[Analytics] Why China wants a Himalayan dispute with Bhutan

Indian soldiers guard a highway leading to the Ladakh region. Photo: DPA. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

While China de-escalates one Himalayan standoff with India, it is stoking another in neighboring Bhutan. Bertil Lintner specially for the Asia Times.

China’s confrontation with India erupted into bloodshed, with the killing of at least 20 Indian troops near the Galwan Valley, but the dispute with Bhutan is expected to be less volatile – one where Beijing aims to turn a manufactured crisis into a strategic opportunity to woo another Himalayan country away from India’s embrace.

At the 58th meeting of the Council of the Global Environment Facility, created after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, China’s delegate unexpectedly raised objections Bhutan’s having placed the entire Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary on its side of the Bhutan-China border, claiming that is a “disputed area.”

When queried about the claim by the Indian newspaper Hindustan Times, the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded that the China-Bhutan boundary has never been delimited and, in an apparent reference to India, said that “a third party should not point fingers” in the new China-Bhutan border issue.

Bhutan is the only country bordering China with which Beijing does not maintain formal diplomatic relations, a step the nation could not take without at least the tacit approval of New Delhi, which still wields substantial influence over the Himalayan kingdom.

Still, China and Bhutan have held 24 rounds of talks between 1984 and 2016 to settle two other border issues, one in northern Bhutan and the other in the west.

The latest Chinese claim will add another disputed area to the list – and another potential flashpoint with India. In the absence of diplomatic relations, discussing border matters is the only way in which Beijing has maintained a channel of communication with Thimphu.

There is likely another reason why those talks are important now. In the past, China has offered to give up its claim to a 495 square kilometer (sq km) area in northern Bhutan and part of a 269 sq km patch in the west in exchange for a nearly 100 sq km area in Doklam, near the China-Bhutan-India tri-border junction.

The Doklam area is of strategic importance to Beijing, as its inclusion would widen the corridor China controls between western Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim. That corridor, the Chumbi Valley, is an old route over the Himalayas that China wants to keep firmly in its control in case of a conflict with India.

It is also commercially important as the only point on the Sino-Indian frontier where overland trade between the two countries is sometimes permitted.

In June 2017, Chinese road construction crews protected by Chinese troops started to build a road through the disputed area, which prompted a 72-day standoff between Indian and Chinese forces on the Doklam plateau.

India’s response to the roadworks made it appear as the belligerent party while at the same time raising concern in Bhutan, where India’s military presence is politically sensitive. Although Bhutan relies on India for its national defense, some Bhutanese politicians are eager to lessen that dependence and manage their own military affairs.

The stand-off ended inconclusively when both India and China agreed to withdraw from the area in August 2017. With the new disputed area, which is not far from Doklam, Chinese officials will get a new opportunity to meet with their Bhutanese counterparts.

Analysts suggest that opportunity could be leveraged by Beijing to drive a wedge between the Bhutanese and Indians, who are again likely to intervene in a matter so close to its territory and of such strategic importance.

Despite the lack of formal ties, China’s soft-power overtures towards Bhutan have been wide-ranging, seen in the dispatch of circus artists, acrobats and footballers to the small kingdom of less than a million. Beijing has also granted a limited but growing number of scholarships for Bhutanese students to study in China.

As elsewhere, China has also leveraged state-guided tourism to its wider advantage. Bhutan limits the number of foreigners who are allowed to visit the country.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic made travel next to impossible, Bhutan limited the number of tourists per year to 183,000 from neighboring countries like India, whose citizens do not need visas, and 71,000 from the rest of the world.

China and the United States topped that traveler list. Although the future of tourism in the landlocked kingdom is dependent on how the virus crisis plays out, regional observers believe the Chinese will be the first to try to return.

China’s moves in a region traditionally seen as India’s sphere of influence are not confined to Bhutan. On July 9, neighboring Nepal moved to ban all Indian news channels barring the public service broadcaster Doordarshan.

The move, which was decidedly anti-Indian and aimed to censor perceived as anti-Nepalese broadcasts, was no doubt welcomed in Beijing. It was the latest of many signs of Nepal’s drift away from India’s and into China’s sphere of influence.

At the same time, China plans to extend the Lhasa-Xigaze railroad to the Nepalese border, lessening the landlocked Himalayan country’s traditional dependence on India for trade.

Nepal’s already strained ties with India deteriorated further in the wake of ethnic unrest in border areas in 2015, prompting India to impose a several-months blockade.

That block resulted in a humanitarian crisis as fuel and medical imports were crimped after an earthquake crisis. Not surprisingly, Nepal turned to China for help and fuel and other necessities were delivered across the country’s northern border.

But China will find that winning influence in Bhutan at India’s expense will not be as easy as in Nepal. Bhutan’s relationship with India is unique and dates back to colonial days when the British recognized the kingdom’s internal sovereignty while maintaining control over its foreign relations.

Independent India inherited a similar relationship with Bhutan and it was not until the 1960s that the kingdom became somewhat more self-governing.

In 1971, Bhutan, supported by India, became a member of the United Nations but, according to a treaty signed in 1949, continued “to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations.”

That was the case until 2007 when a revised treaty was signed stating that the two sides “shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests.” That gave Thimphu more flexibility in dealing with other countries, including China.

While maintaining close relations with India, Bhutan has avoided offending China.

Following a failed 1959 uprising against the Chinese annexation of Tibet, tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees poured into India. A few thousand moved into Bhutan. The Bhutanese, who practice a form of Buddhism similar to the Tibetan version allowed them to stay.

But unlike the Tibetan refugees in India, those in Bhutan were not allowed to engage in political activities. In 1981, they were even told to accept Bhutanese citizenship or leave the country; most left for India.

To date, Bhutan remains one of few Buddhist nations in the world which the Dalai Lama has not visited – and that is not only because the Bhutanese follow a monastic order that is somewhat different from the one adhered to by Tibetans.

Political considerations have also weighed heavily. Bhutan, then and now, does not want trouble with its powerful northern neighbor and the latest border dispute will likely see a repeat of past attempts to calmly defuse the situation.

During the 2017 Doklam stand-off, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the Global Times ran articles with headlines like “Border dispute proof of New Delhi’s hegemony in South Asia” and quoted supposedly independent Chinese scholars as saying that “Bhutan expects to develop closer ties with China.”

The outspoken media outlet said: “some small countries in South Asia have hoped to benefit from China’s economy and admire China’s friendly attitude toward its neighboring countries. As China is developing quickly, competition between China and India in South Asia will increase.”

That contest has indeed intensified in the past three years. After Doklam, there is now another high mountain border dispute on the horizon. And although it may be concocted by Beijing for wider strategic purposes, it comes hardly by coincidence at a time when India is severely weakened by the Covid-19 pandemic.

With 820,916 confirmed infections, India ranks third worldwide as the worst affected, trailing only the US with 3,184,722 cases and Brazil’s 1,800, 827 as of July 11, according to the monitoring center at Johns Hopkins University in the US. It’s economy, meanwhile, is expected to slip into negative growth territory.

In regard to Bhutan, the virus crisis has provided China with an opportunity while India is distracted: stir up some trouble along the border, hold new meetings, make new offers of cultural exchanges – and perhaps even a suggestion to establish some kind of more formal diplomatic relations.

With neighboring Nepal now largely out of India’s and in China’s orbit, New Delhi can no longer take even its cozy relationship with Bhutan for granted. With the small mountain kingdom now China’s next target in the Himalayas, it runs the risks of being caught in the middle of a bigger big power strategic contest.

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