Importance of Bhutan

  • Bhutan in a buffer state between India and China. Bhutan shares a 470 km long border with China.
  • Strategic importance: The Chumbi Valley is situated at the tri-junction of Bhutan, India and China and is 500 km away from the “Chicken’s neck” in North Bengal, which connects the northeast with rest of the country.
  • To contain insurgency in North-East: Bhutan has in the past cooperated with India and helped to flush out militant groups like United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) from the Himalayan nation.
  • To check Chinese inroad in Bhutan: China is interested in establishing formal ties with Bhutan, where it does not yet have a diplomatic mission. Chinese territorial claims in western Bhutan are close to the Siliguri Corridor.

Geostrategic importance and associated developments:

  • Presently, as per the popular perception, China considers Tibet as the palm and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh as the five-finger leading to aggressive militarization and infrastructure building.
  • China’s dominance in South-Asia: Since 1971 China has developed significant relations, chiefly economic, with India’s neighbors. Apart from Bhutan, India’s immediate neighbors generally find India overbearing and try to engage with China.
  • China is actively encroaching in the Himalayan borders of Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, which aim to an encircle India through different fronts. A more assertive policy with regard to Tibet is thus equally vital to Indian national security.
  • Recently, China has made new territorial claims [Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary] in the eastern sector of Bhutan.
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Way Forward:

  • India continuously needs to explore new areas of cooperation with Bhutan. Decision of setting up of ISRO’s ground station in Bhutan is a welcome step. The station will help Bhutan in providing weather related messages to its far-flung areas.
  • Safety of Border from China is a concern for both nations. Therefore, both sides need to work together on this issue. Also, it needs to be ensured that border areas remain militants free.
  • The Road ahead for India-Bhutan ties is one of tremendous potential and opportunities.
  • Both the countries must enhance connectivity which is a central pillar of India’s ‘Neighborhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policies.
  • India must address Bhutanese grievances over hydropower projects and ensure terms of loans are favorable to Bhutan. India must draw Bhutanese public attention to China’s role in debt trap. Therefore, it will have to ensure that its finance model for projects in Bhutan is different from Chinese model. Indian projects must be more inclusive and generate jobs for Bhutanese.

India’s intervention to protect Bhutan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity against Chinese aggression highlights the importance of INDIA-BHUTAN FRIENDSHIP TREATY, 2007. This also highlights how India is keeping its promise, playing role of responsible neighbour and acting as protector of weak in geo-politics of subcontinent.

Border Issue background

Cause of concern

  • In October 2021, Bhutan and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding for a “three-step roadmap” to expedite border resolution talks.
  • The discussion centres on two valleys to Bhutan’s north and the Doklam area to the west of Bhutan, close to the trijunction with India, which was the site of a stand-off between Indian and Chinese forces in 2017. India has been particularly watchful of any possibility of a “swap agreement” between the two countries that could affect its security at the trijunction.
  • In January 2023, Bhutan and China held talks in Kunming, and reached a “positive consensus” on how to move forward with the talks.
  • Earlier Bhutanese PM has in an interview to a Belgian newspaper has explained that he hoped to complete boundary demarcation talks on disputed areas in the next “one or two more meetings” and that a visit by a Chinese “technical team” was expected shortly in Bhutan
  • The Bhutanese PM’s comments on discussing the Doklam trijunction dispute “trilaterally”, with Bhutan, India and China as “equal” interlocutors, set off a storm in Delhi

Border Dispute between Bhutan and China

Disputed region between Bhutan and China

  1. Like the Sino-Indian border, the entire 477-km Bhutan-China border is also disputed. Significant Chinese claims range from three areas in western Bhutan, including Doklam, three regions in the north
  2. Border talks between the two sides(Bhutan and China) began in 1984, and from the seventh round in 1990,China has continued to push a “package proposal”, which would see it concede its northern claims with an area of 495 sq km, in exchange for Bhutan agreeing to China’s western claims, including 89 sq km of Doklam.

Why China is pushing for Package Deal:

There were two reasons for this.

  • First, adding territory in the west would help enlarge the narrow and strategic Chumbi Valley.
  • Second, possession of Doklam would give it a military advantage over India. The Doklam area is not of particular strategic significance for Bhutan, but it is important for India since it gets the Chinese to the Zompelri (Jampheri) ridge, which gives them a commanding view of India’s Northeastern jugular, also known as the Siliguri Corridor.

Breakdown of Talks

  • The two sides were very near for the finalisation of deal during the 10th round of talks, however when the two sides met for their 11th round in November 1996, Bhutan backed off, and many believe that India played a role in this. So in 1998, China and Bhutan signed an agreement to freeze the border as of 1998, pending further talks
  • The problem for the tiny Himalayan kingdom is that, unlike, its neighbourhood, it is not very populous, with just some 750,000 people in an area of 38,000 sq km — a little smaller than Denmark but with one-seventh of its population. Its capacity to police its disputed borders is limited, as has been evident over the years that it has dealt with China.
  • In Asia, China sees Bhutan, where it does not yet have an embassy, as the last frontier. Having made inroads into Indian pre-eminence in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Beijing would like to challenge New Delhi’s special relationship with Bhutan as well. Recent events, including Doklam and the revival of its claim in the eastern region, can be seen as systematic Chinese pressure to push the Bhutanese to comply with its demands.
  • Beijing’s surprise move came during a virtual conservation meeting in June, when it laid claim for the first time to Sakteng Wildlife sanctuary, which spans about 740 sq km (285 sq miles) in eastern Bhutan. Chinese foreign ministry explained that “the boundary between China and Bhutan is yet to be demarcated, and the middle, eastern and western section of the border are disputed”. The eastern section was an obvious reference to the Sakteng reserve.
  • Scholars believe that inclusion of Sakteng as a disputed territory by China, was an effort by the Chinese diplomacy to strong arm Bhutan, to bring it back on negotiation table and the diplomatic effort has yield a positive result for China.

China as the mutual discord

  • China has been seeking a toehold in Bhutan for decades.
  • Bhutan is fully conscious of India’s strategic needs. As per their 2007 Treaty of Friendship, India and Bhutan consult at a high level in order to be able to maximise or reinforce their mutual strategic interests.
  • Bhutan has been having talks with China on the boundary question for years, and there has been no decision yet.
  • Similarly, India and China have frequently had boundary talks without any agreement being reached.
  • China has been offering major concessions on the north in order to obtain a much smaller territory, which is in Doklam, for years. Bhutan has resisted this offer consistently because it understands India’s security concerns and will not decide its border with China without taking into account India’s interests.
  • Bhutan is also aware that China is a menacing power, that China’s build-up in that disputed area is considerable, and there is also some incremental encroachment beyond the boundary dispute into Bhutanese territory.

Thus we can conclude that  India-Bhutan relationship has crystallised over the decades into such a mammoth edifice of mutually beneficial interaction that it is difficult to dismantle. The key to strengthening it for the future is for India not to show any insecurity about this relationship, or in any way attempt to stifle differing voices, whether on social media or otherwise, but to pursue this relationship with trust and complete faith.

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