Bhutan and Its Neighbours: The Tango

(Continued from my previous BLOG on Bhutan China Border Dispute. This post should not be seen in context of the ongoing standoff at Dolam, but from a detached perspective. Views are my own. Feel free to disagree)

        Although India’s influence over Bhutan is acknowledged by China, New Delhi is keen to keep an eye on the Sino-Bhutanese negotiations, which would definitively have repercussions on India’s own engagement with China. History as well as geography have given India a huge advantage in Bhutan. In addition, India’s own rise has reduced the relative disparity in military and diplomatic power with China. This blog post attempts to look into the interplay between India, Bhutan and China as each jockeys for position relative to the other two.

Chumbi Valley

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        India’s concerns centre on the Chumbi Valley, a narrow protrusion of a part of Southern Tibet separating Bhutan from the Indian state of Sikkim. It is a tri-junction of China, India and Bhutan and enjoys unparalleled strategic imp in the region. Being close to the Siliguri Corridor, any Chinese thrust down the Chumbi Valley will cut off India’s only land link with its NE states. It will also pose a threat to Kolkata as well as the plains of North Bihar.

        The Chumbi Valley is extremely narrow, only 40km wide in its narrowest stretch, thus making it a Chicken’s Neck for China. This is the reason why China seeks to extend its expanse by incorporating the neighbouring Doklam Plateau of Bhutan (Mentioned as Dokham in the map above). Doing so will marginally improve the Chinese position by increasing the width of the area it controls.

        Ever since the boundaryy dispute with Bhutan, Doklam has been their primary focus, as is evident by repeated incursions into the area and the 1996 offer to let go of Chinese claims in North Bhutan in lieu of the Doklam Plateau. In addition, the Chinese have constructed new roads in the Zuri and Pheetogang ridges overlooking the Charithang Valley (SOURCE), a recent addition to Chinese claims across the Chumbi Valley. An area of concern for India in this respect is the recent joint technical survey of disputed boundary in North Bhutan which has not yet been declassified. India is apprehensive that this might follow in the Doklam Plateau as well, as a precursor to a possible settlement in future which might be detrimental to Indian interests.

India’s Increasing Clout

        With increasing clout in international affairs, any Chinese gains in Bhutan – diplomatically or militarily – would be inimical to India’s international standing. China too is aware of the same, and of the unsaid, but implicit guarantee of protecting Bhutan’s sovereignty by India. Given the rapidly closing gap between relative power of the two nations, China might be tempted to utilize a ‘victory’ in the boundary dispute with Bhutan to undercut India’s international as well as regional standing.

Bhutan as a Buffer

        As with Nepal, Bhutan too is a buffer state between India and China. Recent events in Nepal have highlighted the growing Chinese clout in the country and the consequent failure of Indian diplomacy, along with the setback to Indian interests. In case the same is repeated in Bhutan, implications for Indian interests will be far worse. Apart from making defence of Siliguri Corridor difficult, India’s fight against the insurgent groups in North East will also suffer a setback. Thus, Bhutan’s position with respect to China makes its border resolution decisions key from a security point of view for India.

        For much of recent past, Bhutan and India have enjoyed extremely cordial relations. This continues even today due to past legacy and a pragmatic understanding of mutual benefits. At the same time, India has huge economic and security stakes in Bhutan. However, there is also a growing understanding amongst Indian policy makers that Bhutan has the right to calibrate its stance with respect to its neighbours. Long used to being its window to the world, New Delhi now is coming to terms with the fact that Bhutan is more likely to make choices apart from India. This is more evident in light of the recent transition of Bhutan from monarchy to democracy, potentially giving a platform to the tiny minority that advocate closer relations with China, even if at cost of Indian goodwill.

Indian Outreach to Bhutan

        India has huge economic and military stakes in Bhutan. Bhutan has traditionally been the largest recipient of India’s foreign aid. In FY 2013-14, India’s budgetary support to Bhutan was $600mn. It rose to reach #985mn in FY 2015-16. In addition, Bhutan’s Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay also secured and additional aid package from India worth $819mn during his visit to New Delhi in Aug 13. This included approx $100mn worth of economic stimulus package for Bhutan’s slowing economy by India. Apart from financial assistance, India also operates three hydel power projects in Bhutan, with another three under construction at present.

Visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi

        Bhutan was the first country visited by the PM, within a month of assuming office. This sent out a message to all concerned that India valued its relationship with Bhutan as one of the most important ones in the neighbourhood. The visit was also partially necessitated after misgivings within Bhutan by a massive reduction of Indian oil and gas subsidies that was said to be attributable to suspicion that Bhutan’s former Prime Minister Jigme Thinley was carrying out parleys with China. However, the outcome of the visit was positive and termed by the media as a ‘charm offensive’ that would further cement the close ties between the two countries. In fact, PM Modi tweeted on his trip, “World talks GDP but in Bhutan its about National Happiness. Am sure having India as a neighbour would be 1 of the reasons for the happiness.” Thus he underlined the special relationship between India and Bhutan.

