Chinese and Indian military forces have been in a standoff in the Doklam area at the tri-junction of the India-China-Bhutan border. The latest round of dispute started on June 18, 2017 when Indian troops opposed the building of a road by Chinese forces at Doklam, which is under China’s control but is claimed by Bhutan.
The two countries have never been so close to a confrontational situation since 1962.
The crisis began when China claimed the Doklam plateau, located in the north of Bhutan, as part of its territory, to build a link road which would allow China access to the Chumbi valley from where the Siliguri Corridor, aka Chicken’s Neck Corridor of India, would be within the range of Chinese artillery.
Apart from its responsibility to maintain Bhutan’s territorial integrity as part of a long-term agreement, India would never want to lose its control over the Siliguri Corridor as it is the sole route that connects the northeast of India with the rest of the country.
The standoff between the two mighty neighbours puts Bangladesh in precarious situation, not in the least because it has extensive ties with both countries on the political, economic and military front.
Security experts in Bangladesh and India are already speculating that in the event China takes the Doklam plateau, India would want to use Bangladesh as a transit for military purposes, which would leave Bangladesh in a serious predicament.
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The international border between India and China at Nathu La Pass, Sikkim Courtesy
Bangladesh is heavily dependent on India for water, trade, and even food security, not to mention the two countries share a more than 4,000km border, one of the largest borders between two countries.
On the flip side, China is en route to becoming the single largest individual investor in Bangladesh. Recently, the two countries have signed a $13.6bn worth of deals in trade and investment, and China has promised to provide Bangladesh with a loan assistance of $20bn. Ever since the fiasco surrounding the financing of the Padma Bridge project, Bangladesh has become increasingly dependent on China for its infrastructure and development projects. According to Bangladesh government statistics, a total of $61 million was channelled from China into Bangladesh as foreign direct investment in 2016.
Being a relatively weaker country in what can become a reasonably volatile region, Bangladesh cannot afford to put all the eggs in one basket. It is also not clear that how long India’s Nehruvian defence policy would last, especially amidst the ongoing rise of right wing politics in India, with BJP often playing up anti-Bangladesh sentiments in the east and northeastern India.
Surrounded by a highly militarised zone – northeastern India and a semi-hostile neighbour in Myanmar – Bangladesh needs some degree of military preparation in the event it finds itself in any worst-case scenario. In that case, ironically, Bangladesh would have to resort to Chinese armaments for their affordability and reasonable standard. Recently, Bangladesh has procured two submarines from China for $203 million. On the flipside, Bangladesh signed a comprehensive defence agreement with India during the Prime Minister’s latest tour to India. Although details of the agreement are yet to be made public, media reports suggest the India’s underlying motive for the agreement is to have some sort of supervision over Bangladesh’s defense cooperation with China.
Not all is however lost for Bangladesh. There are a couple of scenarios which could lead both the parties to avoid such hostility. Firstly, India is a whopping $1.2bn market for Chinese goods and products. Secondly, the growing Indian economy will go through massive infrastructural development for which it would have to resort to Chinese products and technology. Thirdly, both of the countries might stay away from engaging in a conflict fearing prolonged regional instability and involvement of other foreign nations.
According to security expert Maj Gen (retd) Abdur Rashid, the area of contention is very remote and almost impassable as it remains under snow for eight months in a year. As a result, the cost for operating a war in that region would be huge for both the countries.
“But if the countries do engage in war, it may cause regional polarisation throughout Asia. Japan and the ASEAN states might take the side of India owing to the aggressive advancement of China towards the South China Sea.”
“In that case, it would be difficult for China to carry out the One Belt, One Road initiative,” the security expert added.
The risk of a confrontation cannot be completely ruled out as it involves the image of China at the global level.
M Shahiduzzaman, a professor of International Relations at Dhaka University told the Dhaka Tribune: “If China compromises on the issue of Doklam, it has to compromise on its territorial claims forever, including Arunachal.”
He also opined that India’s economy would collapse within a week if it goes to a war with China.
According to former ambassador Humayun Kabir, both the conflicting parties should consider the interest of Bhutan as it would suffer the most should any confrontation take place.
“India is pressing the Bhutanese government to get back to the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal motor vehicles agreement (BBIN MVA) on one hand, while China is looking forward to building a link road in its territory, on the other. But no one is considering the threat to Bhutan’s integrity because of these projects,” the former diplomat added.
Government officials of Bangladesh however said the BBIN agreement may end up being a connecting route between Bangladesh and India, as Bhutan and Nepal has already expressed reluctance to be a part of this endeavour.