Thursday’s roadmap signed by Bhutan and China towards resolving their longstanding boundary dispute could have strategic implications for India’s northeastern flank.
Bhutan and China’s agreement on a “three-step” roadmap to resolve their disputed border was met with a cautious reaction from India, a development which could have strategic implications for New Delhi moving forward.
The signing of the pact on Thursday comes four years after Chinese and Indian troops were locked in a 73-day standoff at the Doklam tri-junction, following China’s attempt to extend a road in the area that Bhutan claimed belonged to it.
“We have noted the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Bhutan and China today. You are aware that Bhutan and China have been holding boundary negotiations since 1984. India has similarly been holding boundary negotiations with China,” said India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi at a media briefing.
A few hours earlier, Bhutan’s foreign ministry released a statement announcing the signing of the MoU through a virtual ceremony, inked by Bhutan’s foreign minister Tandi Dorji and China’s assistant foreign minister Wu Jianghao.
“The [MoU] on the Three-Step Roadmap will provide a fresh impetus to the Boundary Talks,” the Bhutanese foreign ministry added. It stated that Bhutan and China had “agreed” on the roadmap during the tenth expert group meeting that took place in Kunming in April this year.
Bhutan announced that the MoU – which is not yet public – would be exchanged between two sides through diplomatic channels.
China and Bhutan do not have formal diplomatic relations, and all communication is channeled through their missions in New Delhi.
Thursday’s agreement comes amid a continuing standoff between India and China in several friction points in eastern Ladakh.
Depending on how negotiations proceed, it may end up presenting a number of security concerns for India.
“The MoU has strategic significance for India’s national security in a region that connects the Indian mainland to the northeast,” Aravind Joshi, a researcher in South Asian security affairs with Global Risk Intelligence, told TRT World.
Chinese state media outlet Cnhubei reported a similar view in its response to Thursday’s pact.
“In the China-Bhutan agreement, the main source of fear for India is the issue of India’s detached northeast states,” it said, calling the troubled region India’s “soft underbelly.”
But for Medha Bisht, a professor at South Asian University and expert on Bhutanese foreign policy, the inking of the agreement for a roadmap was “not surprising” and should “not raise eyebrows” as it had been “anticipated for a long time”.
“Much of the groundwork had already been done since 2010,” she told The Wire.
Back in 2010, Bhutan and China agreed to carry out a joint field survey of the disputed regions, which was completed by 2015.
The importance of Bhutan's border
In 2017, the India-China standoff in the Doklam plateau triggered fears of a war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. Bhutan maintained the area belonged to it and India supported the Bhutanese claim. New Delhi also opposed construction of a road by Beijing at the Doklam tri-junction on national security grounds.
Indian and Chinese troops withdrew from Doklam following a 73-day stalemate, but satellite images subsequently showed the buildup of Chinese military infrastructure in the region.
Last June, China staked a claim on the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary, marking the first time the Chinese had singled out any territory in eastern Bhutan.
Bhutan shares a 400-km-long contested border with China. Beijing claims around 765 square kms of Bhutanese territory, distributed between the north-west and central regions of the Himalayan kingdom.
Direct bilateral talks began in 1984, and since then there have been 24 rounds of boundary talks and ten rounds of meetings at the expert group level.
In 1997, China offered to give up claims on areas in central Bhutan in exchange for territory on its western flank, including Doklam. Bhutan refused the deal, reportedly under pressure from India, which was concerned over Chinese encroachment near its narrow Siliguri Corridor.
China’s Chumbi Valley, north of the Doklam plateau, and India’s Siliguri Corridor, south of Doklam, are strategic mountain chokepoints critical to both China and India.
The ethnically-Tibetan Chumbi Valley, described as the most strategically important real estate in the Himalayas, gives Beijing the ability to cut off the 24-km-wide Siliguri Corridor between Nepal and Bangladesh, which connects New Delhi to its northeastern states.
“Maintaining control of the Chumbi Valley and gaining control over Doklam gives China a tactical advantage over India in a potential conflict. Beijing would then have a significant advantage where it can outflank Indian defensive entrenchments in Sikkim [one of India’s northeastern states], as well as being able to cut off the Siliguri Corridor,” said Joshi from Global Risk Intelligence.
“India would not only lose the ability to mount a strategic counter-offensive, but also grant the Chinese a launch pad for offensives into Kalimpong.”
Kalimpong, a small town in West Bengal with a centuries-old connection to Tibet, was the trigger behind the escalation of India-Chinese tensions over their border disputes that began in the 1950s.
As China-India goes, so goes South Asia
Over the past decade, China has increased its foreign policy engagement with South Asian countries which have traditionally been under India’s influence, like Nepal and Sri Lanka.
However, Bhutan has remained a stubborn obstacle for Beijing, given the ongoing failure to demarcate their boundary, which Bhutan viewed as a serious security threat.
For India, Beijing’s increased South Asian footprint is wrapped up in Beijing’s grand strategy in the region. When it comes to Bhutan, it will exhaust all means to prevent formal Sino-Bhutanese ties from taking shape.
Consequently, the hermetic kingdom’s strategic importance in the hegemonic tussle between two Asian giants also makes it “vulnerable” to undue influence and interference in its domestic affairs, explains Joshi.
“Bhutan does not want to get dragged into geopolitical rivalry between India and China. It sees this zero-sum competition as a recipe for domestic instability, and a more volatile region overall.”
But it might not have much of a choice.
“Ultimately, India-China dynamics will play a significant role in determining how Bhutan pursues opening up diplomatic ties with Beijing,” Joshi emphasised.