Is China over-reading Bhutan ?
Will Bhutan become the 13th neighbour of China to settle the boundary disputes to the satisfaction of Beijing?
The answer is not as easy as it is being projected in the global media. Bhutan has to take the “India-factor” into account before agreeing with China. Any concession on its part to please Beijing that has ominous implications for India’s security will have an adverse impact on Thimphu’s ties with Delhi. Thimphu is unlikely to afford that at present. For a landlocked country like Bhutan, the hard reality is that ties with India matter more than with China.
Much has been made in various media reports on the 25th round of boundary talks this week between Bhutanese Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji and China’s foreign vice-minister Sun Weidong at Beijing. The signing by the two of what is said “a cooperation agreement on the responsibility and functions of a technical team for the delimitation and demarcation of the boundary” is being described as a big “breakthrough”.
Is this breakthrough heading at the eventual realisation of the Chinese goal? The answer here requires a brief history of the boundary disputes between Bhutan and China.
Of China’s 14 land neighbours, Bhutan and India are the only two that have not yet resolved border disputes with Beijing. Bhutan does not even have formal diplomatic relations with China.
On the other hand, relations between India and Bhutan have been traditionally very close. The two had signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation of 1949. Under this, India was to “guide” the foreign policy of Bhutan while assuring the latter of its sovereignty. The treaty also talked of “common security” in their relationship and allowed a security arrangement between both the countries.
Accordingly, the Indian Army has been present in Bhutan and is posted on many China-Bhutan border posts. The Indian Army maintains a training mission in Bhutan, known as the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT), not to speak of the exemplary work done in that country by the Border Roads Organisation, a subdivision of the Indian Army Corps of Engineers. Besides, the Royal Bhutan Army relies on the Eastern Command of the Indian Air Force for air support during emergencies.
Above all, in 1958, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had declared in the Indian Parliament that any aggression against Bhutan would be seen as aggression against India. This assurance had come in the wake of China forcibly taking over Tibet and China’s the then Communist ruler Mao Zedong’s assertion that that Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Arunachal Pradesh were “five fingers” of Tibet( Five Fingers Dream of Mao Zedong.
Until 2007 India is said to have exercised significant leverage over Bhutan’s foreign policy, as envisaged under the Treaty of 1949, but when Bhutan transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional democracy in 2008, it was renegotiated to give greater autonomy to Bhutan in its foreign policy and its military purchases.
But Article 2 of this renegotiated Treaty has emphasised that in keeping with the abiding ties of close friendship and cooperation between the two countries , “ the Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Government of the Republic of India shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither Government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other”.
Against this background, let us look at Chinese claims over the Bhutanese territory . Initially , the claims covered a total of 764 square kilometres – the North West (269 square kilometres), constituting the Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe in Samste, Haa and Paro districts; and Central parts (495 square kilometres), constituting the Pasamlung and the Jakarlung valley in the Wangdue Phodrang district.
However, following the standoff between the Indian and the Chinese troops in Doklam in 2017, China extended the claims in 2020 over 740 square kilometres of the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in eastern Bhutan for the first time, a typical tactic of Beijing in claiming more and more and later compromising to a smaller but significant demand to show its sincerity and reasonableness in settling disputes with neighbours. This tactic has been displayed the most in China settling boundary issues with Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Bhutan and China signed “the Guiding Principles on the Settlement of the Boundary Issues” in 1988 and “the Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the border areas” in 1998, whose Article 3 says that status quo is to be maintained on the boundary as before March 1959. The two sides have also agreed to refrain from taking any unilateral action on their boundary.
Incidentally, in 1996, China offered Bhutan a “resolution package deal”, proposing an exchange of Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys, totalling an area of 495 square kilometres in Central Bhutan, with the pasture land of Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe, amounting to 269 square kilometres in North Western Bhutan. But Bhutan rejected it.
Many observers, including most Chinese and some Bhutanese, believe that this package-deal offered by China is the best option for Bhutan, but it is not being done under the Indian pressure. It is being said that Bhutan will not mind the exchange of territories and that is why Thimpu has never complained officially over the reports of China setting up villages and undertaking infrastructural activities in “Bhutanese territory”.
