Warming ties: On Bhutan-China relations and India’s concerns 

India must understand Bhutan’s reasoning in Thimphu’s talks with China 

October 26, 2023 12:20 am | Updated 10:08 am IST

This week’s visit of Bhutan’s Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji to China, was unprecedented on several levels. Bhutan and China do not maintain diplomatic relations. His visit is the first ever by a Bhutanese Foreign Minister. Moreover, the main purpose was the holding of boundary talks that have not taken place in more than seven years. The talks appeared to yield substantive progress, according to a joint statement, with both countries having also signed a cooperation agreement outlining the functioning of a new joint technical team for the delimitation and demarcation of the boundary. In the talks with Dr. Dorji, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, called for both sides to soon establish diplomatic relations and to conclude their boundary negotiations. It is true that India, given its special relationship with Bhutan, has been very wary about the possibility of the establishment of diplomatic relations and the signing of a boundary agreement. But both those outcomes increasingly appear inevitable. Indeed, only this month, the Bhutanese Prime Minister in an interview with this paper said that the two countries were inching towards the completion of a three-step road map on boundary delineation and demarcation. He asserted that no agreement with China would in any way go against India’s interests.

Given Bhutan’s unique dependence on India, there is little doubt that it will have taken New Delhi on board in its efforts to normalise relations with China, in return guaranteeing India’s security interests and red lines. One such red line will involve keeping China away from southern Doklam’s ridges that overlook India’s “Siliguri corridor”, even as Beijing and Thimphu consider a “swap” between territories in the valleys of the north, where Bhutan is coming under intense Chinese pressure, and on the Doklam plateau in the west. A second line will likely involve Thimphu going slow on normalising ties and opening itself up to a permanent Chinese diplomatic presence, while continuing with border talks. The question now facing New Delhi is how best to protect its interests. One lesson from the crisis that was thrust upon Thimphu in 2017, during the India-China Doklam stand-off, is that India’s interests are better served by taking Bhutan on board and aligning strategies rather than by expecting acquiescence from a sovereign nation that will understandably pursue its own. A border deal that addresses Bhutanese concerns in the north while preserving India’s red lines in the west will not necessarily undermine New Delhi’s interests. Rather than alarm, India must approach the boundary negotiations with a greater understanding of Bhutan’s reasoning, and with confidence that India’s long-trusted neighbour will take both India’s interests and its own into consideration before any final agreement.

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