Features | Diplomacy | South Asia

China’s Bhutan Gambit

Beijing is upping the pressure for a land swap deal to settle the China-Bhutan border, in hopes of gaining an advantage over India.

Sudha Ramachandran
China’s Bhutan Gambit
Credit: Pixabay

China is stepping up pressure on Bhutan to settle their bilateral border dispute. In addition to laying claim to more territory in Bhutan, Beijing has revived an old land swap deal that will require Thimphu to cede control over territory in order to settle its border dispute with China.

“The boundary between China and Bhutan is yet to be demarcated, and the middle, eastern and western sections of the border are disputed,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on July 21. “China has proposed a package solution to these disputes,” he added.

Until recently, the Sino-Bhutanese border dispute involved territory in the western and central sectors only. Beijing claimed 764 square kilometers of Bhutanese territory: 495 sq km in the Jakurlung and Pasamlung Valleys in north-central Bhutan and another 269 sq km in western Bhutan.

Since early June, China has laid claim to the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, which covers an area of 650 sq km and lies in Bhutan’s eastern district of Trashigang.

It was at the Global Environment Facility (GEF) meeting on June 2 and 3 that China claimed Sakteng for the first time. Bhutan had requested funding for a project in the wildlife sanctuary and Beijing objected to the GEF funding it on the ground that it “is located in the China-Bhutan disputed areas.” Sakteng is on “the agenda of [the] China-Bhutan boundary talk[s],” the Chinese delegate at the GEF meeting claimed.

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In the weeks since, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly said that “disputes over the eastern, central and western sectors” of the border have existed “for a long time.”

Thimphu has rejected Beijing’s claim. Not only is the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary “an integral and sovereign territory of Bhutan,” but also “at no point during the boundary discussions” between the two countries “has it featured as a disputed area,” Bhutan clarified.

Even the package proposal that China put forward in 1996 refers only to disputed territories in central and western Bhutan. It makes no mention of the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary or any other area in eastern Bhutan.

Indeed, there is no cartographic evidence supporting China’s claim over Sakteng.

Chinese maps do not show Sakteng or nearby areas in Bhutan as Chinese territory,” M. Taylor Fravel, a China expert at the MIT Security Studies Program and author of “Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949,” pointed out in a series of recent tweets.

China and Bhutan became neighbors only after the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1951. Prior to that it was with Tibet that Bhutan shared borders.

China’s claims over Bhutanese territory are indirect, stemming from its claims over Tibet. When the Qing dynasty extended Chinese rule over Tibet in the 18th century, the Tibetan ruler Polhane, who apparently held suzerainty over Bhutan, passed this on to Tibet’s Chinese overlord. China bases its territorial claims in Bhutan on the latter’s vassalage to Tibet.

However, Bhutanese scholars reject China’s “vague suzerainty claim over Bhutan” as being based on “misinformation.”

China began asserting its claims over Bhutan with increasing vigor in the late 19th century to counter growing British influence there. In 1930, Mao Zedong claimed that Bhutan (among other Himalayan kingdoms) fell within the “the correct boundaries of China.” The People’s Republic of China was even more aggressive in asserting such claims; official maps showed parts of Bhutanese territory as part of China. Moreover, during its annexation of Tibet, China briefly occupied eight Bhutanese enclaves in western Bhutan. Chinese incursions into Bhutanese territory have continued, as has China’s building of roads in disputed areas. This despite the fact that under Clause 3 of the 1998 Treaty to Maintain Peace and Tranquility on the Bhutan-China border areas, the two sides agreed to maintain the status quo on the border areas.

Indeed, it was the construction of a road into Doklam by the Chinese that triggered the 73-day-long standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in 2017.

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Although China and Bhutan do not have official diplomatic relations they have engaged in 24 rounds of ministerial-level talks to resolve their border dispute. In 1996, China put forward a package proposal, under which it offered to recognize Bhutanese sovereignty over the Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys in return for Bhutan recognizing Chinese sovereignty over Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana, and Shakhatoe in the western sector. Bhutan has not accepted this proposal to date.

China recently revived this land swap deal.

