clear line of sight to the Siliguri corridor. So, India cannot under any circumstances allow Chinese forces to make even the slightest movement forward there. For this to be a reality, what is mandatory is Bhutan’s determined and firm approach towards the dispute in which China does not deserve any leniency. So, the observation made by Bhutan’s PM at this juncture should be enough for the Indian diplomatic and security officials to be more cautious and alert. The statement from the Bhutanese leader gives an impression that Thimpu can do little to halt China’s aggression for a long period of time. With this in view, India’s role must be more aggressive and effective. There is no denying that any bilateral agreement between Bhutan and China is not possible without India being brought into picture. India is already deeply involved in the economic development of Bhutan, a fact that Thimpu cannot ignore. India has made it a point to ramp up diplomatic outreach to Bhutan to reaffirm its cooperation for the development of the tiny nation. Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra had spent a lot of time in Bhutan some time back, discussing several issues including New Delhi’s developmental assistance to Bhutan. It is reliably learnt that External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar is likely to hold a telephonic talk with Bhutan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Tandi Dorji soon. These diplomatic engagements are in fact part of a larger strategy of India to keep a close watch over China’s activities near Bhutanese territory where Beijing is learnt to have constructed villages and roads. Tshering made another significant statement in the interview, saying Bhutan hopes to complete the demarcation of territories with China within “one or two meetings”. Prime Minister Tshering also said that Bhutan is watching whether India and China could resolve their boundary issues as he hoped to discuss the issue over the Doklam trijunction. These remarks should be taken seriously by the Indian side as they have come amid China-Bhutan talks over the status of the Doklam trijunction. Bhutan and China are already engaged in a series of talks to resolve the border dispute. The question being asked is whether the interview of the PM hints at some sort of settlement between Bhutan and China.
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