Druk-yul, as Bhutan is called in its national language, is a small Himalayan state clubbed between two rising global powers, India and China. While the geographic location of each country is one of the most critical factors in challenges presented and foreign policy decisions, it is even more complicated for small countries with limited access to the world beyond their immediate neighbours. Bhutan is one such state. Its foreign policy complications arise from managing its relations between India and China, two Asian rivals who have fought a war over their boundary dispute and are increasingly engaged in fierce competition for influence worldwide, particularly in South Asia. The ultimate aim of Bhutan remains to maintain its territorial integrity and sovereignty. However, China’s consistent and increasingly aggressive border posture poses a significant challenge for Bhutan and India.
Bhutan-China Border Dispute
Bhutan shared ancient religious, cultural and economic ties with Tibet. However, with China’s forced annexation of Tibet, the buffer between communist China and Bhutan was gone. The border dispute between the two began in the 1950s when China started claiming Bhutanese territory by issuing new maps. In the 1959 military campaign against Tibetans, China also seized control over eight Bhutanese enclaves in Tibet.[i] Following this, Bhutan severed its Ties with the Chinese controlled Tibet and reoriented its economic routes towards India. Since Bhutan and Tibet had not demarcated their border, after the Chinese annexation of Tibet, this led to severe Chinese incursions into Bhutan, mainly in 1967, 1979, 1983 and 2017.[ii] The disputed areas include the north-western and central Bhutan involving Samtse, Haa, Paro and Wagdue Phodrang districts, respectively, covering 764 sq. km.[iii] The Doklam plateau in north-western Bhutan, near the India-Bhutan-China trijunction, became a flashpoint between the armies of India and China in 2017.
The consistent pressure via border incursions has had desirable results for China. While Bhutan still does not have diplomatic relations with China, the border aggression resulted in the two countries beginning official dialogue in 1984 to settle the border dispute. Thus, the border intrusions were China’s way of getting its foot in the door and start engaging a society previously closed to it. Both countries signed the Bhutan-China Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity in 1998 to maintain peace at the border before resolving the border dispute and maintaining the pre-1959 boundary status quo. The two countries have also held 24 rounds of talks since 1984 to resolve the border dispute.[iv] A significant development took place in 1996 when China, during the 10th round of talks, offered Bhutan a swap deal to forego its claim on the north-western territory in exchange for China relinquishing its claim on the central territory. Bhutan has resisted this standing offer so far, keeping in mind India’s security concerns under the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 2007.
Nevertheless, the problem remains in China’s relentless pressure tactics to manipulate Bhutan’s national discourse on its border dispute with China and its foreign policy concerning India and China. Last year, at a Global Environment Facility meeting, China opposed a proposal for funding the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Trashigang in eastern Bhutan.[v] This objection was surprising since there had been no historical Chinese claims in eastern Bhutan.
According to a white paper on Tibet published by China’s State Council Information Office, China has been developing border defence villages along the entire Line of Actual Control (LAC) under the ‘model xiaokang villages’ programme announced in 2017.[vi] This also extends to villages close to its border with Bhutan in Yadong, Lhazong and Cona counties.[vii] These villages are supported by a strong infrastructure including power grids, water, hospitals, schools, access to highways and railways including high-speed lines like the one recently operationalised between Lhasa and Nyingchi and extensive telecommunication connectivity.[viii] In November 2020, reports broke out about China setting up a village inside Bhutanese territory in Pangda. The Bhutanese government refuted those reports even as global observers substantiated their claims with satellite imagery, location of the village and the official maps of Bhutan from a Bhutanese government website. These coercive actions are aiming to build domestic pressure in Bhutan to resolve the border dispute with China.
Implications for India
India has been Bhutan’s net security provider, both militarily and economically. Both countries share deep friendly ties, and while Bhutan has so far resisted China’s overtures for striking a border deal, there has been an evolving discourse in Bhutan that strongly supports resolving the dispute with China. While a boundary delimitation is in India’s favour, as it would allow it to better negotiate with China over demarcating their border in the trijunction area, the problem lies in China’s insistence on a deal similar to the one offered in 1996, which would see the north-western territory in Bhutan being ceded to China. The territory in north-western Bhutan, particularly Doklam, is of significant military and strategic importance to India.
In case of a conflict, the Doklam plateau would give India a commanding position of the Chumbi Valley and conversely, China’s control over the plateau would give it better access to India’s Siliguri corridor, a vulnerable stretch of land that connects India’s northeast with the rest of the country. Even the recent expanding claims by China on territory in eastern Bhutan should be seen in the context of China increasing pressure on Bhutan to re-evaluate its stance on the proposed border deal and at least spark up a partisan discourse in Bhutan with regards to border resolution with China, even if it may be an undesirable outcome for India. Siliguri Corridor’s increased vulnerability can possibly impact the military’s personnel and equipment distribution along with other civilian contingencies that will have to be created should a conflict with China erupt. This will put excessive strain on the country’s resources.
