Bhutan may be a ‘small’ nation but it is as concerned about the sanctity of its territory and way of life as any other sovereign state.
“Bhutan is a small country sandwiched between India and China”. This aphorism has been used innumerable times since June 2016, when reports of Chinese inroads into Bhutan first entered the public domain.
While the adjective ‘small’ is often used as a pejorative to describe the identity of various independent, sovereign countries in South Asia, its use is also intended to downplay the power of negotiations and diplomacy – which are instrumental for settling disputes in a peaceful manner – vis à vis the military capability that larger states possess. Excessive focus on the rivalry of rising powers not only damages the regional sense of belonging that small states like Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have with South Asia, but also perpetuates colonial stereotypes about ‘buffers’, ‘neutral zones’ and ‘protectorates’ that have no role in modern international relations.
The recent spat about China’s claims on Bhutan that has led to a standoff between Indian and Chinese soldiers is the continuation of a trend rather than an isolated example of an intermittent event. The Doklam standoff highlights familiar patterns through which the Chinese negotiate, adjust, engage and create positions. But the incident also reveals how Indian diplomacy is static in the face of China’s adaptiveness. Indian diplomats prefer to look for legal precedents and focus on the moral high ground which is the edifice of Bhutan-India bilateral relations. They would prefer to not adapt and adjust (as per the ground realities), instead underlining Bhutan’s formal sovereignty and the fiction that it is free to act independently of India in a matter like this. While New Delhi’s expectations from the Royal Palace in Bhutan are high, some Bhutanese resent the diplomatic pressure which India exercises on Bhutan.
The basis for reaching this conclusion is the manner in which Sino-Bhutan border negotiations and the discourse on Bhutan-China relations have unfolded in the past few years. The year 1998 was a defining moment as both China and Bhutan signed an “Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility in Bhutan-China Border Areas.” The agreement was significant in opening channels of communication and building confidence as Article 1 stated:
Both sides hold the view that all countries, big or small, strong or weak are equal and should respect one another.
The Chinese side reaffirmed that it completely respects the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bhutan. Further, Article 3 of the agreement stated:
Both sides agreed that prior to the ultimate solution of the boundary issues, peace and tranquillity along the border should be maintained and the status quo of the boundary prior to March 1959 should be upheld.
The framing of this agreement was considered a significant win in Thimphu (and was reiterated in Bhutan’s official June 29, 2017 press release on the Doklam standoff) because China, for the first time, acknowledged Bhutan as a sovereign country. This was the first official recognition that Bhutan could break free from the stated Chinese rhetoric of middle kingdom suzerainty. China’s position in the 1998 agreement also mildly referred to expanding the zone of engagement but stopped short of explicitly stating that by noting “joint efforts for an early and fair solution of the boundary issues between the two countries will be undertaken”.
Fast forward now to the trajectories of engagement which have evolved in the past few years. In 2016, China and Bhutan successfully concluded their 24th round of talks on boundary issues. The official statements by both countries – this time there was no joint statement – discreetly shied away from highlighting any explicit details on the boundary settlement. The Chinese statement did, however, convey that “both countries have successfully completed the joint survey on the disputed areas in the boundary”. The Bhutanese press release identified the survey as having taken place in the western sector. This time there was an explicit mention in the Chinese statement of expanding cooperation to multiple issue areas such as tourism, religion, culture and agriculture. However, the Bhutanese delegate also mentioned that “Bhutan attaches great importance to the bilateral boundary issue and is willing to, on the basis of the joint survey and relevant consensus, continue to seek a solution to the boundary issue that is acceptable to both sides through amicable consultations.”
It is significant to underline here that since 2010, China and Bhutan have conducted joint surveys of the north-western and central sectors associated with the disputed areas in a phased process. In this regard, the 19th round (2010) was significant as both sides decided on a joint field survey, which was supposed to harmonise reference points and names of the disputed areas, particularly in the western sector which constitute the pastoral lands of Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulumpa and Dramana. By 2013, both sides had successfully conducted the joint surveys. In a co-authored comment, which was published in the Economic and Political Weekly (September 28, 2013), Dil Bahadur Rahut and we argued that:
It could be concluded that the negotiations on the disputed border area are almost settled and decided. One could even go further to state that Bhutan has almost decided to surrender the patches of disputed land in its north-west region to China.
This article also highlighted some arguments pointing to the presence of People’s Liberation Army camps established inside Bhutanese territory. The source for this information was a news agency which is an initiative of Bhutanese refugee journalists. The journalist claimed explicitly that “China has been operating three military camps inside Bhutan since May 24, 2013 with the Chinese flag being hoisted there.” This action – not officially refuted by the Chinese, through the author’s personal interactions with Chinese diplomats – can lead to the conclusion that what might appear as Chinese encroachment could actually be the consequence of an understanding of the joint surveys which were undertaken by China and Bhutan in the North-Western sector.
Events post June 2016, have raked up some of these issues and confirmed some assumptions which were circulating in the virtual media since June 2012. Bhutan has an official position of not having diplomatic relations with the permanent members of the Security Council. While there are structural constraints in establishing full-fledged diplomatic relations with China, it is important to see how Bhutanese diplomacy can leverage itself as an important player and influence the present stalemate to its own advantage.
The Chinese, it seems, have created a position on the ground and definitely stand as a challenge in defying some of the stated positions that have been held so far. The strategic solution for New Delhi should be directed towards taking a long-term view in which its South Asia policy is central. Where sub-regionalism is slowly taking roots, strategic misperception and a trust deficit will only make matters worse and sabotage any efforts towards connectivity. It might also fan anti-India voices in the neighbourhood. The recent position that India has taken on the ground counters the Chinese narrative that the boundary dispute in the North-West sector is a bilateral issue between China and Bhutan. The statement by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj that both India and China should withdraw their troops has been conveyed to China through diplomatic channels.
India, for its part has taken a well-thought out stand on the issue. It has not only countered the Chinese narrative of the dispute being bilateral, but also seems to have a strategic objective through the tactical steps it is taking vis a vis its troops positioned in the Doklam sector.
Bhutan, for its part, has been extremely cautious and conscious in upholding its territorial integrity and sovereignty. If we look at its record in the past, particularly during Operation All Clear in 2003 or the position it has taken vis a vis Bhutanese refugees; territorial integrity and sovereignty issues have been prioritised. The unique cultural identity of Bhutan has been cultivated in a holistic manner and is reflected in the perceptions, attitudes, architecture and policies of Bhutan. While there are voices in Bhutan which highlight issues related to the ‘Indian presence’ and the impact that development cooperation between India and Bhutan is having on the Bhutanese economy, ecology and society, there is also wariness about the nature and vision of cooperation that the kingdom will share with China in the near future.
The boundary dispute between China and Bhutan does not stop at the north-west sector and the implications it has for India’s Siliguri corridor (or ‘chicken’s neck’) but has strategic ramifications for Bhutan too. This is because China has been claiming parts of Arunachal Pradesh, which includes Tawang, close to the borders of Bhutan in the east. How Bhutan reconciles and adapts to these issues in a ‘Bhutanese way’ is perhaps an important entry point to understand how culture, politics and strategy will be reconciled and communicated, and shape the official position of Bhutan. Bhutan, then, is not drifting away from India, it would be too simplistic to say that. It perhaps under-estimated the Doklam card, which the Chinese had underplayed till now. New Delhi is in direct touch with Thimpu and I do not think the palace and India have two views on this. The cards that India has lie with the palace, that is where its confidence stems from.
Medha Bisht teaches international relations at South Asian University, New Delhi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.