Speaking to the media in June 2019, Prime Minister Lotay Tshering of Bhutan had called upon China to maintain status quo in the Doklam region, saying “no side” should do anything “unilaterally” near the tri-junction point between India, China and Bhutan. The 73-day standoff between PLA and Indian Army (IA) in 2017 in Bhutanese Territory over construction of a road by China in Doklam near the Trijunction border is well documented. China had an agreement with Bhutan in 1998 not to alter the status quo of the China-Bhutan boundary, pending its final resolution. But China actually did the opposite — it violated the agreement by design. Bhutan had to convey to China that road construction was not keeping with the agreements between two countries but agreements and treaties whether bilateral, multilateral or international are like toilet paper to Beijing once it sets its sights on a piece of territory. China also released a map showing the Doklam Plateau part of Chinese territory, even as it was private property of the Royal family of Bhutan.
The Doklam Plateau is strategically significant as it is proximate to the Siliguri corridor – the narrow bridge to India’s northeast. Occupation of Doklam Plateau by PLA will turn the flanks of Indian defences in Sikkim and endanger the Siliguri corridor. In its over 25 rounds of boundary talks with Bhutan, China has been offering land to Bhutan in the north in exchange of giving up the Doklam Plateau, even as Chinese claims in the central sector with Bhutan kept extending as the talks progressed. In any case as China illegally occupies Aksai Chin and enclaves of Minsar (Men ser) near Lake Mansarovar, used by Indian pilgrims of all communities to Visit Mount Kailash, it is also in illegal occupation of Bhutanese enclave of Tconsists of Darchen (Dar chen) and Labrang etc again used by Bhutan and Indian nationals for periodic pilgrimages. China’s ‘Legal Warfare’ is about ‘manufacturing history’ to support its illegal territorial claims. As such in 2012 China presented had presented to Bhutan what it claimed to be ‘evidence’, asserting its ownership of disputed tracts of land and after negotiations an interim agreement had been reached.
Indications are now in the air that China is engaging Bhutan consistently to resolve the Doklam issue. In 2017, the ‘disengagement’ from the standoff between the PLA and IA was peaceful but amounted to only pullback of the IA. The PLA firmed in at its holding line and reinforced its positions in North Doklam with new defence works. Bhutan may be hopeful that China will not alter the status quo beyond its unilateral action in 2017 and continue present PLA holding line as the temporary boundary, as reflected by the Bhutanese Prime Minister’s statement to the media on June 29. However, this may be wishful thinking given the rogue mentality of China, its salami-slicing tactics and Beijing’s eye on entire Doklam past several years. Prior to 2005, China had only claimed Tawang in Ladakh (India) on grounds that Tibetans visited the ancient Tawang monastery. But in 2005, Beijing suddenly expanded this claim to 90,000 sq km, illegally seeking the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
Bhutan was the first country Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited after becoming Prime Minister for the first time in 2014. Modi made his second state visit to Bhutan in August 2019 after becoming PM the second time. Nine MoUs covering spheres from STEM-focused education to space and one power purchase agreement was exchanged between both countries during Modi’s visit. Both Prime Ministers also jointly inaugurated the Mangdechhu hydroelectric project along with the remote launching of the ISRO-built Ground Station of South Asia Satellite. RuPay too was launched in Bhutan, latter being second country after Singapore. It may be recalled that soon after his election in November 2018, Prime Minister Lotay Tshering chose to visit India first, which was seen as a reflection of Bhutan’s desire to maintain close ties with New Delhi.
China and Bhutan do not maintain diplomatic relations officially. However, Bhutan had opened a consulate in Hong Kong before Hong Kong became Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. Obviously Beijing would be wooing the Bhutanese consulate in Hong Kong. During the Doklan standoff, the number two in China’s mission in New Delhi had air dashed to Thimpu to meet the Prime Minister of Bhutan and other government officials, as well as the King. In July 2018, China’s Vice-Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou visited Bhutan and met Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, Foreign Minister Damcho Dorji, King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his father Jigme Singye Wangchuck.
China’s standing in the Global Diplomatic Index 2019 may be first because of number of missions abroad but it is adept in political warfare and other forms of asymmetric war. Geopolitical dynamics in neighbouring Nepal is proof how China operates slowly but firmly drawing the target country into its vice-like grip. Many a times the victim doesn’t realize what is happening before it is too late. Example of this is the new Sri Lanka government wanting to renegotiate the 99-year lease deal of Hambantota Port, not much of which is likely to change beyond minor tinkering, that too if Beijing agrees at all.
External Debt in Bhutan averaged USD 1300.04 million from 2003 until 2018, reaching an all time high of USD 2642.10 million in 2018 and a record low of USD 405.50 million in 2003. The country’s unemployment rate in 2019 stands a 2.2 percent, which implies that of Bhutan’s some 770.000 population, about 17,000 are unemployed. Bhutan needs more investments to also create employment and China has deep pockets. China’s export of goods to Bhutan have increased manifold over the last decade, with China becoming the third largest source of foreign products to Bhutan; these include machinery, electrical appliances, cement, toys and like. India and Bhutan have a FTA but what goods India supplies to Bhutan and at what prices with the GST is not known; perhaps not even addressed. How the prices matchup with Chinese goods is the important factor.
India and Bhutan have enjoyed a special relationship and have closely aligned their foreign policy on many occasions. India has been maintaining good relations with all neighbours less Pakistan because of the latter’s credentials as a terrorist country. Yet some harebrained armchair strategists cause substantive damage to bilateral relations through dimwitted acts. Examples of these are the fuel shortage created in Bhutan in 2013 by the UPA regime and blockade of Nepal causing severe shortages in 2015 by NDA-I despite the stated policy of ‘Neighbours First’. India must ensure such lapses do not recur.
Notably, in recent years China has been calling for Bhutan’s active participation in Chinese projects even though Bhutan did not participate in the China’s BRI Forums in 2017 and 2019. But since Bhutan is looking for investments over just aid, China will likely pounce on the opening. President Xi Jinping recently offered Nepal investments to the tune of RMB 3.5 billion (equivalent to Nepalese Rupees 56 billion) over the next two years. India needs to promote investments in Bhutan by the private sector that also provides job avenues to Bhutanese, not remain content solely with hydropower projects. There is also a definite need to carefully monitor Beijing’s machinations to promote anti-India currents in Bhutan.