Right from the Doklam incident or before, China is making steady and bold initiatives to lure Bhutan into its fold and using history selectively to interpret the ancient relations between Tibet and Bhutan.
China considers itself as the true heir of Tibetan Empire after its occupation in a bloody armed intervention through treachery which resulted in fall of Tibet in 1959. But with Bhutan China claims it has a special relation since Tibet used to have such a tie-up.
Thus, during the Doklam crisis China has claimed that its borders on the Sikkim have been settled on the basis of an 1890 AngloChinese treaty, which was signed between Lord Lansdowne, then Viceroy of British India and China’s Imperial Associate Resident in Tibet. Britain signed this agreement with China in acknowledgment that China had suzerainty over Tibet. The British interest in this region then was to set up a trade mart at Yatung in Chumbi Valley. However, equally interesting is the fact, now concealed by the Chinese, that the Tibetans did not recognise the 1890 treaty, and indeed boycotted it.
Notwithstanding the fact, if the AngloChinese treaty becomes the framework of reference for boundary delineation between Sikkim and Tibet, then it has to be in accordance with the treaty provisions. Going by this and by applying the watershed principle, the tri-junction is at Batangla, contrary to the Chinese insistence further south at Mount Gipmochi.
Indeed, until the current crisis, China had considered this area as one of the disputed areas between China and Bhutan, and was negotiating with Bhutan for a resolution. Clearly, the Chinese move appears to be to alter the tri-junction point, which they have been unsuccessful to negotiate and settle with Bhutan despite several rounds of talks which have happened between the two since 1984.
China was firm that it would not accept Bhutanese claims on strategic points. It added that it would be more generous on less important territorial claims, but not on strategic points, which are more advantageous to Bhutan and India. China would pressurise Bhutan into accepting its claims.
The Doklam area of southwest Bhutan then becomes strategically important due to its topographical features, but more so because it provided an excellent observation point over the Chumbi valley and the roads leading to it. The area is also closer to the strategic Jaldhaka barrage in the Indian state of West Bengal, and therefore, China does not want to forego its claim on this disputed area.
By 1996, as these negotiations progressed, China offered Thimphu a deal: It wanted Bhutan western part, including Doklam in exchange for recognising Bhutan’s control over the central areas. Clearly, Beijing desired Bhutan to compromise on the Chumbi valley.
Bhutan has had to contend with the Chinese pressure tactic of border incursions to bring it to the negotiation table. This tactic has led some to describe China’s policy towards Bhutan as a pattern of ‘military intimidation followed by diplomatic seduction’.
But what worries New Delhi is the possibility of Beijing seeking to influence the next year’s elections to the National Assembly of Bhutan in favour of Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, or DPT, the current opposition party in Bhutan. Sections of the Bhutanese society have been favouring wider outreach with the international community, including China.
However, a large section of the society is still wary of external influences on local culture and recall Beijing’s role in Tibet after 1949.The DPT which lost the 2013 elections to People’s Democratic Party might try to make a comeback when the next elections to the National Assembly take place in 2018. The DPT had won the first election to the National Assembly of Bhutan in 2008.
The DPT government headed by Prime Minister Jigme Thinley had expanded Bhutan’s relations with other countries, with the number of foreign missions in Thimphu going up from 25 in 2011 to 53 in 2013.
In fact, Delhi-based senior Chinese diplomats have been visiting Bhutan regularly over the past few months and continued to do so even during the Doklam stand-off, according to Indian government sources.
Even if India-China stand-off has been resolved, the key question is where Bhutan actually stands. India’s claim that Bhutan is fully with India on the issue seems questionable. The official statement issued by the Bhutanese government on June 29 does not make the country’s position explicit.
The 1949 Friendship Treaty (updated in 2007) guides the contemporary Indo-Bhutan relationship and aims to ensure India’s noninterference in Bhutan’s internal affairs. Article 2 of the 1949 version, however, entrusted India with the power to guide Bhutan’s foreign policy.
But Article 2 of the 2007 version freed Bhutan from seeking India’s guidance on foreign policy and obtaining permission over arms imports, among other things. The article now only says that India and Bhutan “shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests.
