By: Vaishnavi Verma, Research Analyst, GSDN
The escalating tensions between China and India in recent years have resulted in an increased strategic significance of the nations located between them. Since their respective establishments in 1949 (in the case of the People’s Republic of China) and 1947 (for India), the two dominant countries have consistently pursued the establishment of a buffer zone between them. Numerous academics believe that the impetus for China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950 might be attributed to the pursuit of a sense of security and protection. Presently, the endeavors of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to exert influence on the democratic processes in Nepal have been effective in molding a government in Kathmandu that exhibits more receptiveness towards Beijing as opposed to New Delhi. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has also expanded its influence to oversee and repress the Tibetan people residing under its jurisdiction.
In recent months, China has directed its focus towards the eastern region to address the long-standing border conflict it has with the Kingdom of Bhutan. China is now seeking discussions with Bhutan to establish legal recognition of its territorial acquisitions along their shared border, a tactic that bears resemblance to China’s previous actions along its border with India and in the South China Sea.
The acquisition of the disputed Doklam plateau by China would grant Beijing unrestricted mobilization capabilities and additional access routes in the event of a potential military confrontation with New Delhi. Consequently, the discussions between China and Bhutan transcend mere bilateral concerns, instead forming an integral component of China’s strategic maneuvering aimed at securing a significant edge over India. The potential resolution between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the government of Bhutan could have significant implications for India, potentially jeopardizing regional peace and exacerbating the ongoing crisis along the Sino-Indian border. The matter necessitates careful consideration from New Delhi, as well as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an Indo-Pacific partnership comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.
China has worked hard to maintain a connection with Bhutan despite not having a diplomatic representation there. After an almost two-year hiatus, Beijing has escalated border dialogues this year, indicating increasing urgency. Thimphu, Bhutan hosted the latest conference in May 2023, months after Chinese and Bhutanese leaders met in Kunming. Bhutan and China have reached a mutual agreement to form a collaborative technical team and undertake coordinated measures to accelerate the execution of a ‘three-step roadmap’ aimed at facilitating the delineation of their respective borders. A joint press statement was published following the 13th expert group meeting (EGM) on the China-Bhutan problem, held in Beijing from August 21-24, 2023. This was the third expert group meeting this year.
China maintains territorial claims to about 764 square kilometers of land located in the northwestern and central areas of Bhutan. Originally, the dispute was part of border negotiations between India and China. However, direct dialogues between China and Bhutan were initiated in 1984. Since then, over 24 rounds of border talks and 12 rounds of expert-level meetings have taken place.
One of the significant results of the 13th Expert Group Meeting (EGM) is the formation of the Joint Technical Team on the Delimitation of the China-Bhutan Boundary. This team convened its first meeting at the 13th EGM. Additionally, both parties reached a consensus to promptly convene the next expert group meeting and sustain ongoing contact for the organization of the 25th Round of China-Bhutan Boundary Talks. The resumption of diplomatic negotiations between Chinese and Bhutanese officials is likely to have generated apprehension among India and the other nations in the Quad alliance. Following his official visit to Brussels in March, an interview conducted by the Belgian daily La Libre with Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering shed insight on his nation’s preparedness to address the continuing border dispute with China.
Nevertheless, the resolution of the boundary dispute between China and Bhutan is a complex undertaking. China now asserts its territorial claims over three distinct geographical areas, including Doklam in the western region, the revered Buddhist site of Beyul Khenpajong in the northern region, and the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in the eastern region. The inclusion of the wildlife refuge in Chinese requests only occurred in 2020, despite its geographical distance from the border. The aforementioned assertions exemplify Beijing’s lack of sincerity in negotiations, which has negatively impacted the ongoing discussions between the two nations since their commencement in 1984. The lack of progress in discussions between both parties, despite repeated meetings over an extended period, is apparent.
Since 1996, China has proposed a territorial swap with Bhutan, to renounce its claim to disputed territories in the northern area. In return, China seeks for Bhutan to cede land of greater strategic significance in the western region. Beijing regards Doklam as a strategic objective due to its location at the confluence of Tibet, Bhutan, and India, which would provide the Chinese People’s Liberation Army with a significant tactical benefit. To enhance the appeal of its offer, China acknowledged that the northern area in question had far more geographical expanse than the land it specifically requested. Despite the original offer showing promise, the negotiations in 1996 eventually failed to resolve.
