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Bhutan's Deepening Relations with China, Emerging Worries for India?

In a notable turn of events, Bhutan and China recently conducted their 25th round of border discussions on 24 October 2023 . This event coincided with the visit of Bhutan's Foreign Minister, Tandi Dorji, to Beijing, where he met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Historically, Bhutan and China lack diplomatic relations, making this visit a historic milestone as the first ever by a Bhutanese Foreign Minister to China. The primary purpose of this visit was to engage in discussions regarding their shared border, a significant development considering the absence of such talks for over seven years.


Bhutan had previously refrained from establishing diplomatic relations with China, primarily due to its absence of diplomatic ties with any of the United Nations Security Council's Permanent Member (P-5) countries.


Following the talks, a joint statement was issued, reflecting significant progress, and both nations formalised a cooperation agreement outlining the functioning of a newly established joint technical team responsible for boundary delimitation and demarcation. Both sides conveyed their commitment to resolving and defining their boundaries shortly. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi encouraged both nations to swiftly establish diplomatic relations and reach a resolution on their boundary negotiations. 



Bhutan and China's Improving Relations


The Bhutanese Prime Minister has indicated that both nations were progressing toward the completion of a three-step roadmap for defining and marking their border. This roadmap involves multiple phases, including arriving at an agreement on the border's delineation through negotiations, conducting on-site inspections along the agreed line, and, ultimately, formalising the boundary.


Bhutan's Foreign Minister also emphasised the enduring friendship between Bhutan and China. Bhutan further reaffirmed its dedication to the one-China principle and conveyed its willingness to cooperate with China to expeditiously address the border matter and progress toward establishing formal diplomatic relations. He expressed gratitude to China for its significant support and assistance to Bhutan. 


Moreover, out of the 14 countries sharing borders with China, 12 have successfully resolved their border issues. Bhutan and India are the only two countries that still have unresolved border disputes with China. Thus, China is committed to resolving the border issue with Bhutan. China and Bhutan formed a 'Joint Technical Group' (JTG) to define their boundary


The Chinese foreign minister highlighted the significant role of neighbourhood diplomacy within China's overall foreign policy. He said China maintains a principle that treats all nations equally, regardless of their size. Furthermore, China respects the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and legitimate aspirations and concerns of smaller and medium-sized nations.


India's Concerns


The improving ties between China and Bhutan are speculated to become a matter of concern for India in terms of security interests. Thus, India is closely monitoring Bhutan's Foreign Minister's inaugural trip to China as progress is made on a boundary deal. Bhutan has typically been considerate of India's interests, but recent developments might not fully align with New Delhi's expectations, as Bhutan has traditionally been within India's sphere of influence. China seems determined to address the border matter with Bhutan, contrasting with its approach to the India-China border. 


Experts in India have expressed worries that any deal between Beijing and Thimphu, which may include exchanging northern areas with Doklam to the west, could have implications for India's interests. Of particular concern is the proximity of this situation to India's critical "Siliguri corridor," which links the northeastern states to the rest of the country. in 2017, India and China faced a standoff in Doklam, which is situated near the trijunction of India, China, and Bhutan. Additionally, border tensions have persisted since 2020 when Chinese troops crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC). If India loses its influence over Bhutan as a buffer state, it will have to potentially face the challenge of a two-front conflict scenario involving China and Pakistan.


Bhutan has always closely aligned itself with India, seeking its guidance on security and foreign policy. However, Bhutan is now considering formal relations with China, which is a cause of worry for India. Bhutan is mindful of India's concerns, but the changing dynamics leave India worried as Bhutan has traditionally been seen as India's sphere of influence. India is concerned about the growth of the "influence" of China on Bhutan. If Bhutan decides to join China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it could impact regional infrastructure development and connectivity. India worries about the strategic and security consequences associated with the BRI.



India's concerns are Vague?


In interviews, Bhutan's Prime Minister, Dr. Tshering, and Foreign Minister, Dr. Dorji, have emphasised that any agreement will not be contrary to India's interests. They have also made it clear that discussions concerning the "trijunction" at Doklam will involve all three parties—India, Bhutan, and China—maintaining a trilateral approach. Bhutan is prepared to engage in the discussions once India and China are ready to do so, considering the issues they have along their border.


Also, India serves as Bhutan's largest trading partner and the primary source of foreign direct investment, aid, and loans. Additionally, India imports the majority of Bhutan's surplus electricity, contributing to approximately 40% of Bhutan's revenue. This indicates Bhutan’s dependence on India.


Bhutan and India also share a special relationship grounded in historical, cultural, and political bonds. This close alliance began in 1949 with the signing of the Indo-Bhutan Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which granted India substantial influence over Bhutan's foreign policy and defence, solidifying India's role as Bhutan's closest ally and protector.


Considering Bhutan's distinct reliance on India, earlier it was highly likely that Bhutan will work together with India to enhance its relations with China. This teamwork would have helped India to safeguard its security interests and maintain its established boundaries. But it didn't happen.


However, Ultimately,  Each nation pursues its own best interests. India's best interest is to collaborate with Bhutan and make strategies rather than expecting compliance from a sovereign nation that naturally pursues its interests. India should approach boundary negotiations with a thorough appreciation of Bhutan's viewpoint and have confidence in its "ever-friendly" neighbour". Bhutan is likely to take into consideration both India's interests and its own before reaching any final agreement.

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