Bhutan remains India’s most steadfast partner in South Asia. Its support for India has been firm and consistent, bilaterally and multilaterally. India, in turn, has played a significant role in ensuring Bhutan’s sovereignty and economic security. However, with an increasingly assertive and volatile China, India-Bhutan ties should not be assumed to be immune to China’s actions in the region. Like any bilateral relation in global politics, India-Bhutan relations have some issues. China’s strategy remains to exploit these issues by sparking an anti-India discourse in Bhutan, which would argue for reducing Bhutan’s dependence on India by playing the China card, following in the footsteps of some other South Asian states. This was evident in some of the statements from the previous Prime Minister of Bhutan Tshering Tobgay like “The Royal Government continues to take a strategic long-term view of our engagement with China to ensure that our national interests are secured.”[ix] Views like these could be the signs of a changing mindset in the Bhutanese elite.
This space of narratives in Bhutan is where India needs to fight back, which has to be achieved by some corrective measures in certain critical areas like the economy. Bhutan’s economy is entirely dependent on India and most of the Indian investment is government organisations led. This needs to be replaced by private players acting in sectors guided by fundamental market forces while being aided by the Indian government. While Indian investments in Bhutan’s hydropower sector have been beneficial for both countries, there is a realisation in Bhutan for economic diversification regarding employment-creating micro, small and medium enterprises and move away from what has been terms as jobless growth.[x]
China’s hybrid tactics of proposing border deals and dialogues on the one hand and a completely aggressive posture on the border on the other is meant to penetrate the Himalayan buffer state as it tries to push southward with its expansionist policies. Bhutan must realise the dangers in playing the China card against India as was done by Nepal, which despite its appeasing policies towards its northern neighbour, continues to face encroachment troubles on its border with China.[xi] Common security, driven by geography and geopolitics, remains the bedrock of India-Bhutan relations. Amid an aggressive China, both countries need better understanding and cooperation now more than ever before to safeguard their long-term national interests.
[i] “Full Text: Tibet Since 1951: Liberation, Development and Prosperity”, Xinhua, 21 May 2021, Accessible at: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2021-05/21/c_139959978.htm Accessed on 29 July 2021
[ii] Jayadeva Ranade, “China’s Xiaokang (well-off) Border Defence Villages in the Tibet Autonomous Region”, Vivekananda International Foundation, 24 September 2019, Accessible at https://www.vifindia.org/article/2019/september/24/china-s-xiaokang-border-defence-villages-in-the-tibet-autonomous-region Accessed on 29 July 2021
[iv] Devirupa Mitra, “Bhutan PM’s Rare Remarks on China; India’s Soft Power; Duterte’s Delhi Outburst”, The Wire, 10 July 2018, Accessible at https://thewire.in/diplomacy/bhutan-china-india-duterte-philippines-external-affairs-modi Accessed on 13 July 2021.
[v] P. Stobdan, “India’s Real Problem Lies in its Bhutan Policy, Not the Border”, The Wire, 14 July 2017, Accessible at https://thewire.in/diplomacy/india-china-doklam-real-problem-bhutan, Accessed on 13 July 2021.
[vi] “After India, China is now breaching the borders of Nepal”, Business Insider, 23 September 2020, Accessible at https://www.businessinsider.in/defense/news/after-india-china-is-now-breaching-the-borders-of-nepal/articleshow/78272376.cms, Accessed on 13 July 2021
[vii] Sutirtho Patranobis and Rezaul H Laskar, “China says it has border dispute with Bhutan too”, Hindustan Times, 05 July 2020, Accessible at https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/china-says-it-has-border-dispute-with-bhutan-too/story-TlhVkk7TwAS97DiASzBSBK.html, Accessed on 13 July 2021.
[viii] Suhasini Haidar, “China doubles down on claims on eastern Bhutan boundary”, The Hindu, 05 July 2020, Accessible at https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/days-after-demarche-china-doubles-down-on-claims-on-eastern-bhutan-boundary/article31993470.ece, Accessed on 13 July 2021.
[ix] Sudha Ramachandran, “Bhutan’s Relations with China and India”, The Jamestown Foundation, 20 April 2017, Accessible at https://jamestown.org/program/bhutans-relations-china-india/, Accessed on 13 July 2021.
[x] Mathew Joseph C, “China-South Asia Strategic Engagements – 2 Bhutan-China Relations”, Institute for South Asian Studies, 23 August 2012, Accessible at https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/152366/ISAS_Working_Paper_157_-_Bhutan_-_China_23082012174042.pdf, Accessed on 13 July 2021.