Bhutan and the Great Power Tussle
Image Credit: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Bhutan and the Great Power Tussle

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At first glance, the Kingdom of Bhutan would not seem to be a country that would factor heavily in the calculus of regional powers. With a land mass smaller than that of the Dominican Republic and with fewer people than Fiji, this landlocked Himalayan country has nonetheless become increasingly important strategically to both New Delhi and Beijing. The reason for this interest is not untapped mineral riches or a large consumer class, but Bhutan’s geographical location. As the Kingdom has only in recent years begun to open itself up to the outside world (only legalizing television and the internet in 1999 ), it finds itself caught up in a discreet but high stakes diplomatic battle being waged between India and China.

The centerpiece of this issue is territory. Between China and Bhutan there are three territorial areas of dispute: The Jakarlung and Pasamlung valleys  on the Bhutan-Chinese north-central border, and the Doklam plateau in Eastern Bhutan. While the two territories to the north are of interest to China due to their proximity to Tibet, as well as what it perceives as its “historic claims” to the areas, the Doklam Plateau is what it covets most. That claim is of grave concern to New Delhi. India’s Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) aptly describes  the strategic value of the region:

“The Doklam Plateau lies immediately east of Indian defences in Sikkim. Chinese occupation of Doklam would turn the flank of Indian defences completely. This piece of dominating ground not only has a commanding view of the Chumbi Valley but also overlooks the Silguri Corridor further to the east.”

The Silguri Corridor (described by some analysts as a “Chicken’s Neck”) is a narrow stretch of land that connects India’s northeastern states to the rest of India. If the Chinese were to gain possession of the Doklam plateau, in the event of hostilities it would have the ability to essentially “cut-off” India’s land access to 40 million citizens in its northeast territories. In 1996, China was believed to have come close to acquiring the plateau; as it was willing to renounce 495 square kilometers of territorial claims in the northern valleys in exchange for the 269 square kilometers that constitute much of the Doklam plateau. The likelihood of such an agreement being finalized in the near future is slim, as the area is the constituency of Bhutan’s current Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay.

India does maintain an advantage over China in that it has a deep and long-standing relationship with Bhutan, giving it a wide array of diplomatic options. In 1949, The Treaty of Friendship Between India and Bhutan was signed. Article 2 states that ”On its part the Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to external relations.” India was Bhutan’s primary force in foreign affairs until 2007, when the treaty was altered during Bhutan’s transition from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary government, and the clause that provided India’s guidance on external affairs was not retained. Judging by recent visits of Indian officials to Thimpu, however, it would appear that India still expects to play a significant role in shaping Bhutan’s decision-making process in sensitive areas of its foreign affairs. On August 9 last year, it was reported by the media in Bhutan that then Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh came to Bhutan to “congratulate the new Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay on assuming the office.” It is also likely that the primary purpose of their visit was to brief the new prime minister on Bhutan’s upcoming talks with China over territorial disputes that were to take place in two weeks later.

In addition to its lengthy diplomatic relationship, India is far and away Bhutan’s most important economic and trading partner, accounting for nearly 60 percent of Bhutan’s exports, and 75 percent of its imports, as well as being a vital donor of economic aid to the country. It is widely suspected that during last year’s election in Bhutan that the Indian government used this leverage by cutting subsidized gasoline and kerosene to the country in response to what it saw as then Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigme Thinley’s warming of relations with China, resulting in his government’s eventual defeat at the polls. Seeking to repair relations, India’s new Prime Minister NarendraModi chose Bhutan as his first visit abroad, and came bearing gifts in the form of a fifty percent increase in aid and loans from the previous year, while Nepal and Bangladesh, two recipients of Indian aid, saw their funding decrease slightly. Modi’s visit also raised the prospects of moving forward on Bhutan’s 10,000MW initiative, in which the Indian government is to fund three hydroelectric projects that upon completion are expected to produce up to $1.7 billion worth of electricity. This is expected to significantly boost the country’s GDP. The energy sector also represents a very significant share of government revenues. While Indian policy towards Bhutan appears to consist primarily of economic carrots (and perhaps a subtle stick when necessary), China’s approach historically has been one that bears many similarities to its current strategy in the East and South China Seas.

