In a historic congregation Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and his Bhutanese counterpart Mr. Jigmi Y. Thinley held their first meeting on the sidelines of United Nation Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil. The meeting has raised few questions as to why is China interested in Bhutan, especially now despite the long impending boundary dispute. Why has there been a strategic shift in Bhutan’s foreign policy? What are the overall implications of this development on Indian security?
Bhutan forms one of the fingers of China’s five finger policy. China considers Tibet as the ‘palm consisting of five fingers policy’ namely, Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. This exemplifies the importance of Bhutan in Chinese foreign policy. China has always been keen on maintaining good relations with its Asian neighbors - ‘periphery countries’ (zhoubian goujia). The peripheral policy forms the core of China’s external strategy. Relations with these countries help to avoid external instabilities that may cause any internal frictions. China needs a peaceful and stable periphery for its ‘Peaceful Development/Rise’.
The PRC has outlined its plan of extending the railway network from Lhasa to Zangmu on the Nepal border. According to this blueprint, yet another line will branch out midway from the line at Shigatse. This line will move east and go up to Yadong, at the mouth of Chumbi Valley- strategically located at the tri –junction of India-China-Bhutan.
Bhutan has been a strong ally of India and has refrained from establishing relations with China. It was concerned over the takeover of Tibet in 1950 and was anxious that its sovereignty would be compromised because of Chinese claims to Bhutan as part of a greater Tibet. This had led to the closure of the Tibetan-Bhutanese border in the north.
Boundary Dispute and its implications on Indian Security
Bhutan is the only country in South Asia which does not have diplomatic relations with China. Bilateral relations have remained strained because of the dispute over their 470km border. It has four disputed areas that stretch from Dhoklam in the west, Charithang, Sinchulimpa and Dramana pasture land. China is claiming maximum territory in the western sector that is close to the tri-junction of Bhutan, China and India for strategic purposes. It has offered Thimphu a deal: it wants Bhutan’s northwestern areas in exchange for recognizing Bhutan’s control over the central areas. In 2004, the Bhutanese National Assembly discussed the issue of sector exchange. Bhutan did not make India party to these deliberations. This has raised ambiguity in India vis-a-vis this sector. (Chinese border settlement with Nepal was through a package deal rather than through sector-by- sector settlement.) The PRC wants Bhutan to compromise on the Chumbi valley.
Any development in the tri-junction is a matter of concern for India. The region is close to India’s ‘chicken’s–neck: the Siliguri corridor which links the north-east passage. The move has alarmed New Delhi because it will bring the Chinese forces within a few kilometres of the Siliguri Corridor which connects the rest of India with the Northeast and Nepal with Bhutan. Chumbi Valley is of equal strategic significance to China because of its shared border with Tibet and Sikkim. Any development in the Chumbi valley that alters the status quo in Beijing’s favour will have serious bearings on India. Until now, 19 rounds of boundary talks between China and Bhutan have failed to solve the dispute because of its close ties with India.
Bhutan has largely toiled under the influence of India. India-Bhutan relations were revised in 2007 and now it is more of an equal relation. This was followed by Bhutan’s turn to parliamentary democracy. As democracy started taking ground, special ties with India have been questioned. Thus to neutralize its relationship, Bhutan has started turning towards China. There is a section in Bhutan that is thinking of opening similar points for China to maintain equilibrium vis-a-vis India. Perhaps, Bhutan is trying to come out of India’s shadow and seeks to play a more dynamic role internationally.
Having been an agriculture and forestry based economy; Bhutan has recently opened up its economy. Chinese companies have been given contract to construct the world’s tallest Buddha Statue in Thimphu. Beijing is exporting farming and telecommunication equipment and has also offered to invest in projects related to health and education services. Unquestionably, China is an attractive source of investment. However, Chinese investment in any country comes with its own terms and conditions - they bring in their own workers and equipment. As a result, the benefits of development are not enjoyed by the local communities. However, this is not the case with Indian investment.
Until now, Bhutan has never played its China card. Today, the security of Bhutan is vulnerable. Japan has announced that it will open its own diplomatic mission in Thimpu by 2014. Bhutan is no more a protectorate of India and is steadily moving towards China. Thus any policy towards Bhutan, therefore, will have to be carefully calibrated.