By – Shivam Shekhawat;
Sandwiched between its two bigger and powerful neighbours, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has historically been important for both India and China. For New Delhi, since the signing of the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1949 and its subsequent revision in 2007, the relationship has been one of ‘close trust and understanding’ but not without its fair share of hiccups. On the other hand, Bhutan doesn’t formally recognise the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with both sides conducting 24 rounds of talks and 10 Expert group meetings from 1984 till 2016 to resolve their boundary dispute. It is in this background that the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the Foreign Minister of Bhutan, Tandi Dorji and the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, Wu Jiangho —in the presence of their respective Indian Ambassadors —on 14th October 2021 should be viewed.
A ‘three-step roadmap’, the MoU is aimed at “Expediting the Bhutan-China boundary negotiations”. The framework was charted during the 10th expert group meeting in Kunming in April 2021 and sent to the governments for consideration. It was heralded as a deadlock breaker by the Chinese side and a positive development leading to more “systematic discussions” on the boundary question by Bhutan. Meanwhile, the spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, India refused to divulge more information or answer whether India had any prior knowledge of its signing but acknowledged that it has ‘noted’ the development. Even though the precise details of what entails this ‘roadmap’ were deemed sensitive and not made public, Wang Se, an expert at the Chinese Ministry of State Security affiliated China Institute of Contemporary International Relations explained how it is loosely based on the framework for India-China border agreements, i.e., after formulating and deciding upon some basic principles on the overall question of boundary demarcation, the two sides will engage in resolving one issue at a time, possibly by exchanging maps, ultimately leading to the delineation of the boundary and the signing of a final border agreement.
Strategic calculus along the Bhutan-China border
The over 400 sq. km border which Bhutan shares with China is fraught with contesting claims from the Chinese side. There are two separate areas of dispute- Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe in West Bhutan near the border with India and Jakarlung and Pasamlung near Tibet. In 2020, China made an additional claim to the Sakteng region in eastern Bhutan, a region which according to Bhutan has always been under its administration. For India, the disputed territories between its two neighbours, especially in the West, are of grave security importance because of their strategic location at the tri-junction between the three countries. China considers Mount Gymochen as the triboundary point, which is a ‘strategic redline’ for New Delhi, descending further into the vital but vulnerable Siliguri corridor. China’s claims and actions on Bhutanese territory then must be viewed within the overall dynamics of the Sino-Indian relationship and the incremental steps that it is taking to get a strategic advantage in India’s neighbourhood.
After the first round of talks between Bhutan and China began in 1984, Beijing offered a ‘package deal’ in 1990, proposing to abdicate its claims from regions in the north to get control of the strategically important region of Doklam. This manoeuvre was directed at getting an advantage over India, as control over the region would have given it an increased advantage over the chicken neck i.e., the Siliguri corridor, India’s gateway to the Northeast. After Bhutan rejected the offer because of security concerns, the two sides decided to sign a temporary truce in 1998, agreeing to uphold the status quo till a final boundary is finalised. But talks came to a halt after 2016 when news of the People’s Liberation Army(PLA) constructing a road near Doklam led to India’s military involvement in the region. India considered it a security threat and intervened on Bhutan’s behalf. The resulting standoff continued for 73 days before an agreement could finally be reached.
The Importance of Timing
For some time now China has been following a policy of populating the frontier and creating Xiakong (moderately prosperous) villages to increase the physical quality of life and also improve border security. The presence of its own people along the frontier increases the leverage that it has in border negotiations. After the Doklam crisis tapered off, the PRC continued its encroachment on Bhutanese territory, constructing villages and building other military infrastructure.
In November 2020, a Chinese journalist tweeted pictures of a village named Pangda, 35 km inside the Yadong county which is part of the Tibet Autonomous Region. After speculation became rife of its exact location, a US-based satellite imagery company showed its precise location as being near the trijunction at Doklam. Even though this was corroborated by other sources, the Bhutanese ambassador to India outrightly denied its presence. As the village lies close to the Doklam area, India saw the construction as a part of China’s overall strategy of encircling the small nation and creating a rift between the two long-term allies. The de-facto control that China has tacitly exerted on territories under dispute, disregarding the bilateral agreements has even led some experts to term the MoU a fait accompli, aiding Beijing in a timely dressing up of its aggressive and unilateral actions under the garb of diplomacy but making no efforts at resolving the boundary dispute.
Amidst these considerations, Bhutan’s denial of any construction inside its territory worried New Delhi about a possible tilt towards the PRC. In the absence of diplomatic relations between the PRC and Bhutan, India’s role has been indispensable in the border negotiations. But the signing of the MoU and the possibility of both sides establishing formal diplomatic relations is of concern for New Delhi. Even though India and Bhutan have enjoyed a stable relationship, there have been occasional issues of concern such as claims of Delhi’s growing interference and the discontent of the local population towards India’s big brother attitude especially after the petroleum subsidies to Thimpu were discontinued in 2013, possibly because of its warm-up to the PRC.
