Borders, contestations, and strategies

Bhutan’s geopolitical location and its future impact on the relations between India and China
Bhutan gate in Phuentsoling
Bhutan gate in PhuentsolingWikimedia Commons/ Afifa Afrin

Bhutan's King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was in India last week. Perhaps, it was for the first time that his family did not accompany him but an official team of Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji and other official dignitaries.

It was a three-day solemn official visit with a back-to-back meeting with the President of India, Droupadi Murmu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Foreign Minister Dr S Jaishankar, and National Security Advisor Mr Ajit Doval.

The visit of the Bhutan King was on enhancing the bilateral relationship between the two countries. However, the silent part of the visit was the Bhutan-China boundary talks, which have gained momentum recently.

Thus, the visit became more significant as the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Dr Lotay Tshering, stated to a foreign newspaper that no Indian would have liked it when he said that China has an equal say in resolving the border dispute at tri-junction Dokhlam. China in its media highlighted the statement.

The discussions between India and Bhutan last week during the visit were conducted in a spirit of mutual respect and friendship, underscoring the enduring ties between the two neighbouring nations. India expressed deep appreciation for King Jigme's vision to strengthen the unique partnership. Both countries also look forward to continuing their solid, strategic relationship based on shared values and interests.

The unique relationship between India and Bhutan has been preserved by frequent high-level exchanges between the two nations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bhutan in August 2019 and Jaishankar visited in 2019 and April 2022. Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra visited Bhutan in January this year. Earlier in February 2023, a Parliamentary delegation from Bhutan led by Wangchuk Namgyel, Speaker of the National Assembly of Bhutan, called on President Murmu at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

India's concerns

The Bhutanese prime minister, in an interview, said that China has an equal say in resolving the border dispute in Doklam. Bhutan Prime Minister Lotay Tshering's remarks during an interview with the Belgian newspaper La Libre last month's visit to Brussels were, "We do not encounter major border problems with China, but certain territories are not yet demarcated. We still have to discuss it and draw a line," he told the newspaper.

Tshering said that "There are three of us. There is no big or small country; there are three equal countries, each counting for a third. We are ready. As soon as the other two parties are ready too, we can discuss," he told the Belgian daily.

Bhutanese Prime Minister comments on Doklam triggered concerns in India. Doklam -- an area in Bhutan with a high plateau and a valley, lies between China's Chumbi Valley to the north, Bhutan's Ha District to the east and India's Sikkim State to the west. India, in no case, is ready to accept this situation and will be aggressive if rechallenged by the Chinese troops in the area. India considers Bhutan not only as a friend but as a strategic partner.

India has always stood like a pillar of strength to Bhutan in all difficult times, and the friendship of Indian rulers with the royal family of Bhutan has always been a strength of brotherhood. India would equally want Bhutan to reciprocate India's security and national issues.

In addition, the Bhutanese PM downplayed Chinese incursion, taking away their land, which has always been an Indian concern of "salami slicing" the Bhutan borders. India is also concerned about China's village construction inside the Bhutanese territory. During the interview, Bhutan's Prime Minister denied any such actions by China and said, "This is an international border, and we know exactly what belongs to us." The construction of villages by China along the Amochhu River suggested that Bhutan has ceded territory to China.

India's other worry is China's attempts to expand its influence over Thimphu, regular visits by their officers and diplomats and increasing border talks between the two countries. The last border talks between the two countries were held in January 2023. In October 2021, Bhutan and China signed a "three-step roadmap" agreement to expedite negotiations to resolve their boundary dispute. Bhutan shares around the 400-km-long border with China, and the two countries have held over 24 rounds of boundary talks to resolve the dispute. China has no embassy in Bhutan and is desperate to open one.

Meanwhile, Chinese media claimed that India was the primary obstruction in formally demarcating the Bhutan-China boundary. Bhutan and China are adopting a methodology to draw boundary lines on the ground. There may be some adjustment of territory as a result of that. However, India would never compromise on the Doklam plateau. It will pressure Bhutan to keep India in the loop when the boundary with China at the trijunction of the three countries will be considered.

India's Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra, in a press briefing, said, "The Government of India very closely follows all developments which have a bearing on our national interest, and we would take all necessary measures to safeguard them as necessary. Now as regards the recent statements and the related commentary to them is concerned, I would say that India and Bhutan remain in close touch relating to our shared interest, including security interest, and I would only reiterate, you know, our earlier statements on this issue, which very explicitly and very clearly bring out our position on the determination of the tri-junction boundary points."         

Bhutan is a strategically important country for India. India and Bhutan share a unique and strategic relationship with a border of over 600 km. The bond between the two countries has been strengthened since India's independence.

The two sides' defence and security ties have expanded in the last few years. An attempt by China to make a base in Bhutan will not go well strategically for India. The 73-day face-off between Indian and Chinese troops in the Doklam tri-junction in 2017 is a reminder that India will protect every inch of its land and its position on the Doklam Plateau, considered an important area for India's strategic interest. Doklam plateau overlooks the chicken's neck or the Siliguri corridor of India.

Raising Arunachal Pradesh boggy

In addition, when the Bhutan king was visiting India, China once again raised the boggy of rechristening into Chinese names for 11 places in Arunachal Pradesh which they claim as the southern part of Tibet. China's Ministry of civil affairs released the official names of the 11 places.

India outrightly rejected China renaming places in Arunachal Pradesh, asserting that the state is an integral part of India and assigning "invented" names does not alter this reality. "Arunachal Pradesh is, has been, and will always be an integral and inalienable part of India. Attempts to assign invented names will not alter this reality," he said. It was the third batch of standardised geographical names for Arunachal Pradesh issued by China's civil affairs ministry.

The first batch of the standardised names of six places in Arunachal Pradesh was released in 2017, and the second batch of 15 places was issued in 2021.

Meanwhile, The United States came up with a strong statement recognising the territory (Arunachal Pradesh) for a long time (as an integral part of India). The US also strongly opposes any unilateral attempts to advance territorial claims by renaming localities," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

India as a trade partner of Bhutan

India has consistently been Bhutan's top trading partner and remains the leading source of investments. Bhutan is also the largest benefactor and has earmarked $282 million for its development during 2022-23. New Delhi accounts for 82% of Thimphu's total external trade. Besides, during the COVID-19 pandemic, New Delhi was the first nation to send at least 13 Covid shield vaccine consignments at the virus wave's peak.

IN November 2021, India formally opened seven new trade routes for Bhutan's bilateral and transit trade with India. New market access allowed the formal export of 12 agriproducts from Bhutan to India.

For the 12th Five Year Plan of Bhutan, which ends in 2022, the Government of India has committed an amount of Rs 45000 million, which is being utilised for the implementation of 82 Project Tied Assistance (PTA) Projects, 524 High Impact Community Development Projects and Program Grant Support to the Royal Government of Bhutan. India is planning a much bigger package for the 13th Five Year plan of Bhutan.

Chinese Provocation

In the current year, India will hold two crucial multilateral summits, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and G20. In both these summits, top Chinese officials are going to participate along with other dignitaries from across the globe.

Also, India's image as a future international player is gaining amongst the world powers and global south countries. India's gain is jittering with the Chinese, who want to add a spook in the wheel on smooth happenings in India and try to divert the building of the Indian narrative globally.

Also, India needs to reach out to the new generation in Bhutan, who are going more to Australia for education and less to India is being influenced by social media negativity and wrong information about India.

Author is a regular contributor to Greater Kashmir

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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