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Sino-Bhutan Boundary Negotiations: Complexities of the ‘Package Deal’

Dr Medha Bisht is Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi; and former Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar IDSA.Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 19, 2010

    China and Bhutan completed the nineteenth round of boundary talks on January 13, 2010. The parleys were held in Thimpu and Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue represented China while Minister of Economic Affairs Khandu Wangchu represented Bhutan. In the latest round, both sides have decided on a joint field survey, which would enable harmonising the reference points and names of the disputed areas. Also the focus of the forthcoming survey would be the disputed areas in the western sector which constitute the pastoral lands of Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulumpa and Dramana. The eighteenth round of talks was held in Beijing in 2006, when both parties decided to discuss the boundary issue at the technical level with the help of experts and then map out the disputed claims. The nineteenth round is significant due to its exclusive focus of the North-Western sector.

    The nineteenth round could also be seen as significant because both sides met after a gap of almost four years. The talks are noteworthy due to three developments. First, India and Bhutan revised their friendship treaty in 2007 and Article II, which stipulated that Bhutan should be advised by India in its foreign policy decisions, was symbolically dropped. Second, Bhutan witnessed the first stage of democratization in 2008 by holding elections, thus taking the maiden step towards domestic political reform; at the same time, the Oxford educated Khesar Jigme Namgyal Wangchuk was formally coroneted as the fifth King of Bhutan in November 2008. Third, China on its part in the past few years has made significant progress in constructing roads right next to the disputed border areas. For instance, six roads so far have been built by China near Bhutan’s North and North-West areas. Moreover in the past two years, Bhutan has witnessed several Chinese intrusions/incursions into its territory.

    Back to History: The Negotiation Phases

    The history of border talks go back to the 1950s when China published maps claiming Bhutanese territory, thus bringing the issue into the public domain. The disputed areas that China claimed covered a total of 764 square kilometres covering the North West (269 sq km) and Central parts of Bhutan (495 sq km). While the North West part constitutes the Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe in Samste, Haa and Paro districts, the Central parts constitute the Pasamlung and the Jakarlung valley in the Wangdue Phodrang district. The intrusion by Chinese soldiers and Tibetan herders has often been an issue of concern in Bhutan’s National Assembly discussions, where many chimis (district representatives) have claimed that traditionally the land always belonged to Bhutan and historically there has been no precedence of Bhutan paying taxes to the Tibetan government for any of the disputed claims.

    If one traces the trajectory of boundary negotiations between Bhutan and China they can be divided into three significant phases. The first phase can be termed as the engagement phase which started in 1984; the second phase can be termed as the redistribution phase, which marked its incipience in 1996; and third can be termed as the normalisation phase, which describes the present status of negotiations and can be traced to 2000.

    In the engagement phase, both parties decided to hold formal boundary talks and discussed issues of mutual concern. The Sino-Bhutan boundary issue till the seventies was being considered under the broader aegis of Sino-Indian border negotiations. The Chinese intent in the engagement phase was to engage Bhutan bilaterally and create a conducive atmosphere for facilitating bilateral relations. This argument can be made by assessing a statement made by Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue in 2008 who claimed that border issues have been a platform for facilitating mutual cooperation between the two countries.

    The redistribution phase started in 1996, when China for the first time as part of the resolution package offered Bhutan a package deal, proposing an exchange of Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys totalling an area of 495 sq km in Central Bhutan, with the pasture land of Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe amounting to 269 sq km in North Western Bhutan. In 1998 both countries for the first time signed a peace agreement promising to ‘Maintain Peace and Tranquillity on the Bhutan-China Border Areas.’ The agreement was seen as significant in Thimpu because China for the first time acknowledged Bhutan as a sovereign country and stated clearly in the agreement that “China fully respects the territorial integrity and independence of Bhutan.” This was the first official recognition and Bhutan could break free from the stated Chinese rhetoric of middle kingdom suzerainty. China during the talks also insisted on expanding the zone of engagement towards developing trade and formal diplomatic relations.

