Bhutanese King’s Visit to India Amid Rising Chinese Pressure to Settle Border Dispute

India and Bhutan are neighbouring countries in South Asia and have been traditional friends for a long time.

India and Bhutan are neighbouring countries in South Asia and have been traditional friends for a long time. The relationship is marked by the utmost trust, goodwill, mutual understanding, and cooperation. India’s continuous support for Bhutan in its development activities is a testimonial to friendly relations between the two neighbours. Peaceful bilateral relations are also important for the peace and stability of the South Asian region.

Recently, Bhutanese King Jigme visited India from November 3–10, 2023. The visit was marked by myriad agreements related to trade technology and cross-border connectivity.  The two sides agreed to carry out “final location Survey” for rail link between Kokrajhar in Assam and Gelephu in Bhutan. Indian Railway has already completed a preliminary engineering and traffic survey for the 57-kilometer-long Kokrajhar-Gelephu rail link. Bhutan wishes to construct a Special Economic Zone at Gelephu and seeks India’s support for that. The proposed rail link is part of developing SEZ at Gelephu.  Both sides are also considering to start cross border railway link between Banarhat in West Bengal to Samtse in Bhutan.

The two sides agreed to upgrade the land custom station at Dadgiri in Assam into an integrated check post  with India s support  and to develop  facilities  at Gelephu on the Bhutanese side. The two sides also consented to open Darranga in Assam and Samdrup Jongkhar in Bhutan as a site for an immigration check post to facilitate the entry and exit of third-country nationals by land route, enhancing connectivity and promoting tourism. As a part of ramping up trade and connectivity, the Haldi Bari (West Bengal) and Chilhati (Bangladesh) rail links serve as an additional route for Bhutan’s trade into Bangladesh.

India also decided to bridge the 12th and 13th five-year plans of Bhutan. The Bhutanese side thanked India for the timely release of development assistance to ensure the smooth conclusion of crucial projects under 12th plan of 2018–23. India would also extend support for the 13th five-year plan, showing an extremely cordial bilateral partnership moving forward. Bhutan has been the biggest beneficiary of India’s external aid in the budget for 2023–24, which has been allocated Rs 2400 crores out of the total outlay of Rs 5408 crores.

Hydropower cooperation has been the pillar of Indo-Bhutanese ties. Bhutan’s Basochhu hydropower project will export surplus energy under the Indian energy exchange programme  beginning in October 2023. The two sides also expressed satisfaction with the progress in construction of the 1020 KW Punatshanchhu II hydropower project and looked forward to its early commission in 2014. The two sides expressed their satisfaction with the progress of the project. It was also agreed to move towards non-hydro cooperation, such as solar and green initiatives. Space and STEM cooperation have been identified as the new areas of cooperation. As a result, both sides agreed to launch a Bhutanese satellite jointly developed by India and Bhutan. The inauguration of Satellite’s ground station in Thimphu was also accomplished. The Indian side also welcomed Bhutan’s decision to join the Big Cat Alliance.

India and Bhutan agreed to extend cooperation in areas such as education and environmental conservation. India has also consented to the Bhutanese request to finance the skill development and capacity building programme Gyalsung, which is a one-year integrated training programme for Bhutanese youth attaining the age of 18 years. India has also increased the allocation of seats for Bhutanese MBBS students in the state of Assam to impart quality medical education

The visit of the Bhutanese king becomes important in light of the recent visit of the Bhutanese foreign minister to China, where both sides expressed their willingness to settle border disputes and China asked Bhutan to establish diplomatic relations with it. The development has raised an alarm bell in India, and the Bhutanese King’s visit is construed as an attempt to soothe India’s concern.

India worries that Bhutan might end up concluding an agreement with China while ceding the land to China, which could prove inimical to Indian interests, especially in the Doklam area, which is a chicken’s neck for India connecting north-east India with the rest of India. India and China had a tiff on Doklam in 2017 owing to the construction of roads and other infrastructure in the Doklam area, which was resisted by India, culminating in a 73-day standoff between India and China.

Border talks have been going on between China and Bhutan since 1984. 25 rounds of talks have already been concluded, but border settlements with China have not been concluded so far. Bhutan – China talks are guided by the 1988 Joint Commission of the ‘ Guiding principles for settlement of the Boundary and the 1988 Agreement of Maintenance of Peace, Tranquillity and Status Quo.’  China had border problems with more than 14 countries; with all countries, it has settled border issues except India and Bhutan.  Recently in September 2023, Bhutanese Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji visited China, where negotiations between the two countries continued to speed up to reach a border agreement. A technical team was assigned the responsibility to demarcate and delimit the boundary.  During his visit, he met with Chinese Vice President Han Zeng and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who urged the Himalayan Kingdom to resolve the border dispute and establish diplomatic ties between the two countries.