Bhutan’s steadfast rejection of the agreement may have potentially compelled China to introduce the Sakteng claim, conveying a signal on the extent to which it is willing to assert its position. In recent times, China has intensified its use of coercive strategies and has chosen to employ innovative methods to achieve significant advancement. The series of events started with instances of border intrusions, which saw a substantial escalation throughout the 2000s, afterward leading to the rapid development of cross-border civilian and military infrastructure.
In recent years, China has established whole settlements inside the territorial boundaries of Bhutan. One notable example is Gyalaphug village, located in the northern Beyul area. Alongside the construction of extensive road networks, the Chinese government has also established administrative centres for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and other outposts to accommodate military, police, and other security personnel. The establishment of villages along the border is a component of a plan that was revealed by Beijing in 2017. This plan aims to create a total of 600 villages in the border regions of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), which is situated on the Chinese side of the contested boundary. Nevertheless, as stated in the aforementioned study, several communities are located inside the contested region. According to the Chinese foreign ministry in January 2023, the building project was primarily aimed at enhancing the local population’s working and living standards. Contrary to the claim made, it is evident that there exists a military aspect to their operations.
The primary aim of China is to enhance its authority over the contested regions and shift the trijunction about seven km towards the southern direction. The acquisition of a commanding vantage point over the strategically critical Siliguri Corridor would bestow a notable advantage on China. The Chinese government is exerting heightened pressure on Bhutan to negotiate a land exchange agreement aimed at resolving the border dispute between Bhutan and China, with the underlying objective of obtaining a strategic edge over India.
The large infrastructure development plan may appear to contradict China’s apparent preference for western regions, as seen by its readiness to trade developed land for settlements. However, this approach misinterprets the Chinese Communist Party’s genuine goal. The CCP appears to want to undermine Bhutan’s Buddhist culture rather than grab its territory for colonization.
The likelihood of Bhutan relinquishing control over the Beyul region, which holds significant cultural and religious significance, can be compared to the probability of Britain renouncing ownership of Stonehenge. The covert occupation is designed to exert pressure on the Bhutanese leadership, thereby increasing their willingness to engage in discussions regarding the future of Doklam. The situation of Doklam concerns three parties. Bhutan-India relations have been distinctive and noteworthy since the 1949 Treaty of Friendship. This pact gave India control over Bhutan’s diplomatic and military affairs. Despite the 2007 treaty relaxation, the two countries have maintained this strong connection. Chinese military troops and Indian soldiers clashed in 2017 over a Chinese route connecting Doklam to Tibet. The disputed land threatens India and China’s security. Doklam lies in the south and borders the Siliguri corridor, a short band of terrain that connects central India to the northeast. The road is the only way Indian armed troops can enter battlegrounds like Arunachal Pradesh, like during the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict. Last year saw the latest violent conflict between the two countries’ forces in this region.
The Chumbi Valley, located north of Doklam, has been frequently characterized as a Chinese intrusion into Indian territory. China perceives this ancient gateway to Tibet as susceptible to a pincer movement, wherein Indian troops could potentially launch simultaneous attacks from both Bhutan and India, thereby exploiting a vulnerability for China. China’s strategic objective of expanding its territorial claim by 89 square kilometers to the south of the Bhutan-India junction is aimed at securing a favorable position that may potentially be used for both offensive and defensive objectives in the event of a confrontation with India.
China’s increased haste in border discussions with Bhutan is not a vacuum. The China-India border conflict is intimately tied to the Doklam settlement. China claims Arunachal Pradesh as an extension of South Tibet, which is key to this issue. With Doklam, China might gain power over India, disrupting India’s access to the eastern part of their contentious border. The resolution may lead to further serious Chinese measures in Arunachal Pradesh, perhaps including the US.
The ramifications of the negotiations between China and Bhutan will exert significant influence on the prospects of peace along the China-India border, as well as on wider geopolitical tensions. Despite the increasing pace of discussions, China and Bhutan have not yet finalized a date for the highly significant 25th round of boundary talks, which holds the potential for a substantial breakthrough. From a Western perspective, it is evident that the United States and India are actively strengthening their bilateral relations. Given this trajectory, it seems increasingly likely that the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) will need to incorporate military cooperation as part of its framework. Given the significant implications involved, it is imperative for New Delhi to strongly encourage Thimphu to uphold the existing state of affairs in the Doklam region, despite the ongoing pressure exerted by Beijing.