Bhutan’s Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji (L) met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi
The recent weeklong visit of the Bhutanese King, H.H. Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, to India from November 3 to 10, came after Bhutan and China’s 25th round of boundary talks in Beijing last month. And as is the case with boundary talks that China engages in, these carry long titles that can be interpreted in multiple ways! Thus, on 24th October this year, China and Bhutan signed a cooperation agreement on “Responsibilities and Functions of the Joint Technical Team (JTT) on the Delimitation and Demarcation of the Bhutan-China Boundary”, as per a joint statement. A day prior to the signing of the JTT, Bhutan indicated that it was ready to conclude boundary negotiations and enable the process to set up diplomatic ties with China; subject to India’s approval.
China’s Boundary Agenda Over Bhutan
For decades, since 1984, the two countries have been haggling over a boundary settlement. The Himalayan kingdom has a deep relationship with India and is one of the two countries without a border settlement with China other than India. Now it is only India that has an unsettled border with China. How did China and Bhutan reach here after 25 rounds of boundary talks that began way back in 1984? The answer is Chinese persistence through protracted ‘boundary talks’, and ofcourse ‘salami slicing’ – a Chinese tactic of creeping into unguarded/unmanned pieces of land, and then claiming its ownership.! It then shifts the goalposts of claims to the land with the lure of a package deal. (The proposed ‘deal’ of the 1990s included giving up claims on a 495 sq km area in the central sector in exchange for 269 sq km in the northwest, which invariably is adjacent to the Chumbi valley, including Doklam, Sinchulumpa, Dramana and Shakhatoe. Bhutan rejected the offer).
Later, China had the audacity to add more stakes to its purported claims following the standoff between the Indian and Chinese troops in Doklam in 2017. China extended the claims in 2020 over 740 square kilometers of the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in eastern Bhutan for the first time since 1984. Changing its tactics and biding its time, China started construction around the Doklam plateau in the aftermath of the 2017 standoff. The most glaring example of it came to light in March 2022, when satellite images revealed that a Chinese village constructed 9 km east of the Doklam plateau. After the hype in Delhi over the success in the Doklam standoff, India became complacent. But China wasn’t going to give up. They quietly took up a village that was entirely inhabited; these could perhaps be the "dual-use" infrastructure, which can double up as accommodation for PLA soldiers as the ‘civilian houses’ could be just a facade. Beijing calls this ‘village’ Pangda, and it clearly lies within Bhutanese territory.
And China being China, two more villages have been built in the adjacent areas, as ascertained by satellite images shared by Maxar. Any geographical ingress near the strategic Doklam plateau further to the west, at the tri-junction of Tibet, India, and Bhutan, would set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. Beijing wants control over the strategic Jhampheri Ridge and the Doklam plateau to enlarge its hold on the narrow and strategic Chumbi Valley. Chinese domination of the Chumbi valley—which India had resisted in the Doklam standoff in 2017—denied the Chinese army (PLA) the ability for quick mobilization and gain an advantage in the event of a conflict with India.
China Eyes Chumbi Valley And The Siliguri Corridor
Keeping this scenario in mind, China has enhanced its connectivity in the deeper areas of the Chumbi Valley in the Tibet Autonomous Region, which is close to Siliguri. This is a highly sensitive area, as a narrow 20-kilometer corridor connects the entire north-east of India with the main land Indian states of Bengal and Bihar and is the bridge between Bangladesh and Nepal. And loss of control of the Siliguri corridor, known as the ‘Chicken’s Neck', would be disastrous for India. Acutely aware of China’s intentions in getting closer proximity to the strategic Siliguri corridor, back in 2021, the then Eastern Army Commander and now Indian Army chief Gen Manoj Pande said, "We are looking at a whole-of-nation approach, which not only includes the armed forces but also the administrations of states around the Siliguri Corridor and central agencies. The effort is to work together to deal with this threat in normal times, along with the hybrid threat when it manifests and during conflict conditions."