Much in the same vein as its territorial claims in the Pacific maritime, for a period of time China asserted that its claims over territory in Bhutan were based on historical merit. Shortly after its establishment, the People’s Republic of China published a map in A Brief History of China, depicting a sizable portion of Bhutan as “a pre-historical realm of China.” That represented a step further back in time than Beijing’s current mantra of stating that many of its current disputed territorial claims have been a part of China “since ancient times.” In 1960, the Chinese leadership issued a statement was cause for concern in Bhutan:

“Bhutanese, Sikkimese and Ladakhis form a united family in Tibet. They have always been subject to Tibet and to the great motherland of China. They must once again be united and taught the communist doctrine.” 

Bhutan responded by closing off its border, trade, and all diplomatic contacts with China. It followed this with the creation of the Bhutanese Royal Army in 1963. In 1966, near the tripoint of Bhutan, Chumbi Valley, and Sikkim, Tibetan grazers entered pastures near the Doklam plateau accompanied by Chinese PLA soldiers, an action that in many ways mirrors the recent HD-981 oil rig incident in which the yak herder (HD-981) was led into disputed waters “to drink” while escorted by military personnel. Border negotiations finally began in 1972, with India playing a supporting role for Bhutan. As leadership in Beijing grew more confident, it sought to exclude India from negotiations, succeeding in this in 1984. Beijing preferred to use its growing economic and military clout over its much smaller neighbor, a strategy that it is still practiced today in China’s refusal to enter territorial or security negotiations with regional alliances or organizations such as ASEAN.

More recently, it could be argued that China’s first foray into “salami slicing” tactics took place not in the disputed maritime regions but in the disputed border regions with Bhutan. In 1988, the PLA crossed into Bhutan and took control of the Chumbi valley, near the Doklam Plateau. It has also been reported that the Chinese military has repeatedly entered into northeastern Bhutan through the Sektang and Pang La regions, setting up military camps and carrying out patrols. In a similar fashion, PLA troops have reportedly taken to periodically threatening Royal Bhutan Guards on the Doklam Plateau that they were standing on Chinese soil, followed by seizing their posts for hours or days at a time in a repeated fashion. These actions appear to be aimed at both showing Beijing’s resolve and seeking to lower that of Bhutan’s. In April of last year, Zhou Gang, a former ambassador to Delhi, was sent to Bhutan as a special envoy of the Chinese government carrying with him a blunt message: If you want to settle the boundary dispute with us, allow us to open our mission here. While India has elected to maintain its close ties with Bhutan largely by using a soft power approach, China appears to be using methods not unlike those it has preferred in its South and East China Seas disputes: Constant harassment and periodic occupation of territories with the goal of wearing down its opponents.

Currently as it stands, it would appear that India has the ear of Thimpu. The day following Modi’s visit to Bhutan, Tobgay quelled Indian concerns by stating that his country would not allow China to open an embassy in his country. In an interview with New Delhi television, Togbay stated, “We don’t even have diplomatic relations! How can you open an embassy without diplomatic relations?” Perhaps most importantly, India appears to have the trust of the people of Bhutan as well. A Bhutanese associate of this writer shared his thoughts on the current situation involving his country, and eloquently conveyed the general perception of Bhutanese:

“Bhutanese are more comfortable with India. No one should have any doubts about that. If there has been some contact with China by the Bhutanese, it is merely an assertion of our independence and a desire to maintain cordial relations with all our neighbors, without distinction. Bhutanese are a friendly people – we like to be friends with everybody. We have border issues with China and it is clear in my mind that Bhutan cannot resolve those issues by being antagonistic towards them. The historical, cultural, and economic links between Bhutan and India are so entwined and formidable that it will be near impossible to sever this mutually beneficial relationship. I think both Bhutan and India realize this.” 

It would seem that if China wishes to resolve the territorial disputes with Bhutan peacefully, it has a long road yet to travel.

Brian Benedictus is a Washington D.C.-based foreign policy analyst specializing in East Asian security issues and is also an Asia-Pacific Desk analyst for Wikistrat. Brian blogs at warm-oolong-tea.

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