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Proposed Indian road through wildlife sanctuary could spark Sino-Bhutanese conflict

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Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary

Up in the wind-swept highlands of Bhutan-Land of the Thunder Dragon-a mythological ape-like creature called Migoi (strong man in Bhutanese) is said to roam the Alpine pastures and blue pine and rhododendron forests in the Himalayan heights. But the bulky and hairy beast may no longer be able to live in the total isolation any longer. The Migoi is about to be caught in a border conflict between two of Bhutan’s bigger neighbors, China in the North and India in the South.

India's proposal to build a strategic road through Bhutan's Sakteng wildlife sanctuary, which China is claiming as its territory, has put Bhutan in a spot. The Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary borders the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China does not recognize as being part of India.

India, which lacks border road infrastructure to mobilize troops to counter Chinese moves along the Himalayas, recently renewed interest in constructing a road here to connect Guwahati in Assam with Lumla, near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, via Trashigang district of Bhutan. The road through Bhutan’s ‘Mogoi country’, will not only lessen the distance by 150 km, but cut the travel time by 5 to 6 hours between Guwahati and Tawang.

Also Read: A storm in a Tea cup

India is accelerating its efforts to ramp-up border connectivity for the transportation of troops and military hardware to the forward posts in the eastern Himalayas. A slew of strategic projects conceived by previous Indian regimes to boost connectivity on the eastern border, had remained only on the drawing board for the past six years. But they are now being fast-tracked by the Narendra Modi regime in view of present strategic needs with China asserting itself in the Himalayas. India is now building a cross-border rail link with Bhutan. 

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But this has led to clashes with Chinese troops. The first confrontation erupted in 2017 when India “objected” to China’s extending an all-weather road on the Doklam plateau, a point in Bhutan where India and China meet. The 75-day Doklam border standoff sucked Bhutan into a geopolitical conflct.

The construction of a border link road in May this year in the disputed tri-junction of India-Nepal-China in the Limpiyadura-Lipulekh-Kalapani area saw an acrimonious border spat between India and Nepal. The dispute snowballed into a major political and diplomatic row between the two neighbors though they share centuries-old links. Nepal claims that the three areas covering 370 sq km. India controls the strategic Lipulekh mountain pass that connects the Indian State of Uttarakhand with Tibet in China.

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On June 19, Nepal’s parliament through a constitutional amendment adopted a redrawn political map that included the three disputed areas. The redrawing of the map stirred tension in Nepal and Nepal-India relations.

In June there was confrontation between India and China in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley resulting in bloodshed. Moves to end the standoff is still underway.

Despite Sino-Indian confrontations, Bhutan has maintained good relations with both countries. However, China had other thoughts. Around the time of the Galwan standoff, at the 58th meeting of the Council of the Global Environment Facility, China’s delegate unexpectedly raised objections to Bhutan’s placing the entire Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary on its side of the Bhutan-China border. China claimed that it was a “disputed area.” China also objected to international funding for the wildlife sanctuary.

“India’s decision to construct roads, be it in Sakteng or Galwan Valley, has triggered China’s militarily and diplomatic opposition,” said China-watcher and strategic analyst Binoda Kumar Mishra, Director of the Calcutta-based Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development (CSIRD).

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Though Thimphu and Beijing have been holding boundary negotiations since 1984, the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations. To establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, Thimphu will need the tacit approval of New Delhi, which still wields substantial influence over Bhutan.

Bhutan has another problem. It fears that the road project, to be executed by India’s Border Roads Organization, might disturb the fragile ecology of the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary.

Be that as it may, Beijing has made a claim over the areas in and around the sanctuary apparently to put pressure on Thimphu not to yield to New Delhi’s request to allow a road to pass through the wildlife sanctuary.Between 1984 and 2016, China and Bhutan have held 24 rounds of boundary negotiations.

 “China has the ability to block international funding so it chose to put all its claims in the front,” Binoda Mishra told SAM. Beijing is trying to get Bhutan to break with India, he added. 

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The Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, which is a on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Site, is traditionally believed to be the home to the elusive Migoi, which has been a legend in the Himalayas for centuries. It is also home to the reclusive Brokpa -- a dwindling semi-nomadic yak-herding tribal people.

In an age when most Bhutanese have opened themselves to the outside world through cyberspace, the Brokpas, who deeply revere as well as fear the beastly Migois, seem to have frozen in time as they continue to live and practice age old customs and traditions in much the same way as their ancestors did with very little external influence.

Out of the total 46 species of Rhododendrons in the country, the Sanctuary has 35 species of Rhododendrons growing in the wild and is popularly known as the "Paradise of Rhododendrons". 

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The Chinese action-stopping international funding for the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary-would be damaging for Bhutan in more than one way, Mishra said. “It will render Bhutan’s settled border unsettled…Limiting much-needed funding for the environmental-friendly sustainable economic development in a country that has built its economy around nature is not fair,” Mishra added. 

China’s soft-power overtures in Bhutan

Despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties, China’s soft-power overtures towards Bhutan, where India’s military presence in Bhutan is resented and is perceived by the newer generation of Bhutanese as “politically insensitive” and “unwanted”, have grown over the years.

Also Read: War of the waves over Himalayas

Before COVID-19 restrictions, tourists from China and the US topped the list of foreign arrivals (apart from India). China’s soft-power overtures to Bhutan includes scholarships to Bhutanese students to study in China, especially in the field of medicine, technology and engineering.

The landlocked Buddhist nation, which until recently was a monarchy, has for decades done a delicate balancing act between its two powerful and bigger neighbors. But today, a large section of younger Bhutanese who aspire for better opportunities are open to having diplomatic relations with China. And they too are wary of India breathing down the neck.

What impact India’s road construction through a Bhutanese sanctuary claimed by China will have on Bhutan’s geo-political thinking, is yet to be seen.