China-Bhutan Relations: Implications For Indian Security – Analysis

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By Teshu Singh

In a historic congregation Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and his Bhutanese counterpart Mr. Jigmi Y. Thinley held their first meeting on the sidelines of United Nation Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil. The meeting has raised few questions as to why is China interested in Bhutan, especially now despite the long impending boundary dispute. Why has there been a strategic shift in Bhutan’s foreign policy? What are the overall implications of this development on Indian security?

Sino-Bhutan Relations

Bhutan - China Relations

Bhutan – China Relations

Bhutan forms one of the fingers of China’s five finger policy. China considers Tibet as the ‘palm consisting of five fingers policy’ namely, Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. This exemplifies the importance of Bhutan in Chinese foreign policy. China has always been keen on maintaining good relations with its Asian neighbors – ‘periphery countries’ (zhoubian goujia). The peripheral policy forms the core of China’s external strategy. Relations with these countries help to avoid external instabilities that may cause any internal frictions. China needs a peaceful and stable periphery for its ‘Peaceful Development/Rise’.

The PRC has outlined its plan of extending the railway network from Lhasa to Zangmu on the Nepal border. According to this blueprint, yet another line will branch out midway from the line at Shigatse. This line will move east and go up to Yadong, at the mouth of Chumbi Valley- strategically located at the tri –junction of India-China-Bhutan.

Bhutan has been a strong ally of India and has refrained from establishing relations with China. It was concerned over the takeover of Tibet in 1950 and was anxious that its sovereignty would be compromised because of Chinese claims to Bhutan as part of a greater Tibet. This had led to the closure of the Tibetan-Bhutanese border in the north.

Boundary Dispute and its implications on Indian Security

Bhutan is the only country in South Asia which does not have diplomatic relations with China. Bilateral relations have remained strained because of the dispute over their 470km border. It has four disputed areas that stretch from Dhoklam in the west, Charithang, Sinchulimpa and Dramana pasture land. China is claiming maximum territory in the western sector that is close to the tri-junction of Bhutan, China and India for strategic purposes. It has offered Thimphu a deal: it wants Bhutan’s northwestern areas in exchange for recognizing Bhutan’s control over the central areas. In 2004, the Bhutanese National Assembly discussed the issue of sector exchange. Bhutan did not make India party to these deliberations. This has raised ambiguity in India vis-a-vis this sector. (Chinese border settlement with Nepal was through a package deal rather than through sector-by- sector settlement.) The PRC wants Bhutan to compromise on the Chumbi valley.

Any development in the tri-junction is a matter of concern for India. The region is close to India’s ‘chicken’s–neck: the Siliguri corridor which links the north-east passage. The move has alarmed New Delhi because it will bring the Chinese forces within a few kilometres of the Siliguri Corridor which connects the rest of India with the Northeast and Nepal with Bhutan. Chumbi Valley is of equal strategic significance to China because of its shared border with Tibet and Sikkim. Any development in the Chumbi valley that alters the status quo in Beijing’s favour will have serious bearings on India. Until now, 19 rounds of boundary talks between China and Bhutan have failed to solve the dispute because of its close ties with India.

Bhutan has largely toiled under the influence of India. India-Bhutan relations were revised in 2007 and now it is more of an equal relation. This was followed by Bhutan’s turn to parliamentary democracy. As democracy started taking ground, special ties with India have been questioned. Thus to neutralize its relationship, Bhutan has started turning towards China. There is a section in Bhutan that is thinking of opening similar points for China to maintain equilibrium vis-a-vis India. Perhaps, Bhutan is trying to come out of India’s shadow and seeks to play a more dynamic role internationally.

Having been an agriculture and forestry based economy; Bhutan has recently opened up its economy. Chinese companies have been given contract to construct the world’s tallest Buddha Statue in Thimphu. Beijing is exporting farming and telecommunication equipment and has also offered to invest in projects related to health and education services. Unquestionably, China is an attractive source of investment. However, Chinese investment in any country comes with its own terms and conditions – they bring in their own workers and equipment. As a result, the benefits of development are not enjoyed by the local communities. However, this is not the case with Indian investment.

Until now, Bhutan has never played its China card. Today, the security of Bhutan is vulnerable. Japan has announced that it will open its own diplomatic mission in Thimpu by 2014. Bhutan is no more a protectorate of India and is steadily moving towards China. Thus any policy towards Bhutan, therefore, will have to be carefully calibrated.

Teshu Singh
Research Officer, IPCS
email:[email protected]

IPCS

IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

7 thoughts on “China-Bhutan Relations: Implications For Indian Security – Analysis”

  1. Teshu, your conclusion are based on factors which do not determine your conclusion in this case. Your historical analysis cannot act as exogenous factor to determine the result. People are going to the moon via space tourism for holidays; technology has taken over the 19 th century living forms. Cancer treatments are delivered online though chip placement in patient body, cells from rat’s heart and plastics have enabled to developed water life forms, countable DNA make create life. All this possibilities of creation are for for inventing threat perceptions. Small size does not matter any more. GDP of Singapore is more han GDP of India. India has. My suggestion is that your findings are not ever basic understanding level, forget calling it research result. Instead, I suggest u to help you fellow people get out of poverty, caste system, terrorist mentality; so that u and people are educated. Beware, u might get more than you wanted. People in Bhutan are thinking hard, and thinking intelligently.

