-By- Ranjit Kumar
There has been a flurry of high-level consultations in recent weeks between India and Bhutan leading up to summit level talks in the first week of April. In the backdrop of 24th round of Bhutan China boundary talks hosted by China in Kunming in mid- January, which was indicated to be on positive direction by both the Chinese and Bhutanese officials, as both sides agreed to meet for the 25th round of border talks, to be held soon in Thimphu. This prompted Indian foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra to rush to Thimphu to get a sense of the talks between China and Bhutan.
Indian officials appeared to be contended with the progress in Bhutan China dialogue. But the late March interview comment to a Belgian Daily by the Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Sherring created some sort of controversy. His statement that all the three countries India, Bhutan and China have equal say in resolving the Doklam dispute, raised hornet’s nest in Indian strategic circles.
About a week after this controversial comment, there was a surprise visit by the King of Bhutan in the first week of April, during which he received a very warm welcome from the top Indian leaders. During this visit the King is reported to have assured the Indian leadership that Bhutan will not allow Indian security interests to be adversely impacted by any rapprochement between China and Bhutan.
Like India, Bhutan has been engaging with China bilaterally to resolve the border issues. During these talks China is reported to have offered a very lucrative deal of exchanging Doklam with an area double of this in the northern borders with China. If Bhutan accepts this offer Doklam will be controlled by China, which will allow the communist country easy access to Jampheri ridge, overlooking the narrow Siliguri corridor connecting India with North East.
On the other hand, if Bhutan rejects this offer, the tiny hill nation of only eight lakhs will run the risk of living under constant threat of Chinese military incursions on its territory, which will compromise Bhutan’s peace and tranquility and compel the country to live in a state of tense relations with China. From the Bhutanese perspective the Chinese offer seems to be generous, but being conscious of its big brother India’s security concerns, which has done a lot for the all- round development of the tiny nation, Bhutan has been ignoring Chinese offer initially made almost two decades ago.
Just a week after 24th round of talks, the 18-20 January visit of Indian Foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra to Bhutan drew attention of the strategic observers, as China has been stretching border negotiations for over three decades since 1984, almost parallel to Sino-Indian border talks, which also commenced in 1983. Though foreign offices in Thimphu and New Delhi attributed the visit to the meeting of India -Bhutan border development talks, observers drew obvious conclusion that visit was intended to get a sense of the outcome of the latest Bhutan China border talks held in Kunming on 13th January.
The Joint statement of Bhutan and China, after the border talks, had said that both sides have reached a positive consensus and decided to push forward border talks under the three-step roadmap, the contours of which has not yet been delineated publicly. The agreement had said that this roadmap would provide a fresh impetus to border talks. According to the joint statement both sides agreed to simultaneously push forward all the steps of three step roadmap. Both sides also agreed to increase the frequency of the expert group meetings and to keep contact through diplomatic channels on holding of the 25th round of China Bhutan border talks as soon possible. Till now 11 round of expert group meetings and 24 rounds of border talks have failed to reach any concrete agreement.
The principal concern in India is that if Bhutan succumbs to Chinese pressure to resolve the boundary issue based on Chinese proposals or conditions not only Indian security interests would be hugely compromised but also China might try later to influence Bhutan. In that case India would lose a buffer between India and China.
China is already trying to build its constituency in Bhutan and voices have started to emerge in some sections of Bhutanese polity that Bhutan should settle the issues with China and move forward towards greater integration with the rest of the world, which will promote its national interests much better. This view is putting pressure on Bhutanese foreign policy on having a special relationship with India. Though Bhutan says that it has neutral relations with China, domestic developments like changing economy and transition from an absolute monarchy to a democracy, a generational shift and their exposure to the internet and factors like China’s rise as an economic and military power will have a bearing on Bhutan’s foreign policy.
As India has signed Treaty of friendship with Bhutan in 1949, both neighbors give importance to Special relationship. Not to antagonize India, Bhutan maintains a distance with China and due to this has not yet agreed to have diplomatic relations with its gigantic neighbor. India has also taken care to look after Bhutan’s economic and security interests. It is well known that India provides security support to Bhutan. Though China has very often offered grants and loans to Bhutan, but the landlocked country has refused.
Through Bhutan, China following the strategy of pressurizing Bhutan to accept its boundary proposals of swapping its territories in Doklam, with territories on the northern side claimed by China. Second, If China gets control over Doklam, PLA would be able to gain strategic dominance of the area overlooking the vital Siliguri corridor.
That Bhutan was considering Chinese proposal for exchange of territories, which included Doklam, was first revealed by the Bhutanese King himself while addressing Bhutanese National Assembly in 1997. China has been claiming 764 sq kms of Bhutanese territory, which included 269 sq kms in north western areas including Doklam.When India found the Chinese building roads in Doklam in 2017, its forces, in concurrence with Bhutan, were asked to stop the Chinese from building roads, which was challenged by China, resulting in 73 days military standoff. To India’s relief, Bhutan is still holding on to its claim on Doklam.
Like India Bhutan has also signed maintenance of peace and tranquility on border areas with China in 1998, but Chinese side has violated this agreement by encroaching on Bhutanese territories as reports said. China has not only built roads but villages also in the border areas, especially near Doklam. As this trijunction between India, Tibet and Bhutan, is of great strategic significance for India, Indian forces have stopped the advance of Chinese army. but the two forces are positioned face to face, with heavy deployments on both sides.
Ranjit Kumar is a Senior Journalist and Strategic Affairs Analyst