Author name: 
Gunjan Singh, Associate Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), New Delhi.

In the last decade, China has consistently made inroads in South Asia with its investment and aid diplomacy. This has helped Beijing gain access to major strategic points, the most prominent cases being Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. China has also started investing heavily in infrastructure projects in Nepal and Bangladesh. The ‘all weather friendship’ between China and Pakistan has been a cause of concern for India for a long time. However, today the consistent push for access by China into other countries has affected India’s influence in the South Asian region to a great extent. It has also pushed India into a corner, forcing the latter to re-examine its regional policies. The One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative announced by China’s President Xi Jinping in 2013 is expected to further counteract Indian influence in the region. Countries like Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka have already accepted to be part of the OBOR, even though India has decided to stay out of it. The Chinese government, under the OBOR, is aiming to increase investments in infrastructure as well as connectivity in the region. Most of these projects will be funded by China. The only other country in South Asia, which is not a part of the OBOR is Bhutan. However, the recent overtures by the Chinese government towards Bhutan are primarily aimed at changing this very status quo.


China’s Overtures to Bhutan


In the last few years, Beijing has been working consistently to bring Bhutan closer to China, even though both sides do not have a formal diplomatic relationship. Apart from India, Bhutan is also the only country in South Asia that still has a border dispute with China. Both sides have concluded around 24 rounds of border negotiations since 1984 and the 25th round is scheduled to take place sometime in 2018. The 25th round was supposed to be concluded in 2017 but was postponed due to the Doklam standoff.


The links between India and Bhutan are very strong, which has always made China uneasy. During the 73-day long Doklam standoff of June 2017, the Indian troops came to the rescue of Bhutan from Chinese aggression (Chinese were building a road in the disputed territory). India is Bhutan’s largest trading partner; and it provides training and weapons to the Bhutanese military. China has been pushing for forging diplomatic ties with Bhutan but has not been successful until now; and Beijing blames India for its failure. China also hopes that Bhutan would follow Nepal’s footsteps and reformulate its relationship with India. In the words of Qiu Yonghui of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “But now, Nepal has already gradually moved away from Indias control. After Bhutan joined the United Nations in 1971, it has even publicly opposed India a few times. The clear trend is Bhutan will become more and more independent.”

The Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou visited Bhutan for three days in July 2018 and he was accompanied by Luo Zhaohui, the Chinese Ambassador to India. This visit was significant having come after the Doklam standoff. During this visit, he argued, “Both sides should continue to promote border talks, abide by the principles and consensus already reached, and jointly protect peace and tranquility in the border region to create positive conditions for a final resolution.” Reports also stated that the two sides discussed the boundary dispute and bilateral relations. Furthermore, both sides signed a number of agreements and China urged Bhutan to be a part of the OBOR. Though the Bhutanese side praised China’s achievements under OBOR, it did not give any indication towards joining the initiative.


The Existing Understanding between Bhutan and China


The Doklam standoff happened as the efforts of the Chinese side to construct a road in the Doklam area was perceived to be a complete violation of the understanding between Bhutan and China to not change the status quo in the disputed area. In June 2017, the Foreign Ministry of Bhutan argued that Bhutan and China had two sets of written agreements (1988 and 1998) related to the boundary dispute. Road-building by China – that would have provided it better access to the disputed area – violated these two agreements, according to which the two sides had agreed to not undertake projects that would alter the existing ground reality. The agreements also state that both sides should work towards maintaining ‘peace and tranquility’ in the border region.


With respect to the boundary issue, both China and Bhutan have been claiming the Doklam region. While Wang Wenli, the Chinese Deputy Director General of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs of the Chinese Government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, claimed that the Bhutanese side had conveyed to China that Thimphu considered Doklam to be a part of Chinese territory, Bhutan has denied those claims. In fact, according to official records, Pema Wangchhuk, who was the chief interlocutor for the boundary negotiations until 2016, argued that Doklam was one of the disputed areas between Bhutan and China.


According to Sudha Ramachandran, “Doklam Plateau abuts Chumbi Valley, which like the Tawang salient that adjoins Bhutan’s eastern border has enormous strategic significance for China, Bhutan as well as India.  India’s defense of its northeast would be undermined should Bhutan cede control over it to China.” This is one of the primary reasons for New Delhi’s concerns regarding the direction of negotiations between Bhutan and China. If Bhutan cedes territory then it brings China further closer to the Indian boundary. Even though there has been no concrete agreement between Bhutan and China, if the former agrees for a plausible land swap deal, it would directly impinge on New Delhi’s security concerns in the Northeast India, especially the Siliguri corridor (‘Chicken’s Neck’). This, coupled with the unresolved boundary issue between India and China, makes the situation increasingly uneasy for New Delhi. There have been reports, which suggest that China is in no mood to soften on the Doklam region as it definitely provides Beijing with a strategic foothold and aggravates India’s security concerns.


India-Bhutan Relations and the China Factor


The closeness of India-Bhutan relations can be gauged from the fact that the Prime Minister of Bhutan Tshering Tobgay, who is perceived to be closer to India (as compared to Jigme Yozer Thinley)  visited India in the first week of July 2018 and met the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi; after which, the Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale and Army Chief General Bipin Rawat visited Bhutan together. The current Prime Minister of Bhutan is expected to resign on July 31, 2018 and the National Assembly will be dissolved on August 1, 2018. Both India and China would be interested in exerting influence over the incoming Prime Minister before Bhutanese people vote in the next National Assembly elections. The increasing number of visits from both China and India are an indication of this approach. The next elections will have to be conducted before the end of November 2018.  There is a provision for a 90-day election period to prepare for the Primary and General Election rounds. This time is likely to be used by both India and China to get a sense of the existing domestic opinion within Bhutan.


Most of the countries in the South Asian region have conceded to the lure of Chinese money for infrastructure development. China has used its financial capacity to put India on the ‘back foot’ when it comes to planning the developmental trajectory of the region. The overwhelming financial investments by Beijing have become a prominent factor in directing the domestic politics in some of these countries. Even in Bhutan, Chinese goods have started to appear in the markets in large quantities. The highest statue of Lord Buddha in Thimphu is donated by a Hong Kong-based businessman. China is also focusing on influencing the Bhutanese youth by providing large number of scholarships. The general argument among scholars working on Bhutan is that India has not executed its promises to Bhutan and needs to give sustained attention to this relationship.


New Delhi has been finding it difficult to counter Beijing’s strategy due to its own domestic developmental requirements. It also does not have the capability to match the scale of Chinese investments in the South Asian region. Nevertheless, India needs to be more proactive towards its smaller neighbours’ expectations. Being the largest country in the region, it is under a lot of pressure to help the smaller countries like Bhutan develop. However, if India adopts a lackadaisical approach in terms of Bhutan, it may provide Beijing a ready platform to move into this Himalayan Kingdom, as has been the case with countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.