Bhutan squeezed by stand-off between its bigger neighbours

An Indian soldier at a military facility his country uses as a regional HQ, in Haa, Bhutan, on Aug 3. The garrison is only 21km from a disputed border with China.
Buddhist nuns on a road overlooking Thimphu, Bhutan, a mountain nation of 800,000 with a mystical reputation, on Aug 1. Bhutan chose India as China's communists took power and eventually occupied neighbouring Tibet more than 50 years ago. But many in the kingdom now feel suffocated by India. PHOTOS: NYTIMES
Buddhist nuns on a road overlooking Thimphu, Bhutan, a mountain nation of 800,000 with a mystical reputation, on Aug 1. Bhutan chose India as China's communists took power and eventually occupied neighbouring Tibet more than 50 years ago. But many in
An Indian soldier at a military facility his country uses as a regional HQ, in Haa, Bhutan, on Aug 3. The garrison is only 21km from a disputed border with China.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

HAA (Bhutan) • India's main garrison in the kingdom of Bhutan sits only 21km from a disputed border with China. There is a training academy, military hospital, golf course - all testament to India's enduring role defending this tiny Himalayan nation.

Earlier this summer, China began extending an unpaved road in the disputed territory, and India sent troops and equipment to block the work. The incursion has resulted in a tense stand-off that has lasted more than 50 days, with Indian soldiers facing Chinese troops who have dug in just a few hundred metres away.

At a time when North Korea and the United States are trading threats of war, China and India - the world's two most populous nations - have engaged in increasingly bellicose exchanges over this remote border dispute, evoking memories of their bloody conflict in 1962 as the world's attention was focused on the Cuban missile crisis.

There are fears that ambition and nationalism could lead them to war again, but now with more firepower at their disposal.

Caught between these two nuclear rivals seeking regional dominance is Bhutan, a mountain nation of 800,000 with a mystical reputation and a former king who popularised the concept of "gross national happiness" as a measure of a country's well-being.

India says it is acting on Bhutan's behalf in the deadlock. But its intervention has not resulted in much gratitude here. On the contrary, many in Bhutan feel that India's protective embrace has become suffocating. "In the case of war between India and China, we would be the meat in the sandwich," said Mr Pema Gyamtsho, a leader of the opposition party in Bhutan's National Assembly.

For decades, Bhutan has chosen India. More than a half century ago, Bhutan watched warily as China's communists took power and eventually occupied neighbouring Tibet, with which it has close ethnic, cultural and religious ties. India offered to defend the kingdom and Bhutan accepted.

But the latest impasse has inflamed festering resentment over India's influence in the country.

"Bhutan has every right to its sovereignty - that's the crux of the thing," said Mr Wangcha Sangey, a former publisher and head of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He has been one of the most outspoken critics of India's interference. "We have the right to live the way we want to live and to have the foreign relations we want to have."

On the surface, the dispute turns on 88 sq km claimed by both Bhutan and China. The disputed area is strategically significant because it slopes into a narrow Indian valley that connects central India to its landlocked north-eastern states.

India calls it the Chicken's Neck and has long feared that China could seize it in a war, splitting its territory.

But when India ordered its troops across the border on June 16, it seemed to do so without a request from Bhutan. While Bhutan has condemned the Chinese roadworks, it has studiously avoided saying whether it asked India to intervene. The Indian government has also avoided the question.

NY TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2017, with the headline 'Bhutan squeezed by stand-off between its bigger neighbours'. Print Edition | Subscribe