With the coming of the Modi government and the espousal of its Neighbourhood First policy-coupled with the Act East Policy (AEP)– Bhutan has been regarded as one of India’s topmost priorities. Under its Vaccine Maitri scheme, India supplied 1,50,000 vaccines to its neighbour, reiterating the importance it accrues to this all-weather friendship. Both nations also cooperated in the field of financial technology, with the introduction of the RuPay card and efforts to increase connectivity for the speedy delivery of training and other essentials by inaugurating a trading route between India’s Jaigaon and Bhutan’s Ahllay in July 2020. Concurrently, China too focused on Bhutan via its Health Silk Road, an offshoot of the Belt and Road Initiative to increase its footprint in the region and project itself as a global public health leader, working towards increasing cooperation and solidarity in the fight against the virus.
The signing of the MoU also followed the failure of the thirteenth round of talks between India and China, which ended on 12 October to resolve the dispute at their border. In March 2020 the PLA amassed troops in eastern Ladakh, subsequently leading up to the clash in Galwan Valley which killed 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers. The relationship between the two countries has been tense ever since with both sides occupied in protracted negotiations to disengage from the regions. The news at the beginning of 2021 about the presence of Chinese villages in Long and areas to its east has also exacerbated the situation further. The disengagement was successful in Pangong Tso in February 2021 and Gogra in Patrolling Point 15 in August 2021 but has been difficult in the Hot Springs, which was the subject of the latest talks. The Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar as well as the Army Chief General M.M. Narvanne, for long keeping the dispute at the border and the bilateral relations in separate silos, stated how bilateral relations can no longer turn normal until China decides to undo the unilateral decisions that it has taken in eastern Ladakh and commits to successfully disengage from the contested points. The Chinese instead blame India’s demands for the failure of the talks and for the continued stagnation in resolving the dispute.
Construction of a benign narrative
In August 2013, Xi Jinping reiterated the need for China to communicate well with the world and ‘strengthen our discourse power internationally’. In keeping with this, the Chinese state media and officials have depicted the signing of the MoU as a strong answer to India’s interference in the internal politics of Bhutan and its efforts at coercively establishing its hegemony in the region. Exhorting China for its ‘constructive neighbourhood policy’, the state media blames New Delhi for preventing Bhutan from exercising its agency. The agreement was also touted as a failure of the Modi dispensation’s Neighbourhood First Policy in the face of ‘respectful, bilateral diplomacy’. Aimed at debunking the imaginary and inaccurate fear of the threat from a rising China which India artificially created to legitimise its role in the Indo-Pacific, the PRC wanted to resume the talks which have been under stagnation since 2017, albeit without Indian interference. It is this narrative that China takes advantage of, with reports in the Chinese state media of India being the thorn that is preventing the demarcation of a legitimate boundary between two ‘friends’ (China and Bhutan) underscoring the Chinese tactic of representing India as the unreasonable power making it difficult to establish peace in the region.
China has been aggressively repositioning itself in the region. With continued encroachments in Nepal and its burgeoning relationship with Pakistan, India is facing a difficult situation in the neighbourhood. Beijing’s renewed claim on the Tawang area and the brawl at Naku La in January 2021 further aggravated the situation. Bhutan is the only country in the region where China has not been able to make direct headway. In a conversation with the Institute of Chinese Studies, Vijay K. Nambiar, India’s former Ambassador to China argued how the MoU is aimed at coaxing Bhutan for a definitive response. In the background of the intransigence it has shown in the border dispute with India, the MoU can be seen as a preventive tool to rein in Bhutan and dissuade it from taking any action which could aggravate the situation further.
There is a general tendency in the PRC to view Bhutan’s foreign policy decision making as a function of India’s influence and dominance. This aspect, as mentioned above was evident in the pains it took to paint the MoU as a defeat for India. China’s encroachment in Bhutan poses a security threat to India and as its neighbour and friend, India would also want the speedy resolution of the dispute but not at the cost of Beijing forcefully appropriating strategically important locations. It is to be seen what path the negotiations will take based on this new framework and the bearing it would have on the ongoing border dispute with India.
Shivam Shekhawat is a recent graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science where she was a Commonwealth Scholar. She is interested in studying India’s neighborhood, particularly India’s relationship with China and its response to the situation in Afghanistan and Myanmar. Her interests also lie in analyzing contemporary conflicts through a historical lens and the factors which affect a country’s response to humanitarian crises.