On June 21 this year, during a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations Rio+ 20 conference, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley for the first time. The Hindu dated June 27, quoted Wen Jiabao as saying that China was “willing to complete border demarcation with Bhutan at an early date.”
The history of the Bhutan-China border dispute starts from 1950 when China published a map claiming areas in the west and north of Bhutan though bilateral talks started in 1984.
Twenty-eight years and 19 rounds of bilateral talks have resulted in a package deal offer from China (a) conceding claims of 900 sq.km in the north of Bhutan, (b) insisting on 400 sq.km of territory in the west, (c) offering to establish diplomatic relations, initiate trade and pilgrimage, (d) making it clear that any further negotiations would be on acceptance of package deal with “minor adjustments within it.”
It is noteworthy that over the years, the Bhutan government had been quite vocal in keeping its citizens and the National Assembly informed of the difficulties in negotiating with China. Regular deep intrusions by Chinese troops right up to Royal Bhutan Army border posts, road extension work in Zuri and the Phuteogang ridge that overlooks the disputed Charithang valley are in violation of the 1998 China-Bhutan agreement for maintenance of peace and tranquillity, for which protests have been made. Four areas in the western sector claimed by the Chinese are Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulimpa and Dramana pasture land. In the National Assembly, many chimis (district representatives) have claimed “that traditionally, the land always belonged to Bhutan and historically there has been no precedence of Bhutan paying taxes to the Tibetan Government for any of the disputed claims.” The rich pasture lands in the west are intricately linked to the livelihood of yak herders of the border regions.
From the foregoing, it is clear that the Chinese are unlikely to give up their position in the four areas of western Bhutan except for minor adjustments. It is confirmed by the pattern of intrusions sssssand road building activities by Chinese in areas overlooking this sector that Beijing wishes to gain strategic advantage in the Chumbi Valley and put pressure on India for settlement — having settled borders with Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar.
The narrow and vulnerable Chumbi valley between India (Sikkim) and Bhutan has a single artery from Shigaste, a major Tibetan city, to Yatung with plans to extend a railway line. The lack of space restricts the deployment of troops. The Chinese strategy of claiming areas in western Bhutan is to widen its shoulders to facilitate military manoeuvres in the Chumbi Valley.
The recent development in infrastructure in Tibet has made it possible to induct a sufficient number of troops with adequate logistic back-up at short notice. The limitation is in restricted deployment space; there is no other place on India’s northern borders which severely limits military manoeuvres as the Chumbi Valley does.
The Siliguri Corridor, a vital tri-junction between Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal, is a narrow hub of rail, road and air arteries known as the “Chicken neck,” the narrowest stretch of which is just about 30 km wide. India is vulnerable in this corridor as it is the only access point to the northeast. The Siliguri Corridor is about 500 km from the Chumbi Valley.
According to the media, Premier Wen Jiabao had met the Indian and Bhutanese Prime Ministers separately at Rio before making the announcement to the press. Some Chinese scholars have made this comment: “Without India’s permission Bhutan would not have thought about establishing diplomatic ties with China.”
India-Bhutan relations have been experiencing the winds of change. From 1949 onwards they were governed by a Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship of 1949. Article 2 of the treaty was significant wherein “the Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations.”
However, much has changed. The isolation of Bhutan is a matter of the past. The nation has changed from monarchy to a democratic set-up. Article 2 had been a matter of concern for the Bhutanese so much so that some of them called themselves “half independent.” The 1949 Treaty was revised in 2007. Article 2 was replaced with: “In keeping with the abiding ties of close friendship between Bhutan and India, the Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Government of Republic of India shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. (emphasis added). Neither Government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.” The 2007 Treaty has begun a new era in bilateral cooperation.
Despite the new Article 2, New Delhi will remain Thimpu’s most important friend and a partner. These figures speak for themselves. Bhutan is the largest recipient of Indian development aid and India accounts for a total of 79 per cent of Bhutanese imports and 95 per cent of its exports. India trains the Bhutanese army through the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT), in Bhutan. Simply put, Bhutan’s dependency on India will not match with any other country for many years.
Bhutan has every right as a sovereign country to establish diplomatic relations with any country including China. The opening of trade and tourism with China would usher in development and investments from there. However, a lack of discretion may also result in the dumping of goods, undermine a unique culture and affect the policy goal of “gross national happiness.”
Chinese claims do not seem to have historical evidence. The pasture lands would also deprive the livelihood source of their border people. Western Bhutan is not barren. It may be recalled that in 2006, China-India framed “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles” to resolve their long-standing border dispute. The important principles that need highlighting are that due interest of “settled populations in border areas” would be safeguarded and “historical evidence and sensibilities of border areas” taken into account. These guidelines are worth inculcating by China and Bhutan. The border settlement will require approval by 3/4th majority in the Bhutan National Assembly.
It is hoped that all aspects including India’s interests will be truly considered by Bhutan before accepting the border package. Bhutan should refrain from deepening ties with China beyond a self-imposed minimum limit in their own interest.
(Virendra Sahai Verma is Honorary Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi, and retired colonel from Indian Army Intelligence. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)