    The normalisation phase can also be called the extension phase as both countries since 2000 have not shifted positions. In 2000, Bhutan extended the claim line of the disputed border. The same year, it also proposed technical discussions, using maps, between experts from the two sides. As can be gathered, the latest talks have not made progress beyond the stated positions. However, China-Bhutan engagement has intensified over the years, an aspect which sheds some light on the Chinese intentions of trying to create leverages inside Bhutan. The December 2009 statement made by the Ugyen Tshering, the Foreign Minister of Bhutan, in Kolkata is indicative of the potential that China holds for Bhutan. The Minister claimed that diplomatic and trade ties between Bhutan and China “are definitely conceivable in the future,” adding that an indirect trade link has already been established as India often buys heavy machinery and equipment of superior quality at competitive prices from China and then installs it in Bhutan. China, on its part, in the past few years has made inroads into Bhutan by exporting farming and telecommunication equipments. However, it has also not shied away from keeping Bhutan on tenterhooks. While China has been trying to engage Bhutan by promising the carrot of a promising economic engagement, it has also been using pressure tactics by intruding into Bhutanese territory. For instance, Chinese soldiers have touched upon Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) outposts several times. Stealing yaks, medicinal herbs and timber by Tibetan herders is also a common activity - an aspect which directly impacts the livelihood needs of the common people of Bhutan residing in the border areas. The Chinese response to Bhutanese objections has however been unequivocal whereby China has officially conveyed that as there has been no agreement on its proposal it cannot control the activities of Tibetan herders along the border. This perhaps is a pointer to China’s covert support for such activities. Fred Charles Ikle opines that in the normalisation phase often abnormal situations are introduced so that pressure can be created on the negotiating party. One can see the appropriateness of this description in the Chinese behaviour.

    The Proposition and the Package Deal: Potential and Actual Impact

    The protracted nature of Sino-Bhutan boundary talks and the continuous Chinese intrusions into Bhutanese territory reveals the strategic element embedded in the package deal. In November 2007, Chinese forces dismantled several unmanned posts near the Chumbi valley. This, analysts put it, has “distorted the Sino-Bhutanese border near Sikkim,” with Chinese forces only a few kilometres away from the Siliguri corridor. Chumbi Valley, a vital tri-junction between Bhutan, India and China border, is significant as it is 500 km from Siliguri corridor—the chicken neck which connects India to North East India and Nepal to Bhutan. Meanwhile Chumbi Valley is of geostrategic importance to China because of its shared borders with Tibet and Sikkim. The North-Western areas of Bhutan which China wants in exchange for the Central areas lie next to the Chumbi Valley tri-junction. Thus the potential consequences of an exchange deal would raise strategic concerns in India.

    Meanwhile the actual impact of the package deal would be felt by the local Bhutanese living in the border areas, as the demographic spread is concentrated more in the North Western areas. Though the issue has been successfully postponed in the past years, domestic pressures in Bhutan are increasing so that the dispute can be resolved expeditiously. Intrusions by Tibetan herders in North Western areas of Bhutan has occupied considerable energies in National Assembly debates – the reason being the rich pastoral land which is intricately linked to the livelihood of the local people living in the border areas. At the domestic level, Bhutan will therefore have to justify its decisions to the representative chimis of the border districts in the National Assembly, who have raised concerns regarding the Sino-Bhutan package deal. Moreover any change in the claim lines will now have to be discussed in the parliament as Article 3 of the Constitution stipulates that decisions regarding border issues should be decided by the parliament.

    The nature of politics in the package deal has thus elevated the Sino-Bhutan boundary negotiations to a level of strategic importance, where the stakes associated and its resolution thereof could change the framework of interests. Meanwhile the evolving Sino-India relations represent two dominant strands. While the first is a co-operative relationship on issues of mutual concern and interest, the second strand is reflective of a conflictual behaviour which in the recent past has been triggered on territorial and water diversion issues. Indian concerns emerge in response to the latter and therefore any development on Bhutan’s North-Western front could ring alarm bells in Indian strategic circles. Bhutan as a small country surrounded by two Asian giants has been successful in managing external players. However as the diplomatic milieu is changing in South Asia, strategic options have to be inevitably identified by the concerned countries. Based on this analysis the nineteenth round is therefore just the beginning, and much would depend on the evolving China-India-Bhutan triad.