By Tsewang Dorji*
Drok Lam standoff ends, but the dispute over Drok Lam is yet to be resolved. Hence, the Great Game power politics over the Himalayan belt has been activated for expanding the sphere of influence between the two Asian giants. China has instigated the new great game under the banner of “belt and road initiative”, which India rightly pushes back. The recent Drok Lam standoff is just a minor showcase of the ‘cloak- and – dagger’ game in the context of the new Great Game between India and China. In fact, Drok Lam is just a piece of barren land, but it serves as geostrategic significance in the context of the ‘triangular strategic relationship’ between Chinese- occupied Tibet, India and Bhutan. Here are the five important facts about the dispute over Drok Lam.
1. Drok Lam was traditionally Sikkim – Tibet- Bhutan tri-junction
The fact number one is that Drok Lam was traditionally Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan tri-junction. It was a historical blunder when the international community allowed Tibet to be removed as a state-actor in the Drok Lam tri-junction. There was historically no China- India- Bhutan tri-junction at Drok Lam. Currently, the Drok Lam tri-junction demarcation is designed and executed by China’s expansionist ambitions. Drok Lam is a Tibetan name. Drok means nomad and Lam means path, so Drok Lam means ‘nomad’s path’.
One of the leading Tibetan historians, Professor Tsering Shakya advocates that “Although until 1913, Drok Lam was under the control of the Tibetan government in Lhasa, an enclave in Drok Lam was granted to Kazi Ugyen Dorje, one of the most important political figures in Bhutan, who served as the intermediary between British India and Tibet”. Prof. Tsering Shakya’s argument is deeply connected to the Bhutanese historical accounts. The first king of Bhutan Ugyen Wangchuk granted Ha Dzong to Kazi Ugyen Dorje. Ha Dzong is one of the Bhutanese districts which is located in north-west Bhutan, next to Tibet. Since then he functioned as the governor of Ha. Incorporation of an enclave in Drok Lam into Ha made sense. Ha historically shared traditional border with Dromo, in southern Tibet, which was under the jurisdiction of Phari Dzong of the Tibetan government. Drok Lam is situated between Chumbi Valley of lower Dromo and Ha Dzong of Bhutan. Hence, Drok Lam was historically a tri-junction between Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim.
2. Bhutan serves as a buffer State
Among the historical state actors in the tri-junction at Drok Lam, Bhutan is the only surviving sovereign state today. Before the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, Tibet served as a buffer state between British India and China. Tibet’s historical role as a buffer has now shifted to Nepal and Bhutan.
Hence, Bhutan has entered into the shoe of Tibet as a buffer between the two Asian giants. But, the geostrategic importance of Bhutan to both India and China has yet to be highlighted in the global spotlight. Since last couple of months Drok Lam standoff, the world has acknowledged Bhutan as a strong buffer between India and Chinese-occupied Tibet. In fact, Bhutan is a geopolitically sandwiched nation between Chinese-occupied Tibet and the Republic of India. And also geo-strategically, Bhutan is exactly located between the two Indian states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Both states share border with Tibet. Therefore, Drok Lam crisis has highlighted the role of Bhutan as a strong buffer between the two Asian giants.
3. Chumbi Valley as a strategic pivot
Chumbi Valley is considered as a strategic pivot for India and China since the beginning of the 20th century. Topographically, the valley is shaped as a dagger between Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim. The Chumbi Valley intersects many mountain passes between Bhutan and India. It serves as a trade route during peace time and highway during war.
The British used the Chumbi Valley as a route to invade Tibet in 1903. Subsequently, the Chinese nationalists perceived the British invasion of Tibet as a direct threat to China. These Chinese nationalists called Tibet as China’s open back door. The British interest in Tibet was to make the country serve as bulwark against the expanding Tsarist Russian Empire.
After the British withdrew from the Indian sub-continent in 1947, the South Asian political map drastically changed. The Indian sub-continent was divided into India and Pakistan, West and East. The partition of India badly weakened the country. After three years, China invaded Tibet and drew new boundary lines with India and Bhutan.
Subsequently, the creation of East Pakistan next to the Indian state of West Bengal made India strategically vulnerable. The partition created for India what strategy experts call “Chicken Neck”, a narrow strip of land linking India’s mainland to its seven sister states of the north east. The Chinese road construction in Drok Lam brings ‘China’s Dagger’ closer to India’s ‘Chicken Neck’, which India recognizes as its strategic Achilles heel.
4. Creating psychological turmoil in the mind of people in the Himalayan region
Drok Lam standoff has created insecurity and psychological turmoil in the Himalayan region. The Himalaya belt is considered as the first line of defence of the Indian sub-continent against any potential Chinese expansionism. Most of the Himalayan inhabitants are traditionally of Tibetan stock. So, they are traditional, spiritual and peace-loving people. Drok Lam standoff and subsequently the Chinese incursion in Uttarkhand’s Barahoti on July 25 and stone pelting incident in Pangong Lake in Ladakh in mid-August disturb the peace and tranquillity of the Himalayan region.
5. The issue of Tibet in India China relations crested with the Drok Lam standoff
At the peak of the Drok Lam standoff, the question of past, present and future status of Tibet was raised and discussed openly. The former defence minister of the government of India and Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav raised the status of Tibet as an independent nation in the Indian parliament. The status of Tibet is an inseparable factor in India-China relations. The dispute between India and China over India-Tibet boundary will not be resolved anywhere anytime without solving the issue of Tibet first. Tibet is a victim of the Great Game in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Great Game goes on in the new form between India and China. The recent Drok Lam crisis is an indication of the new Great Game. Therefore, resolving the issue of Tibet is a key factor for bringing harmony and balance between India and China and for ending the new Great Game.
* Tsewang Dorji is pursuing a doctoral degree on International Relations from the University of Madras. He is currently serving as an intern at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.