-By Asra Malik
(Student of Delhi University)
In the intricate ballet of geopolitics, the Bhutan-China border dispute emerges as a crucible of realpolitik, juxtaposed against the backdrop of a long-standing borderland tension among Bhutan, China, and India.
It was only with the beginning of bilateral talks in 1984 that China explicitly narrowed the disputed region to: the Pasamlung and Jakarlung valley, in the north, Dramana and Shakhatoe in the west Sinchulungpa and Langmar Po valleys, Yakchu and Charithang valleys, and the Doklam plateau, or the “tri-junction”. The epicenter of the dialogue arises from the contested Doklam region, a narrow stretch that extends a special strategic hold to India, a matter influencing Bhutan to tweak its foreign policy and an inroad for China into South-Asia.
The landlocked Bhutan and its time-line
Bhutan has always refrained from establishing diplomatic ties with the P5 countries, including China. This stance is primarily due to its deliberate absence from the global power-play. Secondly, the concern of Bhutan’s northern border has prolonged the rift with China, as it has remained adjacent since China’s annexation of Tibet in the 1950s and the subsequent seizure of the eight Bhutanese enclaves.
China’s perception of Bhutan as part of Tibet’s “five fingers” has in fact propelled Bhutan’s alignment with India all the more. In 1997, China proposed a “package deal” to adjust its presence in central Bhutan, including the Doklam region, but Bhutan, with India’s support, refused this offer. Several agreements, including 1988’s Guiding Principles and the Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility, have served as the basis for boundary negotiations between Bhutan and China, emphasising the maintenance of the status quo.
This contention has even seen low-level incursions by Tibetan herders and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) patrols. Additionally, China’s offers of economic incentives in exchange for concessions in the Doklam region had certainly arisen from the same motive. Nonetheless, India has consistently supported Bhutan’s stance and rejection of such proposals, given the longstanding special relationship between the two countries.
Subsequently, in 2010, Bhutan and China agreed to conduct a joint field survey of disputed regions concluded in 24 rounds of negotiations until 2016 to contextualise the increasing odds. As on the one hand, the 2017 Doklam standoff between India and China over Bhutanese territory was a low-point for the dispute. On the other hand, Track One diplomacy played a significant role in October 2021 when Bhutanese and Chinese diplomats agreed on a Three-Step Roadmap to further expedite border negotiations along the contested Sino-Bhutanese frontier.
Be as it may, China’s claim over the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Bhutan and the construction of alleged villages within Bhutanese territory further strained the relations between China and Bhutan. Despite the ongoing efforts to resolve the border dispute, tensions persist, and recent developments have involved China’s release of a controversial map and Bhutan’s efforts to maintain a diplomatic silence to de-escalate border tensions.
Overlooking the border tensions of Bhutan with India and China, in late October of 2023, Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s visit to New Delhi in April resulted in a resolution to expand bilateral ties. In the same breath, the 25th round of negotiations held in Beijing between Bhutan and China indicate a potential resolution to the territorial dispute, with the two countries signing a cooperation agreement to delimit and demarcate disputed boundaries through a joint technical team (JTT).
The conflict of interest with China and India
So as to evolve statements into settlements, legal and political considerations are always the main bones of contention and consideration.
China wants India to adhere to distinct geographical principles in defining the boundary of territorial disputes. China advocates demarcation alongside the watershed, asserting that the crest of the mountain range, defining the water flow into Tibet and Bhutan, should serve as the boundary. And, typically wants Mount Gipmochi to determine where the border runs. In contrast, India maintains that the boundary should follow the highest watershed, claiming the line of the mountains that separate the rivers as the boundary. In short, India and Bhutan want the boundary line to run from Batangla to Merugla and Sinchula.
During such talks with China, India emphasises the importance of the 2012 bilateral agreement, which mandates the presence of all three countries during any trilateral border dispute for a fair resolution process. Additionally, India fears that any alteration of the status quo in Doklam would provide Beijing with a tactical advantage over New Delhi, given China’s interest in the Chumbi Valley and its proximity to Sikkim, the critical Siliguri Corridor, or the “chicken’s neck” could be compromised.
China’s history of border friction with erstwhile 14 countries—now only 2–does suggest an active Chinese effort towards a clear political end, which indirectly calls out to China’s Three Warfare strategy as termed by the US government and their apprehension for China’s jumbled approach. It was identified as a measure of countering hard power by workshopping psychological, media, and legal operations. This presents China with an unquestionable ability to pursue its objectives of resource acquisition, territorial expansion, and the projection of national will.
Regardless of the Bhutanese compliance with the One-China principle and the impartiality towards border talks, the Indo-Bhutan Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed in 1949, solidified India’s role as Bhutan’s ally and protector, although Bhutan gained more autonomy with the treaty’s revision in 2007. Still, Bhutan is the largest trading partner and a major contributor to India’s economic development. In return, India holds a considerable influence over Bhutan’s foreign policy and defense. But the potential diversification of Bhutan’s economic ties with China could decrease its dependence on India, impacting India’s energy, security and regional influence. If Bhutan were to establish formal diplomatic relations with China, it could challenge India’s dominance in the region and alter Bhutan’s pro-India foreign policy and render India as a solo nation fighting against the Chinese border declarations and incursions.
Moreover, Bhutan’s participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could have implications for regional infrastructure development and connectivity. Bhutan’s potential alignment with China could also affect India’s influence in regional organisations such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
Bhutan, which has traditionally maintained a non-aligned and diplomatically reticent posture, has realised that it must cooperate with China – observing a notable increase in bilateral commerce on top of border security. Simultaneously, Bhutan has maintained a robust and diverse relationship with India, characterised by significant trade, support for hydropower initiatives, and tight security collaboration. In fact, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck will spend 8 days in India, from November 3rd to 10th 2023, to address any differences of opinion regarding the ongoing border issue and make a statement only after understanding both sides better.
As the Doklam region continues to be a focal point, Bhutan is in a
precarious position. It must negotiate the complexities of its trilateral relations, demonstrating its dedication to upholding a strategic balance between its two powerful neighbours, China and India, without jeopardising India’s interests or alienating China any more.