It is said of Bhutan that it walks between giants. Its geo-strategic situation makes it a hugely important country, however. Sandwiched between India and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, it has succeeded admirably in preserving its national identity, its rich cultural and spiritual heritage, and in advancing the development of its people. Till the latest confrontation involving Chinese and Indian troops in the Doklam plateau in western Bhutan, the country has also avoided being drawn into any differences between India and China.
Bhutan and India have always celebrated their ties of “beneficial bilateralism”. Bhutan is closely tied to India in many ways, for the logic of geography for most Himalayan states, which include Nepal and Bhutan, dictates a southward direction of gravity away from the Inner Asian heartland. Historically, Bhutan it is true, had close links with Tibet, the Drukpa Buddhism it practices has Tibetan connections, but it has been very conscious of preserving its independent stature. Since the 1970’s particularly, it has built for itself a global diplomatic profile. The terms of the 1949 Friendship Treaty with India were distinctly softened in the one that replaced it in 2007 and it has pursued a dialogue with China regarding its boundary with Tibet, having held 24 rounds of such discussions so far. It is blessed with a progressive leadership, and the father of the present monarch- the “great Fourth” as he is known – an iconic figure in his country, led the way to Bhutan becoming a constitutional monarchy a few years ago.
Since 1960 at least, when instability in Tibet and worrisome signs of a Chinese expansionist interest in the status of Bhutan were seen as threats to the wellbeing of the country, the kingdom began to tie itself more closely, economically and strategically, with India. The borders with Tibet were closed and trade ceased. Ties with India were unique because of the seamless friendship, understanding, and multi-faceted partnership that developed between the two countries, and particularly between the monarchy and the political leadership in New Delhi.
But China waited in the wings and Bhutan’s northern borders were a constant reminder of future uncertainties in determining how to deal with an increasingly powerful and giant country. By 1984, negotiations on the unsettled border between the two countries had commenced. The Chinese goal was to see them end in the establishment of diplomatic relations with Bhutan and not just a border settlement.
On the primary Chinese goal, Bhutan’s top leadership remained conflicted although they were not averse to reaching a boundary settlement. Till date neither question has been resolved. Largely stable ties between India and China through these years were helpful also to Bhutan in managing this outreach to China.
Bhutan, although an independent country, falls very much within the strategic perimeter of India’s Himalayan security zone. By mutual agreement, India helps Bhutan when called to do so in the safeguarding of its security in the areas that border China. The western section of this border where the Chumbi Valley of Tibet juts into the trijunction area of Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan is one such very sensitive area from the strategic point of view, particularly for India in view of the close proximity to the Siliguri Corridor.
Such defence ties are part and parcel of the special relationship between India and Bhutan, one that China frowns upon saying that it only favours “proper” relations between the two countries (Zhou Enlai, 1960), implying that it does not accept any “special” relationships that India may have with neighbours. China’s own Himalayan strategy has focused on bringing countries like Nepal (and theoretically, Bhutan) into the zone of its influence especially since they border its soft underbelly in Tibet. In the 1950s and 1960s, China was reportedly inclined to work towards a Himalayan Federation that would include Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan and notionally, even Ladakh and the then North East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh).
Sandwiched between two Asian giants, India and China, some observers liken Bhutan to a “yam between two boulders”, a phrase originally used to describe Nepal’s situation. But Bhutan has been far more astute in managing its relationships with the outside world, especially India, than any other country in the region.
However, the rise of an economically powerful and militarily assertive China imposes a constricting burden on smaller states like Bhutan. Existential questions like how it is to continue to resist Chinese overtures (read pressure) to build a closer relationship including diplomatic ties loom large. What are the consequences of crafting such a modus vivendi?
A powerful, assertive China wishes to see Bhutan more connected with Tibet through roads, through trade, through cultural and people-to-people contact, and in the joint harnessing of water and other natural resources. This is its version of a China-controlled Tibet-centric Himalayan region that resonates with Chinese interests. Needless to say, the new China is not loath to take on India in this regard. It wishes to control the Himalayan piedmont.
The current standoff in Doklam in the region of the India-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction is the flare-up of a pre-existing condition. Tibetan grazers and Chinese troops have been regular intruders into the region and a similar, if not as confrontational, situation was witnessed in November 2007. But this time, the circumstances are different.
India’s relations with China have been under stress for some time now. The shadow boxing has only grown more intense over the NSG membership question, the listing of Pakistani terrorists like Masood Azhar, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, India’s non-participation in the Belt and Road Initiative Forum, and India’s ties with the United States and Japan.
China is signaling that it is now ready to throw down the gauntlet. That it is not ready any longer to countenance India as a determinant factor in Bhutan’s external relations. That it “needs” the widening and deepening of the Chumbi Valley’s southern salient with the expropriation of Doklam. That it is ready to gamble a largely normalized relationship with India as a price and threaten the Siliguri Corridor. That it is not averse to violating the implicit understanding (relating to all border trijunctions in international law and practice) that the trijunction point of the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet boundary should be decided through consultation between the three parties concerned (India, Bhutan, and China) and that pending this, the status quo should not be disturbed.
The harsh comments from China directed against India following the latest events in Doklam, would suggest that relations with China are entering a cold and wintry phase. India has done well to keep its official reaction to the situation restrained and measured. It is also the need of the hour to closely consult with Bhutan so as to understand how it feels the situation should be handled.
On the international front, both India and Bhutan need to engage in some deft public diplomacy to present their positions. Besides the military strategy involved, a diplomatic strategy to address the challenge from China is the need of the hour. India and Bhutan must reach out to their friends across the world.
Asia has been witness to China’s pursuit of territorial claims in the South China Sea with little regard for international law. Today, the Himalayan borderlands are also witness to similar actions by China that upset the status quo – actions that have triggered serious tensions and could result in conflict, endangering peace and security in the region. At the same time, the door on dialogue with China to bring down current tensions should not be closed even if China seems to have slammed it somewhat shut.
By doing so, India could set a powerful example for maturity and commonsense.