ANALYSIS

        While Bhutan and China have common interest in the normalisation of bilateral relations, their perspectives remain different. Yet, it is logical to assume that China – Bhutan outreach that started in 1984 may eventually result in establishment of diplomatic ties between the two nations. However, both sides are also thought to have reached an understanding that this can only follow in wake of the resolution of the boundary dispute. Indian factor will also remain a key element in Bhutan’s China policy.

Trade

        China would, no doubt, seek to normalise its relationship with Bhutan at the earliest. On possible methodology of achieving the same could be through a boost to Sino-Bhutan trade through non disputed parts of the IB. A template already exists wherein Mongolian economy was reoriented towards trade with the PRC after the collapse of the USSR. However, at present Bhutanese economy is primarily geared towards trade with India, both as a source of its imports as well as exports. Thus, Bhutan will have to assess the potential consequences for its own economy if it reaches out to China. Additionally, increased trade with China would necessitate construction of roads in the Northern part of Bhutan. China is likely to be ready to finance such projects as it did in case of Nepal. But given the disputed nature of parts of IB, such construction will have military implications as well.

        Despite the expected betterment of relations, it is unlikely that Bhutan will explore the possibility of using China to balance the influence of India. Bhutan’s China policy is likely to have limited objectives in short to medium terms, primary amongst them being securing a comprehensive agreement on the boundary dispute. At some level, Bhutanese apprehensions over the ultimate objectives of Chines policy in the region is somewhat based on India’s own apprehensions on the issue. Though not related technically, discussions on Sino-Bhutan boundary dispute and those on Sino-Indian boundary dispute seem to be politically related.

        Bhutan seems to be coming round to the conclusion that it is indeed a buffer state between India and China and that its own boundary dispute with the latter is partly due to the state of relationship between the two. This is underlined by the amount of interest shown by China in the Doklam Plateau region. As a result, it is likely that Bhutan may seek to reach out to China on its own terms instead of being ‘guided’ by India, in order to seek a settlement favourable to Bhutanese interests, in case a government suitable oriented comes to power in Thimpu, though that seems far from likely at present. The annual border talks and increasing interactions between Bhutan and China has been creating a positive environment that could result in a normalisation of their relationship in some form.

        India too appears to be coming round to the conclusion that Bhutan has every right as a sovereign nation to establish diplomatic / bilateral relations with any country, including China, if situation so permits. Opening of trade and tourism with China would result in Chinese investments and the consequent increased in Chinese clout. However, Bhutan is unlikely to agree to any settlement with China that will be detrimental to Indian interests. It may be attributable to the following factors:-

  • Historical legacy of bilateral relations.
  • Huge Indian influence in Bhutan in all spheres.
  • Resurgent Indian military power in the region, leading to a closing of the relative disparity with China.
  • Geographical constraints which result in Bhutanese dependence on India for outreach to rest of the world.
  • A perceived ‘fear’ of China in Bhutanese minds, given the aggressive posturing by the PLA in disputed areas.

CONCLUSION

        Bhutan’s relationship with either India or China cannot be viewed in isolation from one another. Bhutan has a complex trilateral relationship with both its large neighbours, leading at times, to it getting caught up in the adversarial relationship between the two. Historical legacy as well as current state of relations indicate that Bhutan is more comfortable with India, and increasing contacts with China are merely an assertion of Bhutanese independence and a desire to maintain cordial relations with all its neighbours, without distinction.

        China too realizes its limited leverage in Bhutan, given critical Indian centrality in Bhutanese affairs, due as well, to the sheer geographic advantage that India enjoys. As of now, all that China seems to want from Bhutan is for it to follow an ‘independent’ foreign policy. As a sovereign nation, Bhutan has every right to establish diplomatic relations with any country, including China. However, given the nature of Sino – Bhutan relationship in past, it is unlikely that Bhutan will take any decision on its boundary issue without taking into account Indian concerns.

        Thus, it can be safely assumed that while Bhutan may eventually open up to China and the rest of the world, India as of now, has no cause for concern. Diplomatic engagement between Bhutan and China is unavoidable, in fact it is beneficial in that it may serve to reduce tensions on account of the boundary dispute and prevent a military misadventure which might see India get involved on the Sino-Bhutan border, assuming that Bhutan will continue to remain aligned with Indian interests on the same.

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