Love Thy Neighbour

India has a high strategic priority in Doklam and is thus opposed to any major realignment in the Himalayan region. However, is Bhutan shifting its stand on its border with China?

By Gulnaz Nawaz | June 2023

Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom, is a landlocked country, except for its shared border with China. There is a long history of cultural exchange between Bhutan and its neighbours, including Tibet, Nepal, and India. In 1950, it was included in a pact called “The Five Principles,” which declared that no nation would be allowed to meddle in another’s domestic affairs or violate its territorial integrity. Despite this agreement, China claimed territory in Bhutan during its 1962–1966 war with India. China claims disputed territory in Bhutan and has not settled its border issue with both Nepal and Bhutan. Bhutan withdrew from its previous agreements with the Great Britain to maintain neutrality between India and China and, in return for China’s financial assistance, the country authorized Chinese soldiers to enter Bhutanese territory. The Doklam Plateau in western Bhutan is a significant military stronghold, and the country has a longstanding diplomatic relationship with China based on the Treaty of Punakha.

Bhutan has long been a buffer between China and India and is thus one of India’s closest friends. However, in June 2018, Bhutan signed an agreement with China, allow China to build roads along its border with Tibet. This could provide Beijing with easier access to India by using Bhutan’s territory. If Bhutan does not opt to extend the agreement, China will have the authority to construct hydroelectric power projects in the Himalayan country.

Bhutan is under immense diplomatic pressure to strike a deal with Beijing as a result of China’s rising global power; nevertheless, any arrangement with China requires India’s consent. India has been supplying Thimphu with hundreds of millions of dollars in terms of economic and military aid due to the close relationship between the two countries. Bhutan and China, on the other hand, have disagreements about territory in the northern and western Himalayas.

The disputed area is the Doklam Plateau, which is at the tri-point of India, Bhutan, and China. For strategic reasons, is India supporting Thimphu in its territorial conflict with China. The Siliguri Corridor, also known as the “Chicken’s Neck,” is a 22-kilometer (14-mile) section that connects the Indian peninsula with its north-eastern states, and analysts fear that Chinese dominance on the Doklam plateau might imperil this vital trade route.

Lotay Tshering, the current prime minister of Bhutan, says the government of Bhutan is helpless in the face of the crisis and we’re a party of three now. Given that there are three nations, each of which is worth one-third, there is no such thing as a “small” country. The plans have been finalized. The two countries have been negotiating their borders since 1984. Tshering’s words have aroused alarm bells in the Indian media over the possibility of a swap deal between Bhutan and China about the tri-junction. Many people believe Thimphu is not pressing its Doklam claims by design.

India has not yet made public any issues it may have over the border agreement. The Indian government claims that “India’s position on Bhutan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is clear and consistent.” However, some experts believe that India’s security interests could be compromised if China constructs facilities in Bhutan that could be used for military purposes.

India’s diplomatic position regarding Bhutan’s border arrangement with China might have an impact on its economic interests. While New Delhi is keen on strengthening its ties with Thimphu, the Indian government has made it clear that it will not tolerate any outside interference in its bilateral relationship with Bhutan. Even before this current development in Bhutanese politics, India had been worried about Chinese influence in South Asia. India skipped the Belt & Road Initiative Conference in China last year because it believed Beijing was making too much of an effort to utilize economic methods to expand its influence in Southeast Asia.

The people of Bhutan want to speed up the process of resolving their old-age disagreements and disputes with neighbouring nations, and there have been some changes in the country’s posture concerning China’s participation in settling the conflict. However, India is concerned that China is pressuring Bhutan to settle the boundary to intimidate New Delhi. After an outcry in the Indian media, he sought to elaborate on his positions.

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