May 2023

What’s cooking between Bhutan and China?

Once firm allies, Sudha Ramachandran charts the conflict of interest between Bhutan and India and outlines China’s role in this uneasy alliance

India’s relations with Bhutan, which have always been warm, may have entered a new uncertain phase. In an interview that he gave to the Belgian newspaperLa Librein late March, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering said that Bhutan and China would ‘probably be able to draw a line’ marking the boundary between the two countries‘after one or two more meetings’.

Tshering’s remark prompted discussion in Delhi over whether Bhutan, which is surrounded by India on three sides, is on the brink of sealing a border deal with China that would go against India’s security interests.

It was following China’s annexation of Tibet in 1949 that Bhutan, a landlocked kingdom nestling in the Himalayas, came to share a 477-km-long border with China. The border is disputed; China has claimed 495 sq. km of territory in the Jakarlung and Pasamlung Valleys in north-central Bhutan and another 269 sq. km in western Bhutan, which includesDoklam, a plateau that abuts the trijunction between India, China and Bhutan.Furthermore, since 2020, Beijing has laid claim to the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan’s eastern district of Trashigang.

Since 1984, Bhutan and China have engaged in 11 ‘expert group meetings’ and 24 rounds of talks to settle their border dispute.In October 2021, the two sidessigned an agreement on a ‘Three-Step Roadmap for Expediting the Bhutan-China Boundary Negotiations’,and at an expert group meeting in Kunming in January this year, they agreed to ‘push forward the implementation of all the steps of the Three-Step Roadmap’,‘increase the frequency of the expert group meetings and to keep contact through diplomatic channels on holding the 25th Round of China-Bhutan Boundary talks as soon as possible’. ‘[Earlier this year], a Bhutanese delegation visited China and we are now awaiting the arrival in Bhutan of a Chinese technical team’, Tshering said, adding that the two sides have ‘come to understand each other’.

Doklam Plateau
Sticking point in border dispute between Bhutan and China

The Sino-Bhutanese border dispute is of interest to India.  Territory that China has claimed in western Bhutan includes the Doklam Plateau,which is of major strategic significance to India and China. Control over the plateau would give China access to the Jhamperi Ridgeand a commanding view of the Siliguri Corridor, a sliver of land that links the Indian mainland to its north-eastern states. In the event of a Sino-Indian conflict, it would provide China with a view of Indian troop movement and supply routes. This makes it imperative for India to deny China control over or even access to Doklam.

Incidentally, Doklam has little strategic value to Bhutan. India is therefore understandably apprehensive that Thimphu will be willing to cede control over Doklam to strike a border deal with China.

Bhutan and China would ‘probably be able to draw a line’ marking the boundary between the two countries

China has been edging into Bhutanese territory for decades by sending Tibetan graziers into Bhutanese pastures, constructing dirt tracks and then roads,as well as other infrastructure inside Bhutan.To gain control over Doklam, China also put forward a package proposal in 1996, under which it offered to give up its claims in northern Bhutan in exchange for Thimphu ceding control over Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana, and Shakhatoe in the western sector.

Indiaand China have faced off over Doklam. In 2017, for instance, Indian troops blocked Chinese soldiers from constructing a road towards the Jhamperi Ridge, triggering a 73-day standoff between the two armies at the India-China-Bhutan trijunction at Doklam.

Following an agreement reached between India and China on August 28, 2017, to end the Doklam crisis, China pulled back its troops and bulldozers from ‘the face-off site at Doklam’. However, satellite images subsequently revealed that it had merely shifted its troops and equipment some 10 km from the original disputed area. Indeed, within months of the Doklam crisis, China had built a military complex with bunkers and helipads to the east of the faceoff site, inside Bhutanese territory.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

There is a lot of information circulating in the media about Chinese installations in Bhutan

And in the years since, satellite images have revealed that China has built a bridge across the Amo Chu River and is accessing Jhamperi Ridge through an ‘alternate axis’. It has also constructed villages that are now functioning and inhabitedinside Doklam.

China is said to have occupied areas in northern Bhutan too. Indeed, as noted Tibetologist Robert Barnett pointed out in an article in Foreign Policy in 2021, Chinese development of villages in northern Bhutan precedes that in western Bhutan by around five years. Besides, the villages in northern Bhutan are ‘more advanced’and involve ‘the settlement of entire districts, not just a single village’. And while the Chinese intrusion into western Bhutan is of strategic significance to India, the development of villages inside northern Bhutan involves territory ‘that is of far greater sensitivity: It is in an area of exceptional religious importance to Bhutan and its people’.

China’s occupation of swathes of territory that are of importance to the Bhutanese is aimed at putting pressure on Thimphu to accept the package deal i.e., to give up Doklam in exchange for China returning land that is of great religious value to the Bhutanese.

Pranab Mukherjee (L) & The Crown Prince of Bhutan (R)
Historic agreement thrown into doubt

In his interview with La Libre, Prime Minister Tshering denied the existence of Chinese villages inside Bhutan. ‘There is a lot of information circulating in the media about Chinese installations in Bhutan. We don’t make a deal of it because it’s not in Bhutan’.

Tshering’s categorical statement that ‘there is no [Chinese] intrusion’into Bhutanese territory has prompted concern in India. Is the Bhutanese prime minister saying that the occupied territory is Chinese? Is he paving the way for the Bhutanese government to cede control over swathes of its territory to China?

The need to have settled borders with its giant neighbour to the north could tempt Bhutan to strike a deal with China.Promises of Chinese investment will no doubt sweeten the deal.

However, under a 2007 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, India and Bhutan pledgedthat they would not permit the use of their territory ‘for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other’.

Bhutan ceding control of Doklam to China would be a violation of this treaty.

Older generations of Bhutanese are appreciative of India’s strong support for Bhutan’s economic and infrastructural development over the decades. They have also not forgotten China’s annexation of Tibet and the destruction of Tibetan Buddhism (the Buddhism practised in Bhutan has its roots in Tibetan Buddhism) and culture. But younger Bhutanese have economic aspirations and want to benefit from Chinese investment. Going forward, India will need to bear this in mind as it charts its strategy towards Bhutan.

Dr Sudha Ramachandran is a Bengaluru-based independent analyst who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be contacted at Sudha.ramachandran@live.in