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[All Politics is Global] Bhutan Caught in China's Great 'Five Fingers' Strategy

Mao Zedong famously said, "Tibet is the palm, which we must occupy. Then, we will go after the five fingers." Bhutan is the third "finger" following Nepal.



Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering in New York, US on September 27, 2019. (© Prime Minister's Office of India)

The territorial and boundary-related complexities between Bhutan, China, and India were amplified with the recent statement by Bhutanese Prime Minister, Lotay Tshering to Belgian Daily La Libre. Since then, questions have been raised about whether Bhutan is reconsidering its position. This is especially vis-à-vis Thimphu's approach towards Beijing on the issue. Evidently, Tshering's stand that China "holds a stake in finding a resolution" to the territorial dispute indicates a shift in Bhutan's stance.

In the recent few years, China conspicuously began making fresh precipitous claims in Bhutan's eastern sector. This area borders the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Specifically, China claims three areas in Bhutan. These are Pasamlung and Jakarlung in the north bordering Tibet, and Doklam in the west bordering India.

In June 2020, Beijing began staking claim to the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary situated in Bhutan. Terming the sanctuary as "disputed territory" is a purported move by Beijing to cater to its potential future occupation scenario.

Prime Minister of Bhutan Lotay Tshering speaks during a news conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, March 13, 2023. (© REUTERS/Annegret Hilse)

Physical and Economic Geography

The west of Tawang (the smallest of the 26 administrative districts in Arunachal) borders Bhutan. Occupying Sakteng Sanctuary would deny the western flank of Tawang completely. This would result in a significant military and strategic disadvantage for India. And thus, any prospective Indian move would likely be checkmated by China. This explains its sudden new announcements of claims in Bhutan's eastern sector.

China's strategy of announcing fresh claims and claim-lines across its Himalayan borders should ring in caution for all neighbors. This includes the "newly-created version" of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which runs between India and China in the eastern Ladakh sector. Now, Bhutan is seemingly rethinking negotiations with China on the boundary and territorial question. All of this bears linkages to China's historical thinking and strategy.

Notably, regionalism in China's geography during the 1950s concentrated on two main fields of geography: physical and economic. This is much in contrast with the West, where geography primarily was studied as systematic and regional. Treating geography as a physical science, Communist China emphasized — almost exclusively— physical geography and economic geography. The citadel of the latter is the Division of Economic Geography at the Department of Economic Planning, People's University (Beijing).

In this sense, it is economic geography that drives China's claims even on Japan's Senkaku Islands. The discovery of oil and hydrocarbons around the Senkaku Islands in 1969 made China "rediscover" the islands. In the name of "territory," future offshore oil development became a primary driver behind Beijing's claims over the Senkakus.

Demonstrators hold signs during a protest against China in India on December 13, 2022. The protest follows a border scuffle at the Tawang sector of India's northeastern Himalayan state of Arunachal Pradesh. (© REUTERS by Francis Mascarenhas)

Mao's Five Fingers Strategy

The lethal blend of history and geography manifested in the form of the professed "Five Fingers" strategy of Mao Zedong. Following Tibet's annexation, Mao famously said, "Tibet is the palm, which we must occupy. Then, we will go after the five fingers." The first among these fingers is Ladakh, followed by Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh.

In Doklam, Arunachal Pradesh, eastern Ladakh, Bhutan, and Nepal, the Chinese army has galvanized all along the Five Fingers region and constituent states. This covers almost the entire Himalayan border, constituting ominous signaling. It also accentuates the prominence of geopolitics in the policy chosen by a revisionist state (China), and the strategy it is adopting to obtain these policy objectives.

Clearly, the ramifications of the boundary and territorial dispute in the Himalayan borderlands extend far beyond the national interests of the immediately concerned states. On June 26, 1960, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev made a charge in Bucharest that the Chinese way of handling the dispute (with India) was a "tactical error." He also said it was a clear sign of "Chinese nationalism." This is according to a 1959-1961 US CIA declassified document on the Sino-Indian Border dispute that was approved for release in May 2007.

The national identity created through innumerable historical fictions only furthers national interest. It also consolidates dictatorial political leadership at home. And in turn, this "national interest" determines a revisionist power's aggressive foreign policy and state action.

Nikita Khrushchev, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and Soong Ching-ling in 1959.

Opportunistic Policies Short of War

In 1962, Margaret W Fisher and Leo E Rose wrote an Asian Survey paper titled "Ladakh and the Sino-Indian Border Crisis". In it, they argued that China perhaps was mainly engaged in pursuing opportunistic policies intended to reap all possible advantages, short of war. Or else, it was at least equally plausible that they were carefully laying the groundwork for a more sinister long-range plan.

This is the historical backdrop of the present inroads and strategy being drawn up by China for all the regions mentioned. Its policies narrate the contemporary reality of the Himalayan borderlands of South Asia.

China's actions bear witness to the communist regime's linkages to China's historical thinking and current strategy for this region, both politically and militarily. The slew of Chinese activities in Ladakh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Arunachal Pradesh seem designed to advance several objectives simultaneously. The topographical considerations addressed by Beijing cater to the access criticality of the regions.


Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on Twitter @MonikaChansoria.

Stay informed about the latest developments in contemporary Asian security, Great Power politics in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, with insights from Dr Monika Chansoria.


Stay informed about the latest developments in contemporary Asian security, Great Power politics in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, with insights from Dr Monika Chansoria.

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