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Chumbi Valley: Economic Rationale but Strategic Resonance

Dr Medha Bisht is Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi; and former Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar IDSA.Click here for detailed profile.
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  • September 23, 2010

    What are the concerns in India regarding the Chumbi Valley? This question is often being asked as China increases its presence in Southern Asia. On January 13, 2010, China and Bhutan completed the nineteenth round of boundary talks and both sides decided on a joint field survey, in order to harmonize the reference points and names of the disputed areas. The focus of the joint-field survey was supposed to be on the disputed areas in the western sector which constitute the pastoral lands of Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulumpa and Dramana. This exclusive focus on the North-Western sector is important due to its close proximity with the Chumbi Valley. Chumbi Valley, a vital tri-junction between Bhutan, India and China, is significant as it is 5 km* from the Siliguri corridor—the chicken neck which connects India to North East India and Nepal to Bhutan. At the same time, Chumbi Valley is of geostrategic importance to China because of its shared borders with Tibet and Sikkim.

    Chumbi: The Key to Tibet was the title of a story published in the New York Times in 1904. The correspondent (name not revealed) claims to have travelled extensively to Tibet and Bhutan and underlines the economic significance of the Valley to British India, which wanted to establish a trade relationship with Tibet via Bhutan. He claimed that “not only difficulties of the journey into Tibet cease at the Northern end of the Chumbi Valley…but also it would be difficult to overestimate its enormous importance to Bengal.” Given that Bhutan did have a flourishing trade relationship with Rangpur (now in Bangladesh), at that time, the statement seems significant in enticing Bhutan into a mutually beneficial relationship with British India.

    While economic rationality played a role in shaping the British preference in engaging the Chumbi Valley, Chinese preferences seem to be inspired by strategic motivations. It is pertinent to mention that Mao Ze Dong had defined Tibet as the palm which had five fingers -- Ladakh, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. The significance of Chumbi Valley, which has geo-strategic importance, therefore cannot be underestimated. In the present context Chinese interest in Chumbi valley primarily stems from three reasons.

    First, China gains proximity to India’s North-East and Siliguri Corridor, which connects North-Eastern states to India and Nepal to Bhutan. It need not be underlined that Sikkim has a substantial Tibetan population. The Chinese focus on the Tibetan issue is also illustrative of the priority Tibet has in their agenda. Indeed, facts on the ground reveal that Nepal has intensified patrolling along its border areas with China since June 2010 and is not only detaining Tibetan refugees but is also handing them back to Chinese authorities. Recently, a visiting delegation of Chinese leaders called upon President Dr. Ram Baran Yadav seeking assurance on Nepal’s one-China policy.

    Second, with access to Chumbi valley, China gets closer to Bangladesh’s periphery in the North since only a narrow stretch of land divides Bangladesh from Bhutan. Analysts have already pointed out to two important north-south strategic corridors on either side of India — first, the trans-Karakoram corridor extending to Gwadar and second, the Irrawaddy Corridor linking Yunnan to Myanmar. While connectivity with Nepal is well on the cards, some suggest that extending Indian rail networks at Siliguri via the Chumbi valley has also been proposed. In fact some sources point out that by 2017 China can have a rail link going to Chumbi Valley. India’s consent to provide transit access to Bangladesh via Indian territory can also be a possibility.

    Last but not the least, by enhancing connectivity and getting an overarching influence over the Chumbi Valley, China gets a better hold over Tibet, thus weakening any potential cards which India would want to play at a later stage. Further, with well laid out road/railway infrastructure, it also gets an offensive advantage to thwart India’s military posturing. According to sources, six roads so far have been built by China near Bhutan’s North and North-West areas.

    Given the importance of the issue, strategic calculations over the Chumbi Valley thus have to be reckoned with. In this regard a three pronged approach can be suggested. First, India needs to look inwards and strengthen its defence preparedness and infrastructure construction plans, in order to counter a plausible Chinese military offensive. Second, at the bilateral level, focused efforts are needed to engage Bhutan as a strategic partner, thus sensitizing it about Indian concerns. The role of the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) positioned in Haa district in Bhutan becomes important and needs to be given some attention. The June 2010 visit of Indian Army chief, Gen. V.K. Singh, to Bhutan to promote defence ties between the two countries is indeed an encouraging development in this context. Third, India should maximize its soft-power approach, providing an enabling environment in Sikkim for Buddhism to flourish. The commonality between Bhutan and Sikkim should therefore be endorsed in order to facilitate cultural exchanges between them. However it needs to be stated that the thrust of all these calculations/responses would require some deliberation on the quintessential question of where does India figure in the Chinese grand strategic design? As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh aptly pointed out in a recent meeting with a group of editors, "China would like to have a foothold in South Asia and we have to reflect on this reality. We have to be aware of this." Shaping responses towards the issue of Chumbi Valley would perhaps require a penetrating understanding of the “reality” that defines China’s political trajectory in South Asia in coming years.

    Note: Amendment: Earlier the distance was wrongly mentioned as 500 kms.