This article seeks to examine the growing strategic and diplomatic importance of Bhutan for its big neighbours: China and India. China has recently intensified its efforts to woo Bhutan and engage with it directly, despite the lack of diplomatic ties between them.
To improve relations with Bhutan, China first has to resolve its border dispute with the tiny Himalayan nation. China shares a 470-km-long border with Bhutan. The border is not formally demarcated and the border dispute is a major source of irritant between the two countries that hasn’t been resolved even after they have had 19 rounds of talks so far. China claims a large chunk of the border territories, stretching from Doklam in the west and then from Gamochen to Batangla, Sinchela, and down to the Amo Chhu. The disputed area in Doklam covers 89 square kilometers, while the disputed areas in Sinchulumpa and Gieu cover about 180 sq kms. Frequent Chinese incursions into Bhutan have added to tensions in Sino-Bhutan relations.
Five Finger Policy
The Chinese hard power juggernaut is moving in all directions and not even tiny neighbors are out of its ambit these days. In the latest instance of China’s hyper active diplomacy, Beijing is vigorously pursuing one finger of its so-called “five finger policy” – Bhutan. The other four fingers are Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh (both parts of India), Nepal and Sikkim; while the palm is Tibet. The Chinese objectives in Bhutan, a country with which it has been having a protracted border dispute, pose a major foreign policy and security challenge for India.
China has played its most important diplomatic card vis a vis Bhutan till date by proposing an exchange formula to resolve the vexed border dispute. With an eye on fortifying its position on Tibet, China has proposed to Bhutan to cede a part of its northwestern territory in lieu of which Beijing would give up its claim over Bhutan’s central areas.
The area that China wants Bhutan to cede is very close to Chumbi Valley, a tri-junction abutting Bhutan, Tibet and the Indian state of Sikkim and a highly strategic area perceived as militarily vulnerable for the Chinese as the British colonialists had used this as a gateway to launch their military expedition in Tibet in 1904. The British had occupied this area for nine months then.
The Chinese had first made this package deal offer to the Bhutanese in 2004. Latest indications are that Beijing is once again pushing the envelope at a time when China and Bhutan are on the verge of setting up diplomatic relations.
Both sides have agreed at the highest level to have full-fledged diplomatic relations for the first time ever after an unprecedented meeting between Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and his Bhutanese counterpart Jigmi Y. Thinley on the margins of United Nation Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil in June 2012.
China’s idea is to resolve its border dispute with Bhutan in one stroke through a package deal, rather than through the sector-by-sector approach that it has so far been having not only with Bhutan but with India too. Interestingly, China had resolved its border dispute with Nepal through a package deal only, not through the laborious sector-by-sector approach.
The Indian worry is manifold. First, Bhutan has of late shown its keenness to improve relations with China and the pro-China lobby in Bhutan is getting stronger by the day. India is understood to have given its tacit approval to Bhutan establishing full diplomatic relations with China, not because New Delhi was being magnanimous but because there was hardly any other option before India’s Bhutan policy managers.
Secondly, Bhutan has consistently kept India out of the loop in matters of its talks with China. Though there is nothing on the ground to suggest that Bhutan is going to play the China card with India – a tactic that Nepal has employed with India for decades – Indian foreign policy czars cannot firmly rule out such a scenario in future.
Thirdly, Bhutan doing China’s bidding on the border issue would trigger a security nightmare for India as the northwestern Bhutanese territory in question, if ceded to China, would bring Chinese troops within a few kilometers of India’s chicken neck area, the Siliguri corridor that connect India’s mainland with the Northeastern India.
So far Bhutan has enjoyed extremely good relations with India and the two neighbors share a relationship wherein their citizens do not require visas to visit each other’s country. India is the major propeller of Bhutan’s economy and has been a bulwark for Bhutan’s security. In fact, during the 1962 Sino-India war, Bhutan had permitted India to move its troops through the Bhutanese territory. No wonder then that Bhutan is the only country in South Asia that doesn’t have diplomatic relations with China.
The evolving Bhutan-China synergy is perhaps more significant, and doable, than the Pakistan-Russia synergy that showed signs of germination a few years ago but did not quite take off. The Sino-Bhutan dalliance may gather full steam in the near future. After all, the Chinese have been immensely successful in wooing India’s next door neighbors: Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives and Nepal. With Nepal particularly, the Chinese success strike rate has been phenomenal. Beijing’s move to build a highway right up to Mount Everest base camp is no less than a diplomatic and strategic coup.
Roadmap For Future
However, now that Bhutan is modernizing and opening up its economy like never before, India has to be in sync with the changing times. The best way to do it is not to resist the inevitable but to make things all the more difficult for the rival. In the changed circumstances, while India does not have the luxury of shaping Bhutan’s foreign policy anymore, New Delhi is still not without an option.
India can counter China in Bhutan by doing the next best thing: ensuring that the Bhutanese diplomatic space is opened to other foreign powers to achieve a strategic balance. Japan is one power that is waiting in the wings. It is not surprising that Tokyo has already announced its intent to open its own diplomatic mission in Thimpu by 2014.
One should not be surprised if the two developments – establishment of diplomatic relations between Bhutan and China and Bhutan and Japan – take place concurrently. Once that happens, the United States and other Western powers will not be far behind.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)