First move

Bhutan and China’s diplomatic engagements

Bhutan is finally awakening from its long, tranquil sleep and slowly facing the realities of geo-strategic politics and international relations. Squished in the middle of the two Asian giants- India and China, the tiny, peace-loving nation is slowly embracing democracy and diplomacy.

The process can be overwhelming for a country that gives importance to Gross National Happiness over Gross Domestic Product and believes in maintaining happiness over securing strategic interests.

Bhutan is unique and crucial to its neighbors. As Bhutan and China talk of building diplomatic ties, realizing the importance of geographical inevitability, Bhutan’s other inseparable neighbor, its supposed big brother; India has to tackle this hard fact. India and China are locked in a territorial cold war and Bhutan could be the next battleground.

Therefore, China and Bhutan’s diplomatic plans to settle their long-standing border disputes are signal for India to adjust its strategy in the Himalayas.

However, India must not test its relationship with Bhutan because of its overt paranoia about China. Undoubtedly, a Bhutan- China close-up could give China the strategic advantage. But India should embrace the reality and allow Bhutan to make a strategic decision for itself, instead of unnecessarily tampering.

Overlapping claim

Though China and Bhutan are neighbors, they have not yet established diplomatic ties. Bhutan abstained from forming ties with China after Beijing took control of Tibet in 1951. Tibet shared a border with Bhutan. China’s control sparked the rise of refugees from Tibet to Bhutan, following which Bhutan closed the border. In addition, relations between the neighbors also remained strained due to their border dispute. They share about a 470 kilometers long border and over 4,500 sq km of patches of land in the Western and Northern parts of Bhutan remains disputed.

There are seven regions where both Bhutan and China’s claims overlap. The most disputed amongst these is the Dolam plateau in Western Bhutan, adjoining Yadung province of Tibet Autonomous Region.

China rejects the current border, claiming that it should actually run eight kilometers deeper inside Bhutan. Bhutan cannot take any decision on the matter alone because the Chumbi valley in the Dolam plateau is where the strategic interests of China, Bhutan and India overl
If China’s claim is accepted, a tense game will unfold. China’s territorial demands could bring it 500 kilometers closer to India’s narrow but extremely vital Siliguri corridor, which connects the North-Eastern region with mainland India. In addition, Bhutan’s imports pass from this corridor from the Kolkata port.

It is important to understand the current scenario. According to the Indian military, Chinese movements can be monitored by Indian troops stationed in Sikkim. China’s infrastructure build-up in the region is also within the range of Indian artillery. Therefore, China’s move in the area is defensive in nature. By trying to shield itself, it wants to give a strategic angle to the Chumbi valley. Reportedly, China has already laid motorable tracks in the area.

The way China has gone about it is an insight into its strategy for expansion. China has border disputes with almost all its neighbors but it has been rather secretive in the case of Bhutan, to allow careful and secretive diplomacy between Beijing and Thimpu.

Earlier Bhutan’s foreign policy was mainly guided by India. But, Bhutan began border talks with China in 1972 and continued until 1984, after which China insisted on making talks free of Indian presence.

Within the next five years, China began exercising authority over the Chumbi Valley. During the tenth round of border talks, China offered to exchange 495 sq km worth of land in Northern Bhutan for a mere 269 sq km land area in the Dolam Plateau of Western Bhutan. Interestingly, later in 2007, the Bhutan government published a revised map of the country excluding the Kula Kangri Mountain, the tallest mountain peak, after having generously gifted it to China. However, even this didn’t please China for as long as China cannot have the Dolam plateau region ceded to it, it wouldn’t rest. In the same year, a treaty from 1949 that enabled India to guide Bhutan’s foreign policy was revised so that Bhutan didn’t have to seek India’s guidance anymore.

Although in 1998, they signed an agreement promising to ‘Maintain Peace and Tranquility on the Sino-Bhutan Border’, the fact that Bhutan and China have held twenty talks to resolve the border dispute and still not reached an solution is troublesome. Bhutan is vulnerable because if it fails to contain China’s claims, Bhutan could lose about 4,500 sq kms of its land. With Indian backing, Bhutan has been able to hold off Chinese advancements but India may not be able to do so in the future.