As explained in a recent article in the Foreign Policy journal, “China’s increased urgency toward border talks with Bhutan should not be seen in isolation. Resolving the dispute over Doklam is inextricably linked to the conflict over China and India’s shared border, and specifically on the status of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims is an extension of Tibet (calling it South Tibet). With Doklam under its control, China could exert more pressure on India in the event of any border conflict; Chinese forces could try to cut off India’s connection to the eastern part of their disputed border.”
The PLA hasn’t changed its posture, and its deployments are unlikely to reduce soon; maybe even enhance them further. The US believes that China will maintain, at least, the same troop levels. This is an important, high-level assessment that has been recently put together by the Pentagon and submitted to the US Congress. This U.S. assessment says that China has added more facilities in the last year. “These improvements include underground storage facilities near Doklam, new roads in all three sectors of the LAC, new villages in disputed areas in neighbouring Bhutan, a second bridge over Pangong Tso Lake, a dual-purpose airport near the Center sector, and multiple helipads,” as the report elaborates.
Sino-Indian Himalayan Build-Up Will Continue
The satellite images and the above reports paint a worrying picture of China’s intention with rapid infrastructure buildup across Tibet, especially the ones that are being built in relative contiguity to the Indian border. The new strategic assets include the construction and upgradation of roads in proximity to the LAC, underground missile launch silos, blast pens in airfields, the positioning of fighter jets, the construction of new railway lines, and dual-use civilian-military villages. Around 50 airstrips, airports, and helipads are being completed by China to facilitate faster mobilisation of men and materials. All these are indications of PLA’s extended deployment preparations. Jaidev Ranade, an expert on China, points out Beijing’s “almost fanatic” dual-use infrastructural developments in Tibet, such as new expressways, plans to build more airports, and two new railway lines linking Tibet to Xinjiang and Yunnan.
Despite several rounds of Sino-Indian deliberations following the military clashes in 2020 in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, both sides have not been able to reach an agreement over the disengagement of troops at key friction points such as Depsang and Demchok, and they are unlikely to reach an agreement, despite the interactions between PM Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping interacted briefly on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg on August 24, and in the much-hyped earlier meetings, as the devil lies in the details, after such meetings. And Chinese are masters of long drawn out meetings as has been explained by Vijay Gokhaly, a former foreign secretary, in his masterful account: ‘The Long Game’.
Even as Modi and Xi had agreed to intensify efforts for “expeditious disengagement and de-escalation” of troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, In the same month of August, Beijing upped the ante after PM Modi’s and President Xi’s BRICS pull aside meeting by releasing a “standard map” showing Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh within China’s border. China is playing these games, to keep India bogged down on its sensitive Northern borders, along with Pakistan as its vassal. If India was free from boundary disputes, China’s hegemony would have been challenged, by a much economically and militarily powerful India, which could cover the power gap in the coming decades vis a vis China. That’s why China wants to keep its borders with India unsettled. Also, India’s consistent disapproval of China’s flagship BRI (earlier OBOR) project due to its flagrant disregard for India’s territorial sovereignty, has added to tensions between Beijing and Delhi as it hasn’t given China any major inroads into the vast Indian market. Delhi objects to the China-Pak Economic Corridor running through Ladakh and J&K, (in Pak Occupied J&K) and that has further led to Beijing’s acrimony towards New Delhi. Bhutan has to understand the long term consequences of opening its door to China, as Thimphu can ill afford any wrong decisions as the world grows more volatile with each passing day in the midst of geopolitical rivalries.
Chairman Mao had once indicated that Tibet was the palm of China, and its five fingers—Ladakh (Aksai China), Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Arunachal Pradesh—should all eventually be absorbed by China. And no Chinese leader has refuted that position. Pandit Nehru, despite his policy of appeasing China—the Panchsheel Treaty of 1954 being one example—had achieved a diplomatic coup by treaties with Nepal and Bhutan, creating buffer states between Tibet and India. But if not for India’s firm stance on China’s land grab approach—most recently in the 2017 Doklam standoff—Bhutan could become another vassal of China, like Pakistan.