Quietly nestled within the Himalayas’ eastern edge, the Kingdom of Bhutan exists as a peaceful country whose society, economy and politics have become the center of a border dispute between Asia’s two most powerful giants, China and India.
In 2008, the Bhutanese chose Prime Minister Jigme Thinley as its first democratically elected head of parliament, a move that reigning Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck saw as a “responsibility… of people to further strengthen the future of [the] country.”
Five years later, the government has completed its second round of democratic elections, where the incumbent Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) lost to the People’s Democratic Party. Moreover, the Bhutan Research group confirmed that 5,500 more people cast their vote to this year’s election as compared to 2008, further solidifying the country’s political transition. But just as it enters a new government, regional instability continues to pressure Bhutanese authority.
New development brings new problems
On June 26, The Times of India confirmed that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the Communist Party of China entered into Bhutan’s northeastern region and set up three military camps. According to intelligence reports, the PLA entered through the Sektang region in the east and Pang La in the north, and carried out a series of patrols along their shared border. For Bhutan, whose international policy resides in New Delhi, the recent imposition not only disputes its own sovereignty, but also that of India.
Now Bhutan faces a new challenge: to contend with China’s military advancement and maintain its national sovereignty, or to accept China’s aggressive maneuver as reality and weaken its economic and political ties with India. Both options, in the end, would push Bhutan against one of its neighbors and further intensify the Indo-Chinese relations of the region.
From past to present
Presently, Bhutan shares about 470 kilometers of its border with China, representing nearly 44 percent of its total border length. At the same time, both countries hold claims to over 4,500 square kilometers of land within Bhutan’s western and northern territory. In 1972, Bhutan began border talks with China under Indian aegis and continued in this way until 1984 when the latter demanded that India remove itself from the negotiation table. Four years later, China authoritatively took control over the Chumbi valley, which added to the growing tensions between the three.
During the 1990s, Bhutan and China continued negotiation bilaterally, and agreed in principle to trade a total of 764 square kilometers of land. The BBC reported the agreement in July of 1997, but when both countries met in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu, one month later, no final resolution was made. Included in the trade was the Doklam plateau and the Chumbi valley, two areas of great interest to China for they offer its military a “commanding view” of Indian defenses and “provide a launch pad to progress operations into the Siliguri Corridor,” according to the Centre for Land Warfare Studies.
Writing for the Bhutan News Service, Govinda Rizal writes, “Bhutan, alone cannot take decision to share this pie, since Doklam plateau and Chumbi valley are equally vital for India. Subsequent bilateral talks yielded no results.” But what did result in 1998 was the “Agreement on The Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility in the Bhutan-China Border Areas.”
Under the agreement, Bhutan and China agreed on five principles of “mutual respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity… mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence,” but still the border issue was not settled. In 2007, the Bhutanese government published a revised map, excluding its tallest mountain, Kula Kangri; not much was made of the issue in media and no response came from China. Referencing Google maps, Bhutan now displays three areas — the Doklam Plateau, Jakarlung and Pasamlung — outlined in red to represent disputed territories. Rizal believes that, “As long as China cannot have 100 sq km of Doklam in West, no other gift seems to please her.”
Today, China has border disputes with many of its 25 neighbors, and when Bhutan asked for pity from its sizable neighbor, the Chinese government stated that it could not make an exception for one particular country.
Through India’s lens
In 1949, Bhutan signed an official treaty with India which declared a peaceful co-existence and mutual respect for the other’s economic, political and social aspirations. In a 1958 speech in Paro, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru affirmed that despite his own country’s power and size, Bhutan “should remain an independent country, choosing [its] own way of life and taking the path of progress according to [its] will.” But still, under Article 2 of the Indo-Bhutanese treaty, the Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan is to be “guided by the advice of” the Government of the Republic of India in its international affairs.
Today, India’s influence in Bhutanese society is very much present. According to a 2008 Bloomberg report, India “accounts for 98 percent of its exports and 90 percent of its imports.” Moreover, travel blogger Bruce Einhorn writes, “The gas stations are Indian, the cars are Indian, the products in the stores come from India, the signs are in English to make things easier for Indian visitors.” In fact, written in the former ruling DPT’s manifesto, “Above all, India is our most dependable and generous development partner.”
But as many experts suggest, Bhutan’s recent political activities have given India cause for concern. In 2012, former Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigme Thinley met with former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in Rio de Janeiro, but commented that the affair was innocent. Later on, Thinley purchased a fleet of 20 buses from a Chinese motor vehicle company.
Journalist Sachin Parachar writes, “There’s a new anxiety in the top echelons of New Delhi… [as] senior officers recalled that Thinley had said months after taking over as PM that he only saw growing opportunities in China and no threat.”
One year later India responded to Bhutan’s new friendship by cutting subsidized gasoline and kerosene in early July. The Times of India reported that the Indian Oil Corporation admitted that it stopped shipment to Bhutan after government officials in New Delhi announced that they would no longer reimburse the subsidies of their supplied fuels. Almost immediately, former PM Thinley pleaded with India to reconsider their decision on behalf of Bhutan’s poor and, for their sake, India regressed on August 1, 2013.
With a new democracy in place, Bhutan has been strategically expanding its international reach beyond India since 2007 by establishing many diplomatic relationships within the region. But while the Indian government remains apprehensive, most experts agree that the issue is more about perception than reality.
On August 22, Bhutan and China participated in their 21st round of border talks in the former’s capital city, Thimphu. When asked about the upcoming meeting in early August, India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon replied, “We’ll do everything we can to support and provide assistance to Bhutan.”