China Flew Over The Bhutanese Nest

By Rajeev Sharma

The Chinese hard power juggernaut is moving in all directions and not even tiny neighbours are out of its ambit these days. In the latest instance of China’s hyperactive diplomacy, Beijing is vigorously pursuing one finger of its so-called “five finger policy” – Bhutan. The other four fingers are Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh (both parts of India), Nepal and Sikkim; while the palm is Tibet. The Chinese objectives in Bhutan, a country with which it has been having a protracted border dispute, pose a major foreign policy and security challenge for India.

China has played its most important diplomatic card vis-à-vis Bhutan to date by proposing an exchange formula to resolve the vexing border dispute. With an eye on fortifying its position on Tibet, China has proposed that Bhutan cede a part of its north-western territory, in exchange for which Beijing would give up its claim over Bhutan’s central areas.

The area that China wants Bhutan to cede is very close to Chumbi Valley, a tri-junction abutting Bhutan, Tibet and the Indian state of Sikkim, and a highly strategic area perceived as militarily vulnerable for the Chinese, as the British colonialists had used this as a gateway to launch their military expedition in Tibet in 1904.

The Chinese had first made this package deal offer to the Bhutanese in 2004. The latest indications are that Beijing is once again pushing the envelope at a time when China and Bhutan are on the verge of setting up diplomatic relations.

Both sides have agreed at the highest level to have full-fledged diplomatic relations for the first time ever after an unprecedented meeting between Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and his Bhutanese counterpart Jigmi Y. Thinley on the margins of UN Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil in June of this year.

China’s idea is to resolve its border dispute with Bhutan in one stroke through a package deal, rather than through the sector-by-sector approach that it has so far been having not only with Bhutan but with India too. Interestingly, China resolved another border dispute with Nepal through a similar package deal.

China shares a 470-km-long border with Bhutan. The border is not formally demarcated and the border dispute is a major source of irritation between the two countries even after 19 rounds of talks so far. China claims a large chunk of the border territories, stretching from Doklam in the west and from Gamochen to Batangla, Sinchela, and down to the Amo Chhu River. The disputed area in Doklam covers 89 sq. kilometres, while the disputed areas in Sinchulumpa and Gieu cover about 180 sq. kilometres. Frequent Chinese incursions into Bhutan have added to tensions in Sino-Bhutanese relations.

The Indian worry is manifold. First, Bhutan has of late shown its keenness to improve relations with China, and the pro-China lobby in Bhutan is getting stronger by the day. India is understood to have given its tacit approval to Bhutan establishing full diplomatic relations with China, not because New Delhi was being magnanimous but because there was hardly any other option before India’s Bhutan policy managers.

Secondly, Bhutan has consistently kept India out of the loop in matters of its talks with China. Though there is nothing on the ground to suggest that Bhutan is going to play the China card with India – a tactic that Nepal has employed with India for decades – Indian foreign policy czars cannot firmly rule out such a scenario.

Thirdly, Bhutan doing China’s bidding on the border issue would trigger a security nightmare for India as the north-western Bhutanese territory in question, if ceded to China, would bring Chinese troops within a few kilometres of India’s Siliguri corridor, which connects the mainland with North-eastern India.

So far Bhutan has enjoyed extremely good relations with India, and the two neighbours share a relationship wherein their citizens do not require visas to visit each other’s countries. India is the major propeller of Bhutan’s economy and has been a bulwark for Bhutan’s security. In fact, during the 1962 Sino-Indian war, Bhutan permitted India to move its troops through Bhutanese territory. It is no wonder then that Bhutan is the only country in South Asia that doesn’t have diplomatic relations with China.

The evolving Bhutan-China synergy is perhaps more significant, and doable, than the Pakistan-Russia synergy that showed signs of germination a few years ago but failed to take off. The Sino-Bhutanese dalliance may gather full steam in the near future. After all, the Chinese have been immensely successful in wooing India’s next-door neighbours: Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Nepal. With Nepal particularly, Chinese success has been phenomenal. Beijing’s move to build a highway right up to Mount Everest’s base camp is no less than a diplomatic and strategic coup.

However, now that Bhutan is modernizing and opening up its economy like never before, India has to be in sync with the changing times. The best way to do this is not to resist the inevitable but to make things more difficult for its rival. While India does not have the luxury of shaping Bhutan’s foreign policy anymore, New Delhi is not without an option.

India can counter China in Bhutan by doing the next best thing: ensuring that the Bhutanese diplomatic space is opened to other foreign powers to achieve a strategic balance. Japan is one power that is waiting in the wings. It is not surprising that Tokyo has already announced its intent to open its own diplomatic mission in Thimpu by 2014.

One should not be surprised if the establishment of diplomatic relations between Bhutan and China and Bhutan and Japan take place concurrently. Once that happens, the US and other Western powers will not be far behind.


Rajeev Sharma is a New Delhi-based commentator on foreign policy, international relations, terrorism and security issues. His latest book is “Global Jihad: Current Patterns and Future Trends”.


19 August 2012