The China-Bhutan Border Conundrum: An Assessment

 By Soumya Nair
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Reiterating its latest territorial claims in eastern Bhutan, China recently advocated a “package solution”, seen as a revival of a 1996 land swap deal, to settle its border dispute with the Himalayan kingdom. The claim over fresh territory, however, appears to be a bid to up the ante to coerce Bhutan to sort out the boundary question while simultaneously pressurising its closest ally India, which is currently locked in an impasse with China at the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh.

Responding to a query at a media briefing on its claims over Sakteng forest reserve in eastern Bhutan, which has never featured in border talks before, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin on July 21 said: “The boundary between China and Bhutan is yet to be demarcated, and the middle, eastern and western sections of the border are disputed. China has proposed a package solution to these disputes.” [1]

Earlier in July, the Chinese foreign ministry had issued a statement to an Indian media outlet emphasising “there are no new disputed areas” and that the three separate areas of dispute “over the eastern, central and western sectors” have existed “for a long time”. The statement also cautioned “a third party”, an apparent reference to India, to “not point fingers” in what’s a bilateral issue between Beijing and Thimpu. [2]

China’s new claim comes as a surprise as the area has never been part of negotiations during the 24 rounds of Beijing-Thimpu boundary talks held from 1984 to 2016. The claim first emerged in June at a UNDP-led meeting of the Washington-based Global Environment Facility (GEF) council where China raised objections to a grant request for the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary on grounds that it was disputed territory.

According to the published minutes of the meeting, the Bhutanese representative rejected the claim as baseless saying the reserve is “an integral and sovereign territory of Bhutan and at no point during the boundary discussions between Bhutan and China has it featured as a disputed area”. Additionally, Bhutan also issued a demarche to the Chinese embassy in New Delhi over the same.

In July, the Bhutan embassy in New Delhi followed up with a rare statement offering a more restrained response, which read: “The boundary between Bhutan and China is under negotiation and has not been demarcated. 24 rounds of ministerial-level boundary talks have been held, 25th round has been delayed due to coronavirus pandemic. All disputed areas will be discussed during the next round of boundary talks which will be held as soon as it is mutually convenient.” [3]

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has not made any comments on the issue so far.

What prompts China to open a new front in Bhutan

Beijing’s opening up of more fronts in the Himalayas, while it is still engaged in a border row with India, is a strategy that appears to be in tandem with its current aggressive foreign policy posture as seen in its moves in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea.

China’s claims over Bhutanese territory are based on historical memory dating back to the 18th century when Tibet was brought under the Chinese rule during the Qing period and the Tibetan ruler passed on his “suzerainty” over Bhutan to the new rulers. [[4]] It is only after the PRC takeover of Tibet in the 1950s, that China and Bhutan came to share a 470 km long un-demarcated border making Beijing further assertive over its claims. [5]

In total, Beijing now claims 764 sq km of territory[6] – 269 sq km in the northwest, including Doklam, and 495 sq km in central Bhutan.[7] Addition of Sakteng reserve, spread across 650 sq km and famed for snow leopards and the mythical Yeti, will almost double the total area being claimed. A resolution package proposing a land swap of the central areas for the northwest pasture lands was first proposed by China in 1996 and talks apparently had made some headway. However, it later fell through. [8] Following years of negotiations, China signed a peace agreement with the Himalayan nation in 1998, acknowledging Bhutan’s sovereignty for the first time. [9]

China’s renewed talks of a package solution which would require Bhutan to cede territory in the west, including the strategically significant Doklam, in exchange for disputed areas in the north, coupled with the new territorial claims in the east to gain leverage, is likely a “pressure tactic to push Thimphu into concluding a boundary deal” [10] which could end up hurting New Delhi, thereby challenging India-Bhutan ties.

The deal, if it comes through, would raise strategic concerns in India as the acquisition of Doklam plateau will provide the Chinese enhanced access to the strategically sensitive Chumbi Valley, projecting towards the tri-junction between Bhutan, India, and China, which is approximately 100 km away from the Siliguri corridor. The corridor – a barely 22 km wide strategically vulnerable sliver of territory – is India’s only link to its landlocked northeastern region.[11] In 2017, Beijing’s incursions in Doklam had led to a 72-day long tense face-off between Indian and Chinese forces. So far Bhutan has desisted the package deal mindful of India’s concerns.

Image Source: Google Maps

China’s claims in eastern Bhutan have significant implications for India as the area adjoins Arunachal Pradesh which China has claimed for long as part of Southern Tibet. Notably, the Sakteng reserve in the easternmost Trashigang district borders Arunachal’s geopolitically vital Tawang which China has coveted for long. [12] Some scholars are of the view that China’s hostile behaviour at Tibet’s disputed borders could be in a bid to prop Tibet back in the centre of the Himalayan system as part of its ‘Western Development Strategy’. [13]

Bhutan’s tightrope walk

Sandwiched between two Asian giants “like a yam between two boulders” [14], Bhutan has walked a tightrope, balancing its relations with its two ambitious neighbours. However, Bhutan shares a unique relationship with India, the basic framework of which lies in the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship ratified in 1949 which was updated to India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty in 2007.

Since the signing of the treaty in ’49, Bhutan has almost exclusively leaned on its southern neighbour which has remained influential in its defence and foreign policy matters, besides supporting it consistently as its largest development partner. India is currently Bhutan’s largest trading partner. As per official data, the total bilateral trade between the two countries stood at Rs 9227.7 crore in 2018. [15]

Although China has been trying to woo Bhutan away from India’s sphere of influence and has been keen to establish formal diplomatic relations with Thimpu, the latter has dragged feet on the same so far. All diplomatic communication continues to be handled through their missions in New Delhi.

