Theatre of the Absurd

The defense secretary’s entreaties to the US admit India’s inability to handle China

The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, during the BRICS Summit in China, in September 2017. KENZABURO FUKUHARA / AFP / Getty Images
21 March, 2024

In 2017, Indian and Chinese soldiers had a 72-day long standoff inside Bhutan which ended with an announcement of disengagement by both sides. While the Indian soldiers returned to their post by stepping back a few hundred metres, the Chinese stepped back by an equal distance to stay in the Doklam plateau. Satellite images later captured the military infrastructure—roads, watchtowers, bunkers, helipads, accommodation, warehouses—built by the Chinese in the area post the disengagement. The Indian military had moved in to stop the Chinese from making a road to Jampheri Ridge. The ridge is strategically important because it overlooks the Siliguri Corridor, the narrow strip of land connecting north-eastern India to the rest of the country. The Chinese built a road hugging the Amu Chu river—which runs close to the Doklam plateau—towards Jampheri Ridge, even though they are yet to reach it. Since 2020, while Thimphu has been constantly engaging with Beijing, New Delhi’s ties with the latter have plummeted. In this time, India’s responses to the border crisis—if they can even be called responses—have become increasingly incomprehensible. Indian statements instead give the impression that there is little sense to be had in New Delhi’s China strategy.

In 2021, China and Bhutan signed a memorandum of understanding on a “three-step roadmap,” to expedite their bilateral border negotiations. Last October, they agreed on guidelines for a joint technical team to delimit and demarcate the boundary. Then Bhutanese prime minister Lotay Tshering emphasised last year that there were no “real differences between Bhutan and China” and that one more meeting “while we are in office will clinch the issue.” He also told the media, “Theoretically, how can Bhutan not have bilateral relations with China? The question is when and in what manner.”

Lotay is no longer in office, having lost the election earlier this year, but his successor, Tshering Tobgay, has stuck to the same line. China has emerged as Bhutan’s biggest trading partner, surpassing India. While the Chinese power corporation is involved in major hydel projects in the country, the Chinese railway company is exploring railway connections through a link between two major Tibetan towns, Lhasa and Gyantse. The Modi government recently proposed the construction of a motorable road connecting Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh and Gauhati in Assam through Bhutan, but Thimphu is not enthusiastic about the proposal until its border with China is demarcated. Bhutan does not even acknowledge, let alone object to, the construction of Chinese well-off villages in its territory.

At the end of the Doklam crisis, the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, sought an informal summit with China’s president, Xi Jinping, to do a China reset. Two such meetings were held—one at Wuhan in 2018 and the other at Chennai in 2019. Both leaders agreed to provide strategic guidance to their respective militaries but to little effect, as the events of 2020 were to prove. In June that year, India and China recorded the death of Indian soldiers in the Galwan valley in Ladakh. These were the first military casualties on the Line of Actual Control in forty-five years.