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India and Bhutan: Time for nimble and agile diplomacy

New Delhi: Bhutan Prime Minister Lotay Tshering’s recent remarks about his country’s border dispute with China triggered a storm in India, leading to numerous assessments about what the comments could mean about Thimphu’s efforts to chart an independent foreign policy and the fallout for New Delhi.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in New Delhi on Tuesday. (PIB Photo)

In an interview with Belgian newspaper La Libre during a visit to Europe, Tshering made three key points – that efforts to resolve the dispute over the strategic Doklam plateau will have to involve Bhutan, China and India, since the feature is located at the tri-junction of the countries, that Bhutan hopes to settle the boundary dispute with China after one or two meetings, and that there are no Chinese intrusions into territory claimed by Bhutan.

On the first point, there appears to be no difference between what Tshering said and the position taken by India amid the 73-day standoff between Indian and Chinese troops at Doklam during June-August 2017. At that time, the external affairs ministry issued a statement saying India and China had reached an agreement in 2012 that tri-junction boundary points involving third countries “will be finalised in consultation with the concerned countries”.

Privately, Indian officials acknowledge that what Tshering said aligns with New Delhi’s position. Tshering also told The Bhutanese newspaper that he had “said nothing new and there is no change in position”.

But Tshering’s comments on the two other points are perceived in New Delhi as more problematic.

Article 2 of the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed in 1949 by India and Bhutan, which the external affairs ministry describes as the “basic framework” of bilateral ties, stated that the Bhutan government would be guided by the advice of its Indian counterpart “in regard to its external relations”. When the treaty was revised in 2007, Article 2 was replaced with more generic text about the two sides cooperating “closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests”.

The Doklam standoff was triggered when Indian troops prevented Chinese workers backed by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers from building a road leading to the strategic Jampheri or Zompelri Ridge in territory claimed by Bhutan. At the time, India said its actions were taken in coordination with the Bhutan government.

The tensions generated by the standoff coincided with a growing feeling within Bhutan’s official circles and the public that the tiny Himalayan country’s foreign and security policies were too closely aligned with India, and might actually hamper Thimpu’s efforts to settle the 477-km disputed border with China.

Though Bhutan began negotiations with China to address the boundary dispute in 1984, with the efforts initially led by the Bhutanese embassy in New Delhi, and 24 rounds of talks were held till 2016, the Doklam standoff gave fresh impetus to Bhutan’s attempts to move forward with the matter.

Following disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Bhutan and China signed an agreement on a “Three-Step Roadmap for Expediting the Bhutan-China Boundary Negotiations” in October 2021. The two sides have also held about a dozen rounds of talks at an expert group meeting (EGM) and decided to push forward the three-step roadmap.

It is these talks that Tshering referred to in his interview, saying a Bhutanese delegation visited China in February and Bhutan is now awaiting the arrival of a Chinese technical team. “After one or two more meetings, we will probably be able to draw a dividing line,” he said.

Privately, Indian officials are deeply sceptical about the optimism displayed by Tshering, saying that it is extremely unlikely that such a protracted border dispute will be settled in a few more meetings unless, of course, Bhutan is willing to make sweeping concessions to China.

In 1996, China reportedly offered to concede its claims on 495 sq km towards Pasamlung and Jakarlung if Bhutan would give up 269 sq km at Doklam and the nearby areas of Dromana, Shakhatoe and Sinchulung. This deal didn’t go though because of India’s security concerns related to Doklam, which is located close to the Siliguri corridor or the so-called “chicken’s neck” that links the strategic northeastern states to the rest of India and also offers a commanding view of Chumbi Valley.

According to the Indian side, even more problematic are the Bhutanese premier’s remarks that his country is “not experiencing major border problems with China” and that there are no Chinese facilities in Bhutan. “We have said it categorically, there is no intrusion as mentioned in the media,” Tshering said.

This claim has already been debunked by open source intelligence analysts such as Damien Symon, who used the official government map of Bhutan to show at least nine Chinese villages located deep within Bhutanese territory, including three near the site of the Doklam standoff.

Bhutan has been a key beneficiary of India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy, and was the biggest beneficiary of India’s external aid in the 2023-24 budget, being allocated ₹2,400 crore out of the total outlay of ₹5,408 crore as assistance for foreign countries during the next fiscal.

India has extended economic aid for Bhutan’s socio-economic development since the early 1960s, when the country launched its five-year plans. For the 12th five-year plan, India’s contribution of ₹4500 crore constitute 73% of Bhutan’s total external grant component. In recent years, India has also sought to foster closer physical and digital connectivity with Bhutan.

As India strives to strike a balance between Bhutan’s efforts to carve out an independent foreign policy path, including the border negotiations with China, and India’s own need to secure its strategic and security interests in the Siliguri Corridor to deny China any advantages, there will be a need for more nimble and agile diplomacy on the part of New Delhi.

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