Saturday, July 22, 2017
How China is eyeing influence over the region with Bhutan
China likes to boast of the number of neighbours with whom it has peacefully settled its disputes. But it doesn’t quite talk about those with whom it has border disputes. At present, China’s expansive claims, based on imperial boundaries, vex its relations with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, India and lately, Bhutan. Last month, the dispute between the Asian giant and the tiny kingdom of Bhutan came to the fore.
Chinese borders with Bhutan have arisen through their establishing control over Tibet, though to hear the official spokesman, Doklam, the area on the Sikkim-Bhutan border where the recent events occurred, “had been a part of China since ancient times.”
The problem arises from the nature of the Bhutanese state which did not even have an official map of the country till 1961. Indeed, the other day, the Chinese spokesman said that the Chinese boundary in the region was laid out by Article 1 of the Anglo-Chinese convention on the Sikkim and Tibet boundary.
However, Bhutan was not party to this treaty and it was only after 1910 that its foreign relations were “guided” by the British. With Indian help, a map was prepared and between 1963 and 1971, Bhutan began the process of finalising its boundary with India.
In fact, the two sides formally demarcated their 699km border only in 2006. Bhutan shares borders with India in the east in Arunachal Pradesh; in Sikkim, as well as Assam and West Bengal. In 1989, after conducting its own surveys and checking tax records, Bhutan brought out a map that was subsequently approved by the 68th National Assembly. Bhutan, shares a 470km border with China which had never been delimited or demarcated.
The first round of talks on the boundary issue was held in Beijing in April 1984 and starting from the 6th round, these have been held at the ministerial level. Since the 1990s, there have been complaints from Bhutan about Chinese road construction activities in areas it considers part of Bhutan.
In view of these complaints, the two sides signed an “Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility in Bhutan-China Border Areas” in 1998 commiting to maintain the status quo on the border pending its final settlement. But the fault has not only been on the Chinese side.
The Bhutanese, too, have expanded their claims, especially in the Doklam area as evidenced by the proceedings of the 79th session of its National Assembly in 2001.
A report of the 84th session of Bhutan’s National Assembly in 2005 noted that there were as many as six different roads being constructed by the Chinese in the northern boundaries in 2004.
However, after protests, four of these were stopped. Last month’s incidents near the China-Bhutan-India trijunction is, at one level, a continuation of Chinese policy to create “facts on the ground” and present its interlocutors with a fait accompli. China and Bhutan have held 24 rounds of border talks so far.
In 2002, the Bhutanese pointed out that the disputes were in four significant areas, the first, and most important involving 89sqkm from the Indian point of view was in the Doklam area, which is adjacent to Sikkim.
As a result of talks, the extent of the disputed area was reduced from 1128sqkm to 269sqkm, this included the Doklam area, as well as two other points in north-western Bhutan.
The northern claims were voluntarily given up by Bhutan, but it has made no difference to the Chinese, since what they want most is the Doklam area adjacent to Sikkim because of its strategic significance. Beyond borders, Chinese aims in Bhutan are to establish formal relations and expand bilateral relations.
To this end, they emphasise the historical and cultural ties between Bhutan and Tibet. Chinese ambassadors and high officials regularly visit Bhutan on working visits and Bhutanese officials reciprocate.
Yet as of now, Bhutan is not willing to permit a Chinese embassy in Thimpu. It goes without saying that ties with Bhutan are vital for India. For one, Bhutan is a key buffer between China and the Siliguri Corridor. It's not surprising that Prime Minister Modi’s first overseas visit abroad was to Thimpu.
Bhutan is a well-managed and placid area of India’s otherwise tumultuous neighbourhood relationships. New Delhi has been careful to calibrate its policy with Bhutanese aspirations, for example, by modifying the India-Bhutan treaty in 2007 to adjust to the transformation of Bhutan into a constitutional monarchy.
Instead of guiding Bhutan’s foreign policy, as it did under the older treaty, India and Bhutan now “cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests.” And right now, there is an enormous congruence of interests in dealing with China’s effort to push the India-China-Bhutan southwards.
Were Bhutan to privilege its own national interests and strike a deal with China, it would have serious consequences for India.
Mail Today July 3, 2017