Medha Bisht on Understanding the China-Bhutan Boundary Dispute

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Medha Bisht on Understanding the China-Bhutan Boundary Dispute

“Territory is not being ceded by Bhutan. Rather, China has built a strong shi (strategic advantage) for itself by creating border infrastructure.”

Medha Bisht on Understanding the China-Bhutan Boundary Dispute

Ha Valley in western Bhutan, September 6, 2006.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Douglas J. McLaughlin

The Sino-Bhutanese border dispute goes back several decades. China lays claim to around 495 square kilometers in northcentral Bhutan and 269 sq km in western Bhutan. Since 2020, it has claimed another 740 sq km of territory in the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Bhutan. The territory claimed in western Bhutan includes the Doklam Plateau, which is of strategic significance to India.

There is mounting evidence, backed by satellite images, that China is engaging in building infrastructure inside Bhutanese territory. However, in an interview with the Belgian daily La Libre, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering said in March 2023 that “no intrusion as reported in the media” has happened into Bhutanese territory. That raised concern in India that Tshering is perhaps paving the way for Bhutan to cede territory to China to settle its border, which would weaken India’s security.

Medha Bisht, associate professor at the South Asian University in New Delhi, who is an expert on Bhutan and multistakeholder negotiations and dialogues, shared her insights on the complexities of the Sino-Bhutanese territorial dispute with The Diplomat’s South Asia editor, Sudha Ramachandran. Bisht draws attention to the different principles that guide India and China in demarcating boundaries. In the context of the China-Bhutan border at the trijunction, China wants Mount Gipmochi to determine where the border runs, but India and Bhutan want the boundary line to run from Batangla to Merugla and Sinchula, which would shift the China-Bhutan border at the trijunction farther north.

The Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering recently said that there are three countries – India, Bhutan, and China – that have an equal say in resolving the border dispute. He also said that Bhutan and China will demarcate boundaries in “one or two meetings.” Is this possible?

Tshering’s statement about three countries having an equal say in the border dispute reinforces the Indian diplomatic positions relating to the Doklam trijunction that India is a legitimate stakeholder in the Bhutan-China boundary negotiations. Before 2017, New Delhi’s official position was that the Sino-Bhutanese boundary negotiations were a bilateral issue between Bhutan and China. But this is no longer the case as India’s former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj played a proactive role in framing and articulating the Indian position over border points which have a trijunction character. According to this position, the Ministry of External Affairs has referred to the 2012 Agreement with China to emphasize that at trijunction boundary points shared between China, India, and a third country, the border will be finalized in consultation with all concerned countries.

In this context, given that India is an interested actor in the settlement of boundary disputes at specific points such as at the Doklam trijunction, it is unlikely that the boundary will be demarcated in one or two meetings.

Having said this, Tshering’s statement indicates that China and Bhutan have completed the demarcation and joint surveys of their border areas. So, if all interested parties – China, Bhutanm and India – reach a consensus, then the border dispute can be resolved.

However, India and China have different perspectives with regard to the geographic principles that should define where the boundary should run.

You have written about “two broad principles guiding the demarcations of borders in the Himalayas.” Could you explain these principles in the context of the Sino-Bhutanese border dispute? Where do India, Bhutan, and China stand with regard to these principles?

There are two ways to understand these principles: legal and political. Where the former draws from the established framework of international law, the latter draws from the precedents established by Chinese practice. Previously, I talked about the legal perspective. Let me focus on the practical aspect associated with these principles here.

There is some published work that throws light on understanding Chinese practice and how China has approached the question of continental and Himalayan rivers. Former Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s “The Fractured Himalayas” provides some insights in this regard. She writes that while China believes that geographical principles like river valleys and mountain passes should apply to the definition of the boundary along with the watershed, India believes that the boundary should be demarcated around the principles of the highest watershed.

In the case of the Bhutan-China border, we see that by citing the 1890 Convention, China has claimed the crest of the mountain range, which separates the water flowing into Tibet and Bhutan as the boundary between Bhutan and China. India on its part has claimed the highest line of the mountains separating the river as the boundary line. Based on these positions, for China, Mount Gipmochi is the starting point for drawing the border between Bhutan and China, and for India, the principle of the highest watershed, which follows the peaks of Batangla, Merugla, and Sinchula, should form the border separating Bhutan and China. (Gipmochi peak is 4,425 meters above the mean sea level while the Merugla and Sinchula passes lie at an altitude of 4,640 meters and 4,429 meters, respectively).

If you see, India has maintained its past boundary-making practices of the highest watershed, which identifies the territory with a concerned watershed, and where the boundary is determined by the highest elevation surrounding that particular lake or river segment. India and Bhutan’s position that the boundary line should follow from Batangla to Merugla and Sinchula would push the Chinese borders further north.

Thus, if both Bhutan and India are on the same page, then the boundary should be demarcated at the highest elevation. However, the recent statements that there is no trace of Chinese encroachment into Bhutanese territory creates a specific mismatch here.

You have drawn attention to Chinese practices. Could you elaborate on this?

The Chinese understanding of change is patterned and gradualistic. This suggests that one should recognize patterns in Chinese thinking. Understanding this is important because through this process dynamic transformational energy is created. Sun Tsu’s “Art of War” is informed by such dialectics, which focuses on holistic not dualist thinking.

A good way to understand this is to see how the Chinese operate on the ground in making territorial claims. Going by the specific case of China-Bhutan engagement, if one analyzes China’s approach to the Sino-Bhutanese border negotiations, engagement (both verbal and non-verbal, such as the infrastructure build-up) has been the key to transforming the Himalayan space.