Some Bhutanese scholars are of the view that “China’s aggression” is more to do with a “desire to punish Bhutan for allying with its regional rival, India” than a contest over territory.  [16]

Bhutan has, however, also been careful not to draw the ire of its powerful northern neighbour as in the case of Sakteng when it issued a guarded statement in July expressing willingness to resolve all territorial differences through talks.

Similarly, India’s longstanding proposal of a strategic road through the Sakteng reserve connecting Guwahati and Tawang is yet to receive a go-ahead from Bhutan which has been kicking the can down the road perhaps not wanting to ruffle Beijing’s feathers. [17]

Conclusion

Beijing’s sudden belligerence, even as the world fights a pandemic, has once again brought to the fore discussions over strategies to deal with an opaque power like China that has had no qualms dishonouring treaties and switching goalposts to gain its objectives in its march toward what it calls the ‘Chinese Dream’.

India and Bhutan have shared a close, time-tested relationship. It is imperative that in the current scenario the two countries stand united and respond to Chinese bullying with the same cooperation that they have demonstrated as allies on numerous occasions in the past instead of falling prey to Beijing’s duplicitous designs.

Being a small country caught between two big regional powers, the security aspect has ranked high in Bhutan’s policy calculations so far. While it has allied with India as their geographic locations make them indispensable for each other’s interests, in a changing geopolitical milieu, with growing voices of displeasure within the country about over-dependence on India, socio-economic imperatives will play a more vital role in future policy formulations. Although India has been a consistent pillar of support in the socio-economic development of the Himalayan nation, it will be difficult for Thimpu to ignore a powerful neighbour like China that has been keen to normalise relations and strengthen trade ties which are currently at a minimum. But the first step towards achieving it would be by resolving the border dispute without hurting India’s interests.

End-Notes

[1] Suhasini Haidar (2020), “China repeats claim on Bhutan’s east”, The Hindu, July 22, available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/china-repeats-claim-on-bhutans-east/article32153665.ece

[2] Sutirtho Patranobis (2020), “China’s new boundary dispute with Bhutan targets India’s Arunachal Pradesh”, Hindustan Times, Jul 06, available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/china-s-bhutan-move-aimed-at-india/story-JS0A3gx4FQVlwSrZ4NPfgI.html

[3] Asian News International (2020), “Boundary between Bhutan China under negotiation, has not been demarcated: Royal Bhutanese Embassy”, Jul 08, available at: https://www.aninews.in/news/world/asia/boundary-between-bhutan-china-under-negotiation-has-not-been-demarcated-royal-bhutanese-embassy20200708061435/

[4] China’s claims of Tibetan ruler passing on his “suzerainty” over Bhutan is something Bhutanese academics reject as “vague” and factually incorrect.

[5] Sudha Ramachandran (2017), “Bhutan’s Relations with China and India”, The Jamestown Foundation, Apr 20, available at: https://jamestown.org/program/bhutans-relations-china-india/

[6] Medha Bisht (2010), “Sino-Bhutan Boundary Negotiations: Complexities of the ‘Package Deal”, IDSA Comment, Jan 19, available at: https://idsa.in/idsacomments/Sino-BhutanBoundaryNegotiations_mbisht_190110

[7] In total, Beijing now claims 764 sq km of territory – 269 sq km in the northwest including Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe in Samste, Haa and Paro districts and 495 sq km in the central parts of Bhutan covering Pasamlung and the Jakarlung valley in the Wangdue Phodrang district.

[8] Manoj Joshi (2020), “Chinese Checkers in Bhutan”, Observer Research Foundation, Jul 09, available at: https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/chinese-checkers-in-bhutan-69486/

[9] Medha Bisht (2010), “Sino-Bhutan Boundary Negotiations: Complexities of the ‘Package Deal”, IDSA Comment, Jan 19, available at: https://idsa.in/idsacomments/Sino-BhutanBoundaryNegotiations_mbisht_190110

[10] Suhasini Haidar (2020), “China repeats claim on Bhutan’s east”, The Hindu, July 22, available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/china-repeats-claim-on-bhutans-east/article32153665.ece

[11] Medha Bisht (2010), “Sino-Bhutan Boundary Negotiations: Complexities of the ‘Package Deal”, IDSA Comment, Jan 19, available at: https://idsa.in/idsacomments/Sino-BhutanBoundaryNegotiations_mbisht_190110

[12] Ankit Panda (2020), “What’s Behind China’s Expansion of Its Territorial Dispute With Bhutan?”, The Diplomat, Jul 06, available at: https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/whats-behind-chinas-expansion-of-its-territorial-dispute-with-bhutan/

[13] Mihir Bhonsale (2020), “Bhutan: Walking on tight rope, balancing India and China”, Observer Research Foundation, Jul 14, available at: https://www.orfonline.org/research/bhutan-waking-on-tight-rope-balancing-india-and-china/

[14] Dorji Penjore (2004) “Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants”, available at: http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/jbs/pdf/JBS_10_09.pdf

[15] Ministry of External Affairs (2019), “India-Bhutan relations”, Sept 2019, available at: https://www.mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/India_Bhutan_2019.pdf

[16] Dorji Penjore (2004) “Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants”, available at: http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/jbs/pdf/JBS_10_09.pdf

[17] Anirban Bhaumik (2020), “India wants to build a road through Bhutan’s ‘Yeti Territory’ to counter China’s expansionist moves”, Deccan Herald, Jul 08, available at: https://www.deccanherald.com/national/india-wants-to-build-a-road-through-bhutans-yeti-territory-to-counter-chinas-expansionist-moves-858681.html