Bhutan’s quiet diplomacy with China faces a major challenge. Beijing is conducting border negotiations with the tiny Himalayan kingdom whilst also encroaching on its territory by constructing villages in the disputed Doklam region and the Beyul Khenpajong. John Pollock argues that for Bhutan’s diplomats, a decision has been deliberately made to maintain silence to reach a border settlement, but the stakes are high as the kingdom risks losing its territorial integrity or be drawn into wider tensions between India and China.
In the mountains of the Himalayas, the dichotomy at the heart of Sino-Bhutanese relations continues to play out. On the one hand, Track One diplomacy achieved a significant milestone in October 2021 when Bhutanese and Chinese diplomats agreed on a Three-Step Roadmap to further expedite border negotiations along the contested Sino-Bhutanese frontier. After five years of delays, resulting first from the Doklam stand-off in 2017 and later the Covid-19 pandemic, the roadmap was agreed upon at the 10th Expert Group Meeting held in Kunming, China, in April of 2021 and formalised later that October.
Behind this broadly positive development, however, China continues to move ‘Xiaokang’ infrastructure projects, construction equipment, and native Tibetans into the Bhutanese regions of Doklam, Jakarlung and Pasamlung. In a recent piece for Chatham House, Damien Symon and I provided an update on the scale and nature of China’s continuing incursions into Bhutan. A series of infrastructure projects, including villages, roads, and a host of other structures now interweave with fragile geopolitical fault lines in contested areas within Bhutan’s high north and west. Given the scale and concentration of these incursions, especially in the culturally sensitive Beyul Khenpajong area which houses multiple temples and Buddhist monasteries, these moves could only have been authorised at the highest levels of the Central Military Commission in Beijing. The goal: to resolve the border dispute once and for all on China’s terms.
Amid this sustained pressure, and with additional claims towards Sakteng, Bhutan’s quiet diplomacy faces a substantial challenge in dealing with China under Xi Jinping, the aim of which is to strike a delicate balance that resolves the border issue whilst not incurring large-scale territorial concessions that alienate India or further encourage Chinese advances.
A Contested Himalayan Frontier
Source: Damien Symon Twitter @detresfa © Image free to use by author with credit as cited.
Recent Sino-Bhutanese history paints a complex and challenging environment for Thimphu’s diplomacy. China’s pattern of assertiveness on the border looms large on Bhutan’s horizon and has done so for decades, with the kingdom being no stranger to Chinese territorial aspirations or incursions.
Since the 1950s, Beijing has laid claim to three areas in Bhutan: Pasamlung and Jakarlung in the north near Tibet, and Doklam in the west near India. With diplomatic ties between Bhutan and China having never been established owing to pressure from New Delhi, China has sometimes forced the issue with Bhutan in order to open direct border negotiations, with largescale Chinese incursions in 1979. Back-channel diplomacy saw talks commence in 1984, led by the Embassy of Bhutan in India; a telling sign of New Delhi’s interest regarding any Sino-Bhutanese rapprochement.
Since then, there have been 24 rounds of border talks with Bhutan often walking a thin tightrope between China’s entreaties whilst also trying to manage India’s security concerns. In 1988, the Guiding Principles were agreed upon, which served to further facilitate the talks. The closest the negotiations came to a breakthrough occurred in 1996 when Beijing offered to concede its 495 sq. kms claims towards Pasamlung and Jakarlung. In return, Bhutan would yield 269 sq. kms of land at Doklam and the nearby areas of Dromana, Sinchulung and Shakhatoe. The sticking point in settling the border with Beijing is Doklam, a plateau which commands views of the Chumbi Valley and sits in proximity to Sikkim (in India) and the 14-mile wide Siliguri Corridor, a narrow land bridge which connects the ‘Seven Sisters’ states of the northeast to continental India. Substantial Indian pressure was brought to bear on Bhutan to reject the package, fearing any change in the status quo at Doklam would gift Beijing a terrain advantage over New Delhi at one of India’s most sensitive geographic points.
With the border thus remaining in dispute, China and Bhutan signed the ‘Treaty to Maintain Peace and Tranquillity’ in 1998 that promised no unilateral alterations to the status quo by either party. In the 24 years since then, the northern border has remained contested, with frequent low-level incursions in the 2000s by Tibetan herders and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) patrols, combined with offers of massive packages of economic assistance by Beijing in exchange for Bhutan yielding Doklam, an approach pursued to great success in neighbouring Nepal but for which successive governments in Thimphu have refrained from accepting. Indeed, Bhutan has had to contend with Indian economic interventions at even modest signals that ties are improving between Thimphu and Beijing, such as in 2013 when New Delhi suspended all subsidies on cooking gas and kerosene to Bhutan following a meeting by then Prime Minister Jigme Thinley with China’s Wen Jiabao.
Bhutan’s Careful Border Diplomacy
Source: Maxar, November 2021 © Image free to use by author with credit as cited.
Bhutan’s diplomatic engagements with China are thus carefully calibrated, according to Dr Nitasha Kaul, with Thimphu very deliberately not adopting any diplomatic stances that would incur or provoke a response from Beijing. Obvious examples include Tibet or Taiwan, for which Thimphu has carefully avoided comment or action, despite in the case of Tibet still hosting thousands of Tibetan refugees.