  2. Dorje, do not act arrogantly: “Get out of poverty” “terrorist” sounds same as the CCP uses! It is scaring how people change their attitude, when they get greedy.
    Om Mani Padme Hung -^-

  3. china committed to peace and provent its benefits; so that is Fake Topics .Friendship between China and Bhutan will not hurt anyone’s interests. China wants to be Bhutan’s amiable and trustworthy friend. We want to extend a hand of friendship and work together with Bhutan for the benefit of our two people.

  4. fellowbhutanese be quoted:
    Bhutan should consider diplomatic relation with PRC inorder to boast the economic development. PRC is the world’s second largest and the fastest growing economy and a bilateral relation with it is necessary for Bhutan. We should always keep options on table, biased relation with india will never be enough to achieve the desired economic growth for Bhutan. We should stop depending on india to decide on our foreign relations and make our own foreign policy for the betterment of our country. I know a suggestion for diplomatic relation with china will always face controversy from within and outside the country. But our fellow Bhutanese should do away with the traditional concept of communist china trying to take over Bhutan and look forward to PRC as a development partner. No country in the present world can survive a sustained economic prosperity without trade relations with china not even the US. So it is more necessary to bring up a good agreement on both trade and security with PRC. As a educated citizen of Bhutan i would like to urge all the fellow Bhutanese to support our governments initiative to establish diplomatic ties with our highly valuable neighbor china.

  5. The 20th round of boundary talks with the government of the People’s Republic of China is scheduled for August 10 in the capital.
    The vice minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ms Fu Ying, will be leading an eight-member delegation from the People’s Republic of China, who are expected to arrive in the capital on August 9.

    Economic affairs minister, who is also the minister-in-charge of foreign affairs Khandu Wangchuk will lead the Bhutanese delegation for the boundary talks.

    International boundaries secretary Dasho Pema Wangchuk, foreign secretary Yeshey Dorji and officials from the foreign affairs ministry and International Boundaries Secretariat will also be present at the talk.

    The 19th round of boundary talks was held in the capital in January 2010.

    During the intervening period two meetings were held, that of the third Expert Group Meeting (EGM) in Beijing in July 2010 and an informal meeting of the expert group in Hong Kong in November 2011.

    The boundary talks between the two nations are based on the Four Guiding Principles agreed to in 1988 and the 1998 agreement on the maintenance of peace and tranquillity in the Bhutan-China border areas.

  6. Warming up to our north There has been so much speculation by foreign policy hawks on Sino-Bhutan relations and Indo-Bhutan relations ever since the Bhutanese prime minister met the Chinese premier on the sidelines of the Rio Summit on June 21 this year.

    But the meeting was historic, because it was the first time ever the heads of the two countries had formally met. Otherwise, official meetings between the two countries have always centred on border talks. The 20th one in the past 28 years., is to take place today in Thimphu.

    The vice foreign minister, Fu Ying, who is leading the Chinese delegation to the talks, has explicitly expressed China’s desire to “build bridges of friendship and cooperation” with Bhutan. This has expectedly excited a certain section of the Bhutanese populace, who are eager to explore beyond the northern boundaries offered by the mighty Himalayas.

    Sandwiched between two huge nations, Bhutan has always been referred to as a buffer state, providing some kind of relief from past tensions that perhaps still linger.

    Others see Druk Yul’s geopolitical location between two of the fastest growing economies in the world as very advantageous from a development and economic point of view. Why should Druk Yul not take advantage of its strategic positioning and ride the waves of the “Asian renaissance”? That is the key question many Bhutanese are asking today.

    But , as analysts have repeatedly pointed out, Bhutan values its relationship with India that has been carefully nurtured and evolved with the changing times to suit the needs and interests of the two countries.

    Whether India had its own interests in mind or not is a matter of speculation, but she did come to Bhutan’s help when a lot was happening beyond its northern frontiers more than half a century ago. Bhutan has grown and prospered with India and its economic fortunes for the future are also closely tied with that of India.

    The perception is that, at the official level, Bhutan does not want to do anything that might antagonise its good friend and most important development partner.

    Quite a few are inclined to refer to Nepal’s experience in the mid to late ‘80s, when an economic blockade by India left the country short of essentials from fossil fuel to salt. This happened because Nepal did something that infuriated India.

    But many also believe that Bhutan-India relations, which are based on mutual respect and trust, are much more mature than to lead to such unwarranted situations.

    India and China themselves have diplomatic ties and trade between them is expanding quickly. So Bhutan expanding friendly relations with China is perhaps a very normal thing to do.

    Bhutan’s foreign policy decision makers may have their own priorities unbeknownst to the regular folks. What Bhutan decides should be her independent decision as a sovereign nation wedged between two great civilisations.

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