(Bloomberg) -- With tensions still high along the India-China border, landlocked Bhutan is struggling to both maintain its territory and keep both Asian powerhouses happy.
As Bhutan prepares for border talks with Beijing, the Himalayan kingdom has indicated to India that it won’t recognize China’s claims to the Doklam plateau in the discussions, people familiar with the situation said. In 2017, India’s military intervened on Bhutan’s behalf to stop China from building a road in the disputed area overlooking a narrow strip of land that connects India’s northeastern states with the rest of the country.
China has long offered Bhutan control of areas on their disputed northern border, which has been officially closed for decades, provided it hands over Doklam, the people said. In recent years Beijing has stepped up pressure on Bhutan to resolve the issue, with satellite data collected by Indian intelligence and Bhutanese officials showing China has built military bases and entire villages in areas claimed by Bhutan, they said.
Bhutan, however, is wary of doing anything that could prompt it to get caught in the middle of a conflict between India and China, the people added. The nation plans to offer Beijing the prospect of eventual full diplomatic relations in return for demarcating the northern border, they said, allowing it to sidestep the issue of Doklam while stopping Chinese encroachment in other areas.
It’s unclear if China would agree to that. A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said Bhutan and China have “mechanisms for border talks and experts meeting,” adding that more discussions are planned after they agreed in October to a landmark road map to accelerate border talks. Territorial disputes between all three countries would be resolved through negotiations, the spokesman added in response to questions.
India’s Foreign Ministry and the Bhutanese Embassy in New Delhi declined to comment on the substance of the border talks involving China. An Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman said last month that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had “noted the signing of the memorandum of understanding” between China and Bhutan, adding that it was holding its own boundary negotiations with Beijing.
Landlocked Bhutan is China’s only neighbor that doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Beijing, and the Himalayan kingdom officially allowed India to “guide” its foreign policy until the two signed a new friendship treaty in 2007. Still, India remains influential in Bhutan, accounting for more than 80% of the country’s trade and most of the transport links in and out of the country.
Tensions along the India-China border have been high of late, with the deadliest fighting in decades breaking out last year along a different part of the 3,500-kilometer (2,200-mile) boundary. Talks on resolving that dispute have stalled over who withdraws troops first from a strategic high point near the Karakoram Pass that winds through the Himalayas.
“China’s interests lie in settling the dispute with Bhutan as soon as possible so that it can use it to leverage its position in the future negotiations between India and China,” said Sana Hashmi, a visiting fellow at The Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation. “For Bhutan, giving concessions to China on the trijunction is not beneficial.”
China has long disputed the location of its trijunction border with India and Bhutan, which dates back to an 1890 treaty between Qing rulers in Beijing and British colonialists who ruled the subcontinent at the time.
Indian military planners have long feared that Chinese troops could enter from the Chumbi Valley and cut off the Siliguri Corridor, a strip of land known as the “Chicken’s Neck” -- and in turn access to all of the country’s northeastern territories, home to about 45 million people. At least 30,000 Indian soldiers are deployed along this corridor, which is less than 22 kilometers at its narrowest and winds through an area abutting Bangladesh to the south and Nepal, China and Bhutan to the north.
Lieutenant General Manoj Pande, who heads the Indian Army’s eastern sector, last month told reporters the corridor was critical and “sensitive” for India, particularly in light of ongoing border tensions. India’s goal is to push Bhutan to demarcate clear borders with China without giving up the strategic area in Doklam, one official said.
Still, India in some ways has pushed Bhutan to seek closer relations with China. Ties came under strain earlier this year when Modi’s government stopped vaccine exports to Thimphu as Covid infections exploded within its borders.
“Even though India continues to be a far more important partner in the region, it has to find a way to counter China’s increasing footprints in its neighborhood,” Hashmi said. “To start with, investing in infrastructure development, keeping its promises, and convincing that India treats its South Asian neighbors as equal partners are the three most effective ways.”
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