Originally Published 2021-11-05 15:57:58 Published on Nov 05, 2021
Threat and Perceptions in the Himalayas: The complexity of Bhutan

Earlier this month, China and Bhutan signed an MoU to settle and demarcate their borders vis-à-vis a three-step roadmap. Ever since the Chinese media has gone to great lengths trying to make it seem a disaster for New Delhi, underscoring their ignorance of ground realities.

Bhutan happens to be one of the few countries questioning China’s regional ambitions by not establishing diplomatic ties and demarcating territorial borders with the former. That explains why China and its state-sponsored media have wasted no time in claiming this MoU as a ‘deadlock breaker’- a deal that will set the ground for future China-Bhutan diplomatic relations. There is also a widely believed Chinese perception that this MoU has eroded India’s sphere of influence and power vis-à-vis China. For China, Bhutan’s foreign policy is a product of India’s influence and intervention and nothing more.

But Bhutan’s relations with China go beyond this Indian factor. Historically, Bhutan's foreign policy is a product of balance of threat and not balance of power. In other words, it was the common perception of Chinese threat and intentions that drew Bhutan closer to India. The Chinese intentions and ambitions were quite clear since the 1930s when Mao had claimed Bhutan to be a part of China. These suspicions got enhanced with China’s Tibet annexation and inhumane treatment of Tibetans, pushing Bhutan to embrace India and seek its security and economic aid.

Meanwhile, China has continued claiming and disputing territories with Bhutan. At present, China’s claims are in Central, Eastern, and Western Bhutan. Starting from 1984, Bhutan had even begun direct negotiations with China to solve these disputes peacefully and have held 24 rounds of talks and 10 rounds of expert-level meetings to date. In 1996, China had even offered a package deal to solve the issue. But Bhutan rejected the proposal keeping Indian security concerns in mind. With limited progress, both China and Bhutan signed an agreement in 1998 to maintain the status quo until the border dispute is resolved.

But despite the agreement, China has used encroachments and transgressions to persuade Bhutan to resolve the outstanding border issues. These intimidating tactics have increased with the 2017 Doklam stand-off, when China developed military infrastructure and settlements in the region. In 2020, it also laid claims in Western Bhutan for the first time and built military outposts and settlements in Northern Bhutan. In fact, these tactics seem to have persuaded Bhutan to sign the recent MoU. After all survival and territorial integrity are basic to any country’s foreign policy.

There seems to be some understanding of Bhutanese concerns on the Indian side too. In 2020, media reports had suggested that India had asked Bhutan to work on its outstanding territorial disputes with China so that the Doklam issue could be solved. India is facing immense pressure in Ladakh and has been unable to deter the Chinese developments threatening the Siliguri Corridor vis-à-vis Doklam and Bhutan.

But this is where the Chinese media and state have failed to come to terms with reality. There is a huge difference between attempting to solve border disputes and establishing diplomatic ties. China has continued to violate the 1998 and 2012 agreements and has done very less to counter Bhutan’s perceptions of threat. In this context, it will be the balance of threat and not the Chinese economic and military power that will guide Bhutan’s further relations with both the Asian giants.

There is little possibility that Bhutan would move closer to China for its economic incentives, as Bhutan’s identity and unique measure of GNH has for long avoided massive economic investments and environmentally unsustainable projects. This is besides the fact that the credibility of China and its investments have continued to hit rock-bottom with the former’s assertiveness and debt-trap diplomacy. Finally, since both India and Bhutan enjoy a special relationship and respect the 2007 treaty, it is an exaggeration to believe that Bhutan would establish diplomatic ties with China without informing or discussing with India.

This is not to suggest that nothing will change in the region with this MoU. Over the past two decades, India’s neighbourhood has undergone immense changes with China’s increasing presence.  Even in the case of Bhutan, when coercive diplomacy was deemed less efficient, China succeeded in compelling the former to revisit its negotiating strategies.

China is on a quest of its own and its recent engagement with Bhutan- one of India’s closest neighbours and friends has enabled China to build a seemingly benign narrative for the world while belittling India and its efforts in the neighbourhood. China’s increasing presence in the neighbourhood has triggered and continues to trigger several anxieties for India. Having exposed much of the neighbourhood to China’s investments and debt-trap diplomacy, India is now more committed to preventing the same in Bhutan. The competition isn’t just for power and security, but for also prestige, and it is likely that this competition for Bhutan will have spill-over effects throughout the region.

This commentary originally appeared in The Economic Times

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Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy

Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy

Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy is an Associate Fellow with ORFs Strategic Studies Programme. He focuses on broader strategic and security related-developments throughout the South Asian region ...

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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