Losing influence

The dubiousness of these claims is probably the reason why both Bhutan and China are pushing to establish diplomatic relations to negotiate the border agreement at the earliest. India’s tremendous influence over Bhutan could also be a decisive factor for China to resolve the dispute.

China is prioritizing talks with Bhutan. Otherwise silent on the subject, the Chinese State Media highlighted the first meeting between the leaders of the two countries last year. Premier Wen Jiabao met with Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley in Rio on the sidelines of the UN Rio+20 Conference while the 19th border talks between the two countries were underway. The two reportedly expressed their willingness to establish formal diplomatic ties.

Ties between Bhutan and China were to become a reality sooner or later. Other instances also point at Bhutan cozying up to China. Last year, Bhutan gave a tender to a supplier of Chinese vehicles over its usual Indian supplier. The controversy was that the Bhutan Post Corporation limited wasn’t happy with buses supplied by Tata, which is why it began business with the Chinese company. This episode is as symbolic of Bhutan’s interest in China as the fact that the fifth National Assembly of Bhutan noted China’s offer to invest in its health and education. Bhutan’s business community is also pressurizing the government to negotiate the border agreement. Many Bhutanese officials also recognize the ‘One China Policy’ with regard to Tibet.

It is important to understand that Bhutan is transforming. The fourth king of the Kingdom introduced parliamentary democracy in 2008. After two successful elections, Bhutan is experiencing democracy, politics and diplomacy.

Prime Minister Jigme Y Thinley was criticized as Bhutan found itself in an economic crisis. He travelled across the world, forging diplomatic ties with other countries. Thus Thinley began to widen Bhutan’s diplomatic engagement beyond its usual limits and established relations with countries like Myanmar. Bhutan already has diplomatic relations with SAARC countries and the EU, but has no formal relations with any members of the UNSC.

But the fact that Bhutan had diplomatic relations with 53 other countries didn’t matter to the electorate as they chose the opposing party in the 2013 elections. Tshering Togbay’s concrete plan to get the country out of its economic conundrum appealed to the masses.

The Indian factor was also decisive in the election. Whether or not Thinley’s overtures with China or diplomatic relations with other countries signaled distancing from India, it was definitely perceived so. Many in Bhutan believe that since it has ushered into a new phase, it must also alter its relation with India and adapt to the political and economic realities. Such talks were taking place at a time when Bhutan’s economic crisis was worsened by a rupee deficit, India delayed aid to Bhutan for its 11th Five year plan and the much hyped lifting of subsidies on kerosene and LPG to Bhutan was mismanaged by the Indian Oil Corporation.

It was suggested that these were India’s way of showing anger to Bhutan cozying up to China. However, India is intimately related to any issue related to a possible Sino-Bhutan nexus. Certainly India was taken aback when the two leaders met in Rio. Although it doesn’t guide Bhutan’s foreign policy anymore, it certainly will keep a close eye on it. But, while India’s anxiety is understandable, it might be overrated.

Bhutan has always been loyal and committed to India because of their close historic relations. It has been sensitive to India’s concern about China. India must endow Bhutan with utmost trust so that it doesn’t isolate its most loyal friend.

While dealing with the possibility of a Bhutan-China nexus, notwithstanding conflicting opinions from within Bhutan, India’s relation with Bhutan is still secure. Bhutan’s economy is heavily dependent on India. The Indian investment in Bhutan’s power sector alone is testimony to it, as India builds 10 hydro-electric power plants in Bhutan. Bhutan’s trade with India has been in surplus since 2008 and people-to-people contact is too vibrant to be meddled with. Also, the newly elected Prime Minister, Tsering Tshogbay seems to be inclined to make ties with India even stronger. The Bhutanese state newspaper denied any talks of a diplomatic tie-up with China as well.

Therefore, India should at the moment observe the situation closely without jumping to any conclusion just because Bhutan wants to negotiate its border deal with its neighbor. They have shown enough commitment to India and as a sovereign nation, Bhutan has every right to go ahead with it, as it remains a strategic need of the country.