Officially, Bhutan and China have held 25 rounds of boundary since 1984 and a dozen rounds of expert group meetings that yielded the three-step road map in October 2021. Though this road map has not been publicly explained, it reportedly includes agreeing to the demarcation of the border in talks on the table, visiting the sites along the demarcated line on the ground, before finally and formally demarcating the boundary between them.
However, doing that is proving to be an onerous task. Bhutan gifting Doklam to China is easier said than done. As has been noted already, in 1996, China offered an exchange of territory with Bhutan, seeking to relinquish its claim to disputed regions in the north in exchange for Bhutan ceding more strategically important territory in the west. China is saying that the territory in the north it will forgo is far larger than the territory it is seeking in the west.
But then it is not the question of the size of the area but its strategic significance. If China is particular about the west, it is because it has the Doklam plateau at the tri – junction of Tibet, India and Bhutan. Its control would provide the Chinese People’s Liberation Army with a tactical advantage. It is adjacent to the Chumbi valley that is only 500 kilometres from the Siliguri corridor – the chicken neck which connects mainland India to North East India and Nepal to Bhutan. This explains the rationale behind the aforesaid package deal that China is offering to Bhutan.
The Chumbi Valley has enormous strategic importance for India in the sense that dominance here by China will adversely affect the stability in the Siliguri corridor, vital not only for the linkage between Indian mainland and the north-eastern Indian states but also to ensure security for Kolkata and the north Bihar plains.
And this is all the more important after China opened a railway network in August 2014 connecting Lhasa with Shigatse, a small town near the Indian border in Sikkim. China now wants to extend this line up to Yadong, situated at the mouth of the Chumbi valley. And once this is done, potential threats to the Siliguri corridor from China will take a menacing proportion. Doklam under China, thus, means a Chinese dagger into Indian territory.
India, therefore, argues that any agreement over Doklam has to be a trilateral one, not limited to Bhutan and India. In fact, its rationale during the military stand-off with China at Doklam in 2017 was that the 2012 agreement between the two countries was clear that the tri-junction boundary between India, China and third countries would be finalised in consultation with the concerned countries. Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine tri-junction points is a violation of this understanding.”
Understandably, the Chinese officials and commentators are projecting India as a villain of the Bhutan-China border settlement. In this context they quote the interview of Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering in March 2023 to a Belgian newspaper, La Libre. “It is not up to Bhutan alone to solve the problem. We are three. There is no big or small country, there are three equal countries, each counting for a third. We are ready. As soon as the other two parties are also ready, we can discuss,” Mr Tshering was quoted as saying. He also had expressed hope that Bhutan and China would be able to demarcate some of its boundaries in a meeting or two.
This interview is open to interpretations. None other than Tshering later has clarified that the interview was “misrepresented” and blown “out of proportion” . Tshering clarified that he said nothing new and there is no change in Bhutan’s position.
Bhutan, as things stand today, is not in a position to deny that whatever happens in Doklam is a trilateral concern. India is important not only for its security and territorial integrity but also for its economic development and social stability.
India has consistently assisted Bhutan by funding its Five-Year Plans , its hydroelectric power and major infrastructure projects, and provided it with subsidies, grants and currency swaps. India also accounts for 90 percent of Bhutan’s imports and 77 percent of its exports, following the Free Trade Agreement between the two countries. This assistance has helped Bhutan’s economy grow rapidly. Its gross domestic product rose from USD 128 million in 1980 to USD 400 million in 2000. By 2020, this had grown further to USD 2.3 billion, or nearly six times in two decades.
It is true that this excessive dependence on India is not desirable for Bhutan in the long run. And it is understandable why young Bhutanese elites want self-sufficiency and equidistance from both India and China . But then being a landlocked country and India being the gate to the outside world ( a role that China cannot replace , as has been seen in Nepal) Bhutan has limited space for diplomatic manoeuvres.
On its part, India realises that the wise thing to do is not to remind Bhutan’s vulnerability publicly but maintain the status quo through seasoned persuasive arguments through normal diplomatic channels.
It is no wonder therefore that despite the headlines in news outlets, India has not officially commented on this week’s meeting between Tandi Dorji and Sun Weidong.
And equally important, the Bhutanese ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) has not also issued any separate statement on the meetings. What we have read and heard is the Chinese MFA statement that “Dr. Dorji concurred with Mr. Wang on the boundary issue”