Underlying China’s offer is its interest in the Doklam Plateau. The plateau is strategically located, on its northwestern edge is the India-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction. It provides a commanding view of the Chumbi Valley.

With the Doklam Plateau under Bhutan’s control, it provides India with access to that view. At present, India has a “major terrain advantage” over China vis-à-vis the Chumbi Valley. Should China take control over the Doklam Plateau, India would lose this advantage of carrying out a strategic offensive or counteroffensive from Sikkim. Additionally, it would give China “a launch pad for an offensive through the Rangpo River valley towards Kalimpong” in India to threaten the Siliguri Corridor, India’s tenuous territorial link to its restive Northeast.

China’s interest in the Doklam Plateau stems from the strategic advantage it could gain in its border dispute with India. Its new claim over Sakteng is aimed at intimidating Bhutan into accepting the package deal — or face the consequences of Beijing’s rising territorial ambitions in the Himalayan kingdom.

The Sino-Bhutanese border dispute is complicated by the fact that it is entangled in the region’s geopolitics, the Sino-Indian border dispute, and India’s special relationship with Bhutan.

Bhutan is in a tricky situation. A landlocked country, it depends on India for access to the sea. The “special relationship” between Bhutan and India, which involves strong economic and strategic ties, is built upon the foundation of the 1949 Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship and the 2007 India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty that replaced it.

Under Article 2 of the 2007 treaty, the two countries have agreed to “cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests” and to desist from allowing their territory to be used “for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.” This means that Bhutan and India have to be mindful of each other’s security concerns. By extension it would require Bhutan to not act in a way that gives China a strategic advantage over India to the detriment of Indian national security.

Accepting the 1996 package deal would result in settled borders with China and pave the way for normal relations between Thimphu and Beijing. But it would require Bhutan to cede control over the Doklam Plateau to the Chinese, and this will not go down well in New Delhi.

By raising its claim over Sakteng, Beijing has indicated to Thimphu that it wants the border settled now and as per the package proposal.

It is also possible that China is eyeing Sakteng for its own strategic value.

The Sakteng sanctuary adjoins West Kameng district and Tawang disticts in India’s Arunachal Pradesh state. Its strategic value lies in its proximity to Arunachal Pradesh, where China claims around 90,000 sq km of Indian territory. Tawang, the major bone of contention between India and China in the eastern sector of their border dispute, lies to the northeast of the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary.

Control over Arunachal in general and Tawang in particular is critical to India’s defense of its Northeast region. Bum La, a key mountain pass, lies to the north of Tawang town and should China gain control over these, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could easily sweep into the Brahmaputra plains in the Northeast as they did during the 1962 war. Tawang also holds an important role in the history of Tibetan Buddhism. The Tawang monastery, the birthplace of the Sixth Dalai Lama, is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the world after the Potala Palace in Lhasa and has the largest repository of Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts. Gaining control over this monastery is important for China’s efforts to consolidate control over Tibet.

Has China articulated claims over the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary with an eye on Tawang?

According to reports in the Indian media, India plans to construct a road from Guwahati to Tawang via the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. The proposed road will shorten travel distance between Guwahati in Assam and Tawang by 150 km and reduce travel time between the two places from the current 15 hours to around 10 hours. This means that India will be able to mobilize faster its troops over land to the Line of Actual Control near Tawang.

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The Indian proposal for the road via Sakteng is not new. It is likely that the Bhutanese government has avoided giving its nod to the Indian plan as it would like to avoid drawing Beijing’s ire.

Chinese claims over Doklam and Sakteng are different in that the latter has not figured in Chinese maps or in border talks with Bhutan so far, while Doklam is a key issue in the Sino-Bhutanese territorial dispute. However, there are similarities. Doklam’s importance to Bhutan stems from its pasture land, vital for a country that is predominantly mountainous. Still, it is to India that the plateau has greater geostrategic value. Likewise, the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary’s proximity to Tawang makes it strategically more important to India than Bhutan.

As at Doklam, it is likely to be India and China rather than Beijing and Bhutan that could end up butting heads over the Sakteng area.