Bhutan PM Visits India: A Strong Alliance Despite Doklam & China

Beijing’s untiring efforts in segregating China-Bhutan border dispute from India-China border dispute have failed.

4 min read
Image of Bhutan PM and Indian PM Modi used for representational purposes.

The newly-elected third Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lotay Tshering – since multiparty democracy and constitutional monarchy were introduced in 2007 – is on a 3-day visit India from 27 December.

Remember, Modi made Bhutan his first port of call after becoming prime minister in 2014? During a recent visit to Bhutan, the author of this piece learnt that India-Bhutan relations in their golden jubilee years continue to be warm, strong and stable.

In the land where Gross National Happiness is practiced as a faith, there was little evidence that Doklam has ruffled any feathers. Of the 432,000 registered voters with 400,000 Facebook accounts, few know about the face-off between the Chinese Army and Indian soldiers on Bhutanese territory at Doklam in 2017, and still fewer were bothered about it.

India-Bhutan Treaties

Similarly, not many people know about the treaty arrangements between the two countries that enabled Indian soldiers to intervene in Doklam to prevent infringement of the existing arrangements between the three countries about their border disputes, and determination of the disputed tri-junction points. On social media, mild concern was expressed about Indian interference in Bhutan’s internal affairs. There were suggestions that Bhutan should resolve its border dispute with China. But for the overwhelming majority of Bhutanese aware of Doklam, India’s intervention was welcome, and a boost to its image and stature.

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Before examining the existing treaty arrangements and Indo-Bhutan relations, one needs to recall China’s reaction to India’s response to the attempted People’s Liberation Army (PLA) intrusion at Doklam.

China’s official media Global Times noted that “China-Bhutan border issue had nothing to do with India as a third party and it had no right to interfere in or impede the boundary talks between China and Bhutan, still less to make territorial claims on behalf of Bhutan. Beijing has all along respected Bhutan’s sovereignty and independence.’’

The India-China-Bhutan Relationship

China and Bhutan have engaged in 24 rounds of border talks – three more than India and China, with the sticking point being the Doklam plateau abutting India, China and Bhutan which belongs to Bhutan but China covets. For long, Beijing has offered Thimphu a swap deal which it has declined. Doklam’s geostrategic significance coupled with the location of the disputed tri-junction in the Chumbi Valley has entwined the India-China, and China-Bhutan border disputes. Any de-coupling will have a negative effect on the foundational security of India and Bhutan.

Initially India-Bhutan relations were governed by the 1949 Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship. Despite unofficial Indian claims that Bhutan had agreed to be guided by India in its defence and foreign affairs for enjoying full autonomy in internal administration, the treaty did not include defence, but only external relations. In the re-negotiated Treaty of 2007 – before the transformation of Bhutan from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy – even the guidance by India in Bhutan’s external relations was deleted and replaced with ‘both countries will cooperate closely on issues relating to national interest including neither country allowing use for its territory for activities harmful to national security and interests of the other’. This clause was the enabler for Indian troops to move from the Doka La post, and block the PLA from constructing roads to Jampheri Ridge overlooking the Siliguri corridor and eventually to the disputed tri-junction.

“India Is a Most Special Friend”

The PLA has reinforced and fortified its disposition significantly in Doklam following the disengagement agreement on 28 August 2017. It tried to blacktop another road but was stopped, though a number of helipads, pill boxes and smaller tracks have been built in North Doklam without technically violating the terms of disengagement. The Doklam parliamentary panel report by its chairman Shashi Tharoor, has flagged the Chinese build-up. India too has improved its defences including constructing a blacktop road to Doka La post. For now, all’s quiet on the Doklam front, with commanders from both sides meeting every day.

Tshering has said there will be no change in Bhutan’s policy towards India. King Jigme Singhye Wangchuck (K4) was most explicit in embracing India saying, “I have put all my eggs in India’s basket”.

His father, K3 had said, “friendship with India is the cornerstone of Bhutan’s foreign policy.” The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck (K5) has said, “India is a most special friend and Bhutan will cooperate in the field of security with India”.

While there is no defence minister in Bhutan de facto, it is the king who exercises that responsibility.

Trust & Goodwill

Sixteen months after Doklam, Bhutan has consolidated its policy on Doklam and in dealing with China. India’s timely intervention based on the 2007 Treaty has frozen China’s creep strategy in altering the status quo in Chumbi valley. Thimphu’s complete backing of New Delhi’s offensive defence has reaffirmed mutual faith in the treaty arrangements.

Beijing’s untiring efforts in segregating China-Bhutan border dispute from the India-China border dispute have failed.

In July this year, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Kong Xuanyou made a rare three-day visit to Thimphu making it the highest level contact after Doklam. China has no diplomatic relations with Bhutan. In Thimphu, Kuwait, Bangladesh and India are the only three countries with embassies in Bhutan. After Bhutan became a member of the UN in 1971, it became the first country to recognise Bangladesh.

From India’s standpoint, Doklam has signalled to China how far it is prepared to go to fulfil the treaty obligations to Bhutan. It also demonstrated that it enjoys the goodwill of the Bhutanese while fulfilling its mandate. As he visits, Tshering must be made much of, and assured that as in the past, India will never take Bhutan for granted.

(Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta is a founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, the forerunner of the current Integrated Defence Staff. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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