By: Harshit Tokas, Research Analyst, GSDN
The recent visit of Bhutan’s top diplomat to Beijing has ignited a complex geopolitical situation, placing the tiny Himalayan kingdom in an uncomfortable spotlight. Nestled between two Asian giants, China and India, Bhutan has long been recognized for its special ties with New Delhi. However, this historic relationship faces a potential paradigm shift as Bhutan engages in diplomatic overtures with China. The visit, which included boundary talks and discussions on establishing formal diplomatic ties, raises significant concerns in India and has broader implications for regional geopolitics.
Bhutan’s geographical location, sandwiched between China and India, has made it a crucial player in the geopolitical landscape of South Asia. Despite its small size, the kingdom’s unique position has made it a focal point for its neighbors’ strategic interests. Bhutan, unlike any other country in Asia, has refrained from formal diplomatic relations with Beijing, maintaining a distinctive closeness to New Delhi. However, the recent developments indicate a potential shift in this traditional stance.
The heart of the ongoing negotiations between Bhutan and China lies in the unresolved border issues, particularly the disputed tri-junction on the Doklam plateau, involving China, Bhutan, and India. The Doklam region gained international attention in 2017 when a tense 73-day standoff occurred between Chinese and Indian troops. The strategic importance of Doklam for India, especially its proximity to the Siliguri Corridor, adds layers of complexity to the situation.
During the recent talks in Beijing, Bhutanese Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji received a warm reception, signifying potential progress in border negotiations. The signing of a cooperation agreement on delimitation and demarcation of the boundary is viewed as a breakthrough. These developments, coupled with expressions of willingness to establish diplomatic ties, underscore a notable warming of relations between Bhutan and China.
China’s outreach to Bhutan extends beyond economic considerations, reflecting broader strategic ambitions. The potential establishment of an embassy in Thimphu would mark a significant departure from Bhutan’s historical aversion to big-power politics. The complex dynamics of allowing China into Bhutan’s diplomatic sphere raise questions about the kingdom’s autonomy and its ability to navigate the delicate balance between its powerful neighbors.
Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, seen as a China-friendly figure, has acknowledged the theoretical inevitability of bilateral relations with China. This acknowledgment, coupled with discussions about a possible land swap involving the strategically crucial Doklam area, indicates a nuanced shift in Bhutan’s foreign policy. The three-step road map on boundary delineation, agreed upon in 2021, includes demarcation talks, on-ground site visits, and formal boundary demarcation.
For India, Bhutan’s traditional ally, these developments raise significant concerns. The fate of Doklam has been highlighted as one of India’s red lines regarding Bhutan’s ties with China. The potential normalization of diplomatic relations between Bhutan and China, combined with progress on the border dispute, challenges India’s strategic interests in the region. The sensitive nature of Doklam, particularly its proximity to the Siliguri Corridor, adds a layer of complexity to India’s response.
In an editorial, The Hindu emphasized that the fate of Doklam represents one of India’s red lines in Bhutan’s engagement with China. New Delhi’s wariness about a possible border settlement and formal diplomatic ties between Beijing and Thimphu reflects the delicate regional geopolitics, where India has historically played a significant role.
The unfolding events in Bhutan carry broader implications for regional stability and the international system. The potential realignment of Bhutan’s foreign policy challenges established norms, especially concerning territorial disputes between smaller and larger neighbors. The outcome of Bhutan’s diplomatic engagements could reshape perceptions of China’s influence in South Asia and beyond.
The Doklam plateau, strategically positioned near the “Chicken’s Neck” holds immense significance for India’s security architecture. Any alteration in the territorial status quo, particularly involving a potential land swap, could have seismic implications for regional stability. The strategic importance of Doklam, highlighted during the 2017 standoff, adds a layer of complexity to the ongoing negotiations.
As Bhutan navigates the delicate balance between China and India, diplomatic nuances become crucial. The skepticism surrounding an imminent border settlement reflects the distrust and complexities involved. Tshering and Dorji’s assurances that no agreement will be made against India’s interests emphasize the continued significance of India’s role in the tri-junction matter at Doklam.
The possibility of a diplomatic agreement between China and Bhutan raises questions about the involvement of India in the negotiation process. The tri-junction area, involving all three parties – Bhutan, China, and India, requires consent from each for any deal to be reached. The resolution of the border dispute, if achieved, could potentially ease tensions between China and India, contributing to a positive regional development.
The evolving dynamics between Bhutan, China, and India underscore the intricate nature of geopolitical relations in South Asia. Bhutan’s delicate balancing act, historically leaning towards India, now faces the complexities of engaging with an assertive China. As negotiations progress and the potential for a diplomatic breakthrough loom, the geopolitical implications extend far beyond Bhutan’s borders.
The Doklam plateau, with its historical significance and strategic positioning, symbolizes the challenges and sensitivities of the region. India’s role as a regional power and Bhutan’s longstanding ties with New Delhi add layers of complexity to the unfolding narrative. The outcome of these diplomatic maneuvers will not only shape the future of Bhutan’s foreign policy but will also reverberate across the broader canvas of regional and international relations.