When I try to understand the two legal principles of the highest watershed and the Thalweg doctrine from a Chinese perspective of practice, my analysis suggests that China has blurred the difference between the two. The Pangda villages being built around the western banks of the Amochu River are suggestive of this. Significantly, the Amochu flows next to Mount Gipmochi, the point that China claims should be the boundary between Bhutan and China. This is not surprising, as this starting point gives China potential strategic and economic advantage to China around the trijunction area. It is important to understand the dynamism and fluidity in Chinese strategic thinking. Interestingly India too has its own strategic tradition of dialectics, which should be researched to understand the nuances of Asian dialectics.

The Chinese and Bhutanese delegations at the 11th Expert Group Meeting (EGM) on the Bhutan-China Boundary Issues, which was held in Kunming, China from January 10-13, 2023. Credit: Facebook/ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade, Royal Government of Bhutan

“There is no intrusion as mentioned in the media,” Tshering said in the interview. Is he preparing the ground for ceding territory to the Chinese?

Conversations around “ceding territory” belittle the finer aspects associated with small-state diplomacy. The manner in which Bhutan has negotiated its space for maintaining cultural, political, and territorial sovereignty gets obliterated through such discourses.

I believe that rather than using the term “ceding territory,” which dilutes the political and diplomatic journey of India-Bhutan relations and Bhutan’s own small state diplomacy, one should understand the grand strategic design that China has invested itself in. What I am trying to highlight here is that for strategic foresight, one needs to be informed by strategic hindsight. It will be more useful to understand China’s grand strategic design stemming from its own domestic and external environment, and how this process has impacted India and Bhutan’s northern borders.

Against this backdrop, China’s western development strategy, which was articulated in 2000, becomes important. The idea behind this strategy was to focus and revive the centrality of Tibet as a focal point in the Himalayan region.

In 2017-2018, following the Doklam stand-off, the Indian news channel NDTV India provided extensive coverage of a Chinese infrastructural complex around Doklam. Indeed, China was already creating the ground for this from 2004, when it was engaged in infrastructure building here, even as it was engaging in boundary negotiations with Bhutan.

Significantly, by 2016 both countries had completed joint surveys in the disputed sectors. The Doklam stand-off reflects that China had made claims on the ground, which only had to be formalized through negotiations. Thus, the question of “ceding territory” is not a stand-alone event, but a process for analyzing the Chinese practice of creating shi, which is a Chinese word and in strategic terms can be translated as dynamic power or the strategic advantage which an actor generates for itself.

So, in my view, the territory has not been ceded by Bhutan. Rather, China has built a strong shi for itself by creating border infrastructure. This gives the impression that Bhutan has ceded the territory.

There is apprehension in India that Bhutan will accept the package deal that China offered it in 1996.

The term package deal is a story of the past in the context of Sino-Bhutan boundary negotiations. However, the term is instructive for understanding Chinese negotiating strategy. The Chinese do not start with extreme positions; rather they often start with reasonable solutions. The package deal offered by the Chinese to Bhutan in 1996 is an example of this.

As per the package deal, China proposed an exchange of around 495 sq km in northcentral Bhutan with around 269 sq km of western Bhutan. It was only after Bhutan rejected this idea that Chinese infrastructure-building activities started in the first decade of the 21st century and both countries decided to go for multiple rounds of boundary talks and joint technical surveys.

During discussions in the National Assembly about Chinese activity along Bhutan’s western sector, Bhutanese NA representatives expressed concern over encroachment by Chinese soldiers and grazers into pastoral areas, which belonged to Bhutan. NA debates in Bhutan reveal that by 2006 China had built six roads in the northern and northwestern areas of Bhutan. In 2010, the Bhutan government issued a statement that it had reservations over the roadbuilding activities, bringing to light incursions by the People’s Liberation Army in 2008-2009.

Why is Bhutan important to China? Should India be worried about Bhutan moving closer to China?

The reality of Bhutan changed in the 1950s, when China annexed Tibet, and Chinese borders shifted farther south. Safeguarding territorial integrity and national security became Bhutan’s top priority concern. One of the ways through which Bhutan adapted to this changing external environment was to cultivate a unique political culture, and stop all traditional economic interaction with Tibet, even if it was important to Bhutan.

As for why Bhutan is important for China, being its immediate neighbor to the south China would want to have and revive relations with Bhutan, which existed in the past. China’s primary motivation stems from Bhutan’s geographical location; some border points are of strategic importance to China for economic and security reasons.

This is not surprising as in the Himalayas, mountain passes and river valleys have played the role of connecting one subregion with another. Borderlands in South Asia thus have an important historical agency for understanding the social and cultural connectivity of the region. However, post-1950s, as these borderlands got securitized and bureaucratized, the formal trade between countries slowed to a great extent as new entry and exit points were identified.

Bhutan’s boundary crosses points that are of strategic importance to India too. Both India and China have not resolved their border issues with each other. In recent years, border skirmishes have increased, suggesting their divergent approaches when it comes to resolving border points. The Doklam trijunction is a case in point here.

China’s laying claim to territory in the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary since 2020 has added another dimension of the eastern sector to the China-Bhutan boundary issue. The wildlife sanctuary is in close proximity to the Tawang Monastery in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. China has already declared parts of Arunachal Pradesh as disputed. India has been a tough negotiator for China. Gaining leverage by claiming border points in Bhutan is the second-best option for China. By shifting its borders farther south in Bhutan’s northwest and southeast sectors, China endangers Bhutan’s strategic agency in the long term. This could also lead to a rise in border skirmishes between China and India.

The question, therefore, is not whether Bhutan would move closer to China but the kind of leverage which China is cultivating and creating on its stated claims.