The key pillar of recent Bhutanese diplomacy is the careful use of silence to de-escalate border tensions. This was especially clear during the Doklam crisis in 2017. Caught between both China and India, with military forces from both present in the country, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay’s government went silent. Rather than resort to public statements that risked further inciting nationalist sentiment either in New Delhi or Beijing, the Bhutanese issued a single statement and then opted for quiet back-channel diplomacy, coordinating with India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. In the entire 72-day standoff, Bhutan only once called for a public return to the status quo ante without attributing blame to China. Reflective of this quiet diplomacy, the Royal Bhutanese Army, despite being the first to locate the PLA engineering works at Doklam, tellingly did not deploy alongside Indian troops at the stand-off site according to journalist Tenzing Lamsang but maintained their positions near the Jampheri ridge. Thimphu also adopted a deliberately ambiguous approach to the question of whether Bhutan had invited Indian forces in the first place. The visit by China’s Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou to Bhutan a year later (2018) seemingly vindicated this low-key approach.
Five years since the Doklam crisis (as of writing) and amid concerns regarding China’s villages in Bhutan, as well as continued activity in the Chumbi valley and Doklam, we are seeing a similar strategy play out, this time with much higher stakes for Thimphu. According to the available evidence provided by open-source intelligence analysts, China is in violation of both the 1988 and 1998 Sino-Bhutanese border agreements. Villages such as Pangda near the Amo Chu river and Jieluobu, Demalong and Minjiuma in the Beyul Khenpajong sit on Bhutanese soil, and given their locations are intended to give Beijing leverage in the border negotiations. In response to the initial discovery of Pangda in November 2020, Bhutan’s ambassador to India Major General V. Namgyel declared that there were no Chinese villages in Bhutan. Since that utterance Thimphu has not commented further, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. International news outlets, as varied as Foreign Policy, Reuters and NDTV have all run stories for the last two years highlighting China’s incursions, but there have been no public interventions by high-level Bhutanese officials, nor public démarches sent either to Chinese diplomats or the United Nations. Any encounters between the Royal Bhutanese Army and their PLA counterparts are shrouded in a wall of secrecy, aided by the inhospitable terrain. In contrast to Doklam five years ago, Indian forces have not been invited back into Bhutan despite work by CSIS in 2019 showing additional Chinese infrastructure. The silence extends even to Bhutanese journalism where there have been few leaks to journalists from within the Bhutanese government regarding sentiment over the villages. Indeed, even on the issue of the Three-Step Roadmap, the Embassy of Bhutan in India has refused to comment on the exact details of the negotiations, citing sensitivities.
The October 2021 announcement of the roadmap, combined with the telling silence, suggests that Bhutanese diplomacy prioritises a border solution regardless of local developments in the Himalayas, and Beijing seems willing to indulge this approach. The three-day visit by China’s Ambassador to India to Bhutan from 10-13 October this year, which saw meetings with Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji and Bhutan’s King suggests that Bhutan will maintain this strategy and present itself as a good faith actor, even as China moves into the disputed areas.
Popular sentiment within Bhutan regarding views on China’s territorial incursions is harder to measure, but sources interviewed under the Chatham House Rule in September of this year suggest that Thimphu’s current approach is in line with public opinion. Despite the villages not being discussed in the public domain, articles and satellite pictures are shared online on social media forums in Bhutan, predominantly on Facebook. There is, among everyday Bhutanese, a general awareness of the boundary issues, but popular sentiment, for the moment at least, is only marginally interested and supportive of the current government policy of maintaining negotiations, balancing ties with India and not antagonising China. Fears spiked during the Doklam crisis that Bhutan would be pulled into a wider Sino-Indian crisis, but these fears have receded among the public for now. For Bhutan’s governing élite, according to our source, the key concern is the absence of a joint border deal. The concern within these circles is that: ‘the more a deal is delayed the more encroachments China will make into Bhutan.’
Between two Himalayan Giants
Thimphu’s light touch diplomacy thus faces an enormous challenge. Bhutanese diplomats are working hard to protect the status quo and prevent any additional encroachments by formulating a deal that Bhutan, China, and importantly India, can all live with. As highlighted in a prior post for ‘South Asia @ LSE’, this will not be an easy endeavour. The presence of multiple Chinese projects in uninhabited areas of Bhutan serve a very deliberate strategic purpose in the minds of the Central Military Commission, the locations of which are, given the available evidence, part of a concerted strategy to pressure Bhutan into accepting a version of the 1996 border deal: Pasumlung and Jakalung in exchange for Doklam. The deliberate incursions into the northern sectors, which the Bhutanese consider sacred, but Beijing consider expendable, combined with the new claim made in 2020 towards Sakteng in the east of Bhutan, distract from China’s clear ambitions in the west, namely ending the border dispute with the ceding of the Doklam plateau to Beijing. Doing so would mean the strengthening of control over the area and additional pressure on India’s Siliguri Corridor that might, one day, prove useful to Beijing in a crisis with New Delhi according to Professor Ian Hall at the Griffith Asia Institute.
For the Bhutanese diplomats now negotiating with their Chinese interlocutors, the details will matter, but for now there are more questions than answers. In 2006, Bhutan quietly gave up claims to the Kula Khari region in China. Would another land concession be possible without incurring the concern of Indian diplomats and military planners? What leverage does Bhutan have in the negotiations with China, given the asymmetric nature of the relationship? Can Bhutan afford to trade land for time in the negotiations, given Beijing’s activities have seemingly increased along the border since 2018? For now, Tandi Dorji has promised that Bhutan’s China challenge will not harm India’s national security interests in the Himalayan region. On this, only time will tell.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not those of the ‘South Asia @ LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Banner image © Aaron Santelices, ‘Tiger’s Nest, Paro, Bhutan’, 2020, Unsplash.