 The prime minister of Bhutan Lotey Tshering who is considered to be pro Chinese, wishes to resolve border dispute and to set up diplomatic relations with China. He wishes to resolve border dispute based on 3 step roadmapas agreed upon by the two countries in 2021 that includes agreeing to the demarcation of the border in talks on table, visiting the sites along the demarcated line on the ground, before finally demarcating the boundary between them. In an interview to Belgian newspaper La Libre during his visit to Belgium in March 2023, he showed his intention to early settlement of the boundary problem with China. Simultaneously he also addressed the Indian concerns and said that Doklam is a junction point between India – Bhutan and China and any agreement would be done on this with the consent of all the parties.

Before this meeting Beijing and Thimphu also held Expert Group Meeting (EGM) on the Bhutan – China Boundary issue in Beijing in August 2023, whereby candid, friendly and constructive discussion took place on the early implementation of 3 step road map for expediting Bhutan China boundary negotiations The recent development has sounded an alarm bell in India, given the historic ties between India and Bhutan during British India and after Indian independence in 1947. The bilateral relations were guided by the treaty of 1910 between British India and Bhutan and the 1949 “Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship” between India and Bhutan, whereby Bhutan agreed to be governed by India in all its external matters. As a consequence, Bhutan has limited contacts with the outside world and has diplomatic ties only with a few countries. In between, a few incidences took place that were classified as Bhutanese attempts to become independent in its external affairs as well. Bhutan established diplomatic relations with India in 1968 and upgraded to an ambassadorial-level relationship in 1978. Bhutan was admitted to the United Nations in 1971. It joined the Universal Postal Union in 1966, attended the UNCTAD session in New Delhi in 1968, started its own currency in 1969, and formed its own foreign affairs department in 1970. Bhutan switched over to its own time zone in 1979. It got the membership of FAO, IMF, and IDA in 1981. Later on, Bhutan established diplomatic relations with countries such as Switzerland, Denmark, the EEC, the Netherlands, Kuwait, Japan, Finland, Austria, Thailand, etc. and received financial support to augment the development process.

In between Bhutan also showed gestures establishing good relations with China as it supported Communist China’s permanent membership in the Security Council; Bhutan became a member of non-aligned nations in 1973 and voted with China on the issue permitting Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge in the conference; etc. The revised India and Bhutan treaty of 2007 recognised “Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity of Bhutan,” giving it enough space to conduct its foreign relations independently of India’s advice.

 Sandwiched between India and China, Bhutan is a landlocked country in South Asia, thus limiting its foreign policy choices. The Chinese aggression of Tibet in 1910–12 and its claim over Bhutan, and finally the annexation of Tibet in 1950, filled Bhutan with a sense of insecurity, which led it to forge closer ties with India. But China eyed Bhutan to make its ally and to enhance its influence in Bhutan. As evident in Mao’s words, he used to say Tibet as a hand palm, and NEFA, Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, and Ladakh were its five fingers. Moreover, Bhutan was very afraid of Chinese motives in the aftermath of its annexation of Tibet, which naturally drew it closer to India. Thus, it possessed very cordial relations with India but sometimes wavered to come under Chinese influence.

The Bhutanese King visit was to assuage Indian concern about Bhutan’s growing proximity to China. It might also be an attempt to apprise India of growing Chinese pressure on Bhutan to resolve boundary dispute and establish diplomatic relations. Indian concern is regarding Doklam, which is like a chicken’s neck at the ‘Siliguri Corridor’ connecting north-east India with the rest of India. The Chinese infrastructure development in the Doklam area has created tension between India and China in 2017, leading to a deadlock of 73 days between the two countries and taking bilateral relations to a new low. Massive Chinese infrastructure build up could be seen in the Doklam area as reported by satellite images of the area taken by different agencies. Bhutan is aware of Indian sensitivity on this issue, so it is hoped it will pay heed to Indian concerns while reaching any border agreement with China.

Bhawna Pokharna
Bhawna Pokharna
Bhawna Pokharna, Ph D Professor, Political Science Meera Girls College Udaipur Raj India .