Besides underlining Indian curiosity, the ongoing January 18-20 visit of India's foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra in Bhutan, among other things, is also one of apprehension.
Though pre-scheduled, as Kwatra will also co-chair the 4th India-Bhutan Development Cooperation Talks, the visit will try to look at the implications of the latest Bhutan-China talks.
The top diplomat’s Thimpu visit came just four days after the deliberations between Bhutan and China on boundary issues ended in China’s Kunming on Friday.
The Bhutanese delegation was led by Letho Tobdhen Tangbi, Secretary of the International Boundaries of Bhutan, while the Chinese delegation was led by Hong Liang, Director-General of, the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China.
Bhutan-China border deliberations including the details of the already inked “Three-Step Roadmap” are shrouded in secrecy although allusions have been made connecting it to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The details would be of high interest to India, as there is always the possibility that it may impact the border with India.
There are reasons for India to be concerned as China is seemingly eyeing the Jampheri Ridge, a strategically-important geographical feature that juts up by about 500 metres from the relatively flat landmass that characterizes India’s Chicken’s Neck or the Siliguri Corridor. The ridge is currently occupied by a permanent force of the Royal Bhutanese Army.
The Chicken’s Neck is about a 60-km-long land corridor located between Bhutan in the north and Bangladesh in the south. About 22 km wide at its narrowest point, it is a stretch through which all rail and road links pass-through for connecting the Indian mainland with the Northeast region.
In times of conflict, this particular stretch would be a prime target for attacks by the adversary. Chinese control of the Jampheri Ridge would expose it to heavy artillery fire targeting roads, bridges and any moving object.
An effective blockade of the corridor would cut off the Northeast from the rest of the country.
Interestingly, in 2017, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang held up a map showing Beijing’s interpretation of the territorial claims that followed the crest of the Jampheri Ridge.
The Jampheri Ridge lies just south of the Doklam (Doka La) plateau which is located near the India-Bhutan-China trijunction that was the flashpoint of a 73-day eyeball-to-eyeball faceoff between India and China in 2017.
Recent satellite imagery has revealed that China has constructed several village settlements near the Doklam area that align southwards towards the Jampheri Ridge.