On October 14, 2021, China and Bhutan entered into a memorandum of understanding crystallising a three-step roadmap for intensifying parleys to resolve their outstanding border disputes. The MoU encapsulates the understanding reached between the two countries at the 10th meeting of the expert group held in Kunming in the April of 2021. The signing of this MoU comes 48 months after a 73-day Sino-Indian military confrontation at the Doklam trijunction. China endeavored to extend a road in an area that Bhutan asserted belonged to it.
Bhutan and China share an over 400-kilometre long border. Beijing lays claim to around 765 square kilometres of Bhutanese territory dispersed across the northwest and central regions of the Himalayan kingdom. Incidentally, Bhutan is the only neighbour of China with which it does not have a formal diplomatic relationship.
Direct bilateral talks to resolve the contested boundary question commenced in 1984. Over the past three-and-a-half decades, 24 rounds of boundary negotiations and 10 rounds of confabulations at the level of an expert group have been held between the two countries.
In the year 1997, China proposed that it would forgo the claims it had laid to expanses of territory in central Bhutan. In exchange it demanded that the terrain on its western flank that included the contested trijunction of Doklam be handed over to it. Bhutan rebuffed the offer then in deference to Indian sensitivities over the possibility of Chinese transgressions that have the potential of lopping off the narrow Siliguri Corridor that connects the rest of India with the northeast. This is one of India’s two chicken neck dilemmas. The other one being in Akhnoor just north of Jammu christened chicken neck by India and baptised as the Akhnoor dagger by Pakistan.
Historically, Sino-Bhutanese border disagreements involved territory in the western and central parts of the latter only. Beijing argued that 495 square kilometres in the Jakurlung and Pasamlung valleys, respectively, situated in north-central Bhutan and another 269 square kilometres in western Bhutan belonged to it.
However, in the June of 2020, China also staked claim to the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, covering an area of 650 square kilometres. The sanctuary is situated in Bhutan’s eastern district of Trashigang. The claim has its genesis in the purported Indian proposal to construct a road link between Guwahati and Tawang that would ostensibly traverse the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. The planned motorway would curtail travel time between Guwahati in Assam and Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh by five hours allowing India to mobilise overland its troops for deployment on the Line of Actual Control in sectors bestriding Tawang.
The Sino-Bhutanese border dispute is intricate given that it is enmeshed in the geopolitics of South Asia and intractably linked to the Sino-Indian border dispute, given the special relationship between Bhutan and India.
Bhutan will be in a delicate situation in its border negotiations qua China. A non-coastal realm, it is reliant on India for its approach to the sea. This special relationship amongst Bhutan and India is constructed upon the base laid by the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship signed in 1949. It was subsequently substituted by the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty in 2007.
Article Two of the 2007 covenant states that both nations acquiesce to “cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests”. They are further proscribed from permitting their territorial spaces to be used “for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other”. This would require Bhutan, in its border negotiations with China, not to negotiate in a manner that hands over any strategic advantage to China to the detriment of India’s national security imperatives.
Both the 1947 and the 2007 pacts are preceded by a historical legacy of covenants between British India and the Kingdom of Bhutan, namely, the Treaty of Sinchula in 1865 and the Treaty of Punakha in 1910.
What India would need to be very hawk-eyed in the Sino-Bhutanese negotiations about is how the play develops in the region around and abounding China’s Chumbi Valley that lies north of the Doklam plateau. Both the Chumbi valley and the Siliguri Corridor in West Bengal that is situated to the south of Doklam, are key tactical chokepoints. They constitute both a criticality and vulnerability for both the nations. It is towards this end that the Tibetan-populated Chumbi Valley has often been delineated as the most tactically significant piece of real estate in the Himalaya region. It provides Beijing with the maneuverability to cut off the 24-kilometre wide Siliguri Corridor between Nepal and Bangladesh, that connects the rest of India with its northeast.
If negotiations between China and Bhutan fructify it would mean that, to the exclusive exclusion of India, China would have resolved all its other land boundary disputes. Of its 23 ongoing territorial disputes from 1949, China offered substantial markdowns in as many as 17 of them. It has frequently settled for half the land it initially claimed.
A classical example is the Sino-Tajik border dispute that was settled by an agreement between the two countries in January 2011. The agreement that resolved a 130-year-old territorial dispute required Tajikistan to cede around 1,000 square kilometres of land in the Pamir Mountains to China. It mandates that China will receive only 3.5 per cent of the 28,000 square kilometres of land it had asked for by declaring them as historical Chinese lands. Under its boundary settlements with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, China settled for just 22 and 32 per cent, respectively, of the land it had initially claimed. This goes to demonstrate that the Chinese really do not care much about territory.
In sharp divergence, China has resolved none of its maritime border disputes, with the exception of the Gulf of Tonkin dispute with Vietnam that was partially resolved after protracted negotiations spanning three rounds, i.e., in 1974, 1978-1979, and 1992-2000, spread well over 60 years.
This situation then begs the obvious question: Why have the Sino-Indian border talks not made progress despite myriad rounds of talks between the special representatives of both sides and why are the border talks currently stalemated? Is it a lack of flexibility and cussedness on both sides or does China consider it a convenient lever to keep India off-balance? In either case, India should revisit its China strategy with a fresh pair of eyes.