“Neither government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.”Even before the revised treaty, Bhutan’s UN membership in 1971 had fundamentally impaired the sacredness of the old Article 2. Bhutan is an independent country. It raised its diplomatic representation in New Delhi to the full ambassadorial level in 1971.
Notwithstanding all the geopolitical pulls and pressures, Bhutan has steadfastly stood behind India as its most reliable ally. But the impression among the Bhutanese now is that India has been coming in the way of Bhutan reaffirming its status as an independent state, especially in the foreign policy arena.
People in Bhutan think that India has for too long prevented their country from normalising diplomatic ties and negotiating a border settlement with China. India, on its part, fears that any boundary deal will not only impact Indian security but also impinge on its own negotiating position with China on the boundary issue.
From Bhutan’s perspective, India’s position is adversely impacting its ties with China. This is the main issue that is leading to complexities and confusion, including the stand-off at Doklam. However, it appears that this is not the first time the Chinese have intervened and built roads not only in disputed territory, but also inside Bhutan.
Until recently, as per the treaty obligation, Bhutan has kept India’s interest in mind and evaded a settlement with China. The general approach has been that the country could neither bargain nor impose its will on the matter, and therefore would go along with India and China’s mutual understanding. Bhutanese position has been changing in a subtle way, especially the manner in which their boundary negotiation with China was proceeding without the knowledge of India.
The DPT governmenT heaDeD by Prime minisTer Jigme Thinley haD exPanDeD bhuTan’s relaTions wiTh oTher counTries
It seems that agreement on a political compromise had been reached during the 19th round of boundary talks held in January 2010. Perhaps this was also the outcome of the meeting between the then Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigme Thinley and the then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro.
The agreement also perhaps included the decision to establish diplomatic ties. The Chinese claimed that China and Bhutan gained remarkable headway on the boundary issue during the 20th round of talks held in Thimphu in 2012.China had offered Thinley a financial deal for the border settlement.
However, some news reports suggested that China had already seized over 8,000 square km and Bhutan’s total area has reduced to 38,390 square km from 46,500 square km since 2010. In fact, many suspected this was the reason for India’s disappointment, which resulted in it supporting (or even instigating) the defeat of Thinley and his party in the 2013 general elections in Bhutan and thus put a spoke in the wheel of the settlement.
The Bhutanese have expressed the fear that a delayed resolution could lead to China toughening its position and reviving maximal territorial claims that would result in Bhutan losing land as far as Kanglung to the east and Samdrup Jongkhar to the south.boundary issue
Chinese officials always indicated that for any steps to settle the boundary dispute once and for all, establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries is necessary. The Chinese have for years wanted to open an embassy in Thimphu. It had promised to upgrade the Bhutanese consulate in Hong Kong to an embassy, to promote increased tourist flows and exchange of visits, among other things.
Beijing finds itself in a strange position in not having diplomatic ties with neighbouring Bhutan, which has lately widened its foreign relations with 53 countries, including Japan, another adversary of China. However, since the change of government, no new country has been added to the list of states Bhutan has established diplomatic ties. The last country added was Oman, on March 15, 2013.
The key to Beijing’s strategy so far has been to dilute the Indian dominant position, seeking parity in the eyes of Bhutan. Towards this goal, Beijing worked first on its diplomacy by deciding to vote for Bhutan’s membership to the UN in 1971.
Later, China managed to bring Bhutan to the negotiating table on the boundary issue and lately she may have perhaps influenced Thimphu to have Article 2 of 1949 Friendship Treaty with India removed altogether. Many Chinese analysts view Bhutan as already neutralised. Hordes of Bhutanese students are being offered scholarships in China. Many young Bhutanese frequently travel to Chinese cities for business and other reasons. It was widely suspected that Thimphu’s discreet deals with China led to this financial cut and the election interference by India in 2013.
Clearly, the next election in Bhutan in will be fought on pro- versus anti-Indian slogans. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like Nehru, had reportedly promised India’s continued security guarantee to Bhutan against any possible expansionist designs. Whether the Bhutanese still consider China as posing a real threat to them is the question, however.