Bhutan’s prime minister clarified on Saturday that his recent remarks about China did not mean that his country had changed its position on its border dispute with Beijing.

A week ago, in an interview with a Belgian newspaper on March 25, Lotay Tshering had said the Chinese had not intruded into Bhutan’s territory, that Thimphu was nearing a border deal with Beijing, and that any resolution to the territorial dispute in Doklam must involve Bhutan, China and India.

His comments sparked speculation that Bhutan was giving in to China’s long-standing package deal proposal in order to settle the border dispute. However, as it was announced that Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck would visit India on April 3, Tshering clarified that Thimphu’s position had not changed.

The package deal, which Beijing has pushed since the 1990s, will in theory give China control of disputed areas in Bhutan’s west, where Doklam is located, in return for Bhutan securing its claim areas along the northern border.

The proposal is quite concerning for India given the strategic importance of Doklam, where the Indian military was caught in a protracted standoff with the Chinese in 2017. Bhutan, however, may not give in to Chinese pressure on the deal just yet, strategic experts told Scroll.

The comments

In an interview with La Libre during his visit to Brussels on March 25, Tshering said Bhutan was watching if India and China could settle their boundary dispute so that the Doklam trijunction issue could be discussed trilaterally. “It is not up to Bhutan alone to solve the problem,” he said. “We are three. There is no big or small country, there are three equal countries.”

The Doklam plateau, south of the trijunction, is where the Indian military, on behalf of Bhutan, engaged in a standoff with the Chinese forces in 2017 to prevent them from encroaching upon the disputed territory. The standoff ended after over two months when both New Delhi and Beijing announced the withdrawal of their forces. However, satellite imagery shows that China has since built military installations in the area.

Satellite images showing four purported Chinese villages under construction in Bhutanese territory. Credit: Damien Symon/Twitter
Satellite images showing four purported Chinese villages under construction in Bhutanese territory. Credit: Damien Symon/Twitter

While international maps show that the trijunction lies south of China’s Chumbi Valley, at a spot called Batang La, Beijing claims the area up to a peak called Gipmochi, nearly seven km further south. China gaining control of this additional territory, which is internationally recognised as Bhutanese, is unacceptable to India due to the security risks that would pose.

Tshering, referring to the latest round of his country’s boundary negotiations with China in January, said the two nations had “come to understand each other”. “After one or two more meetings we will probably be able to draw a line,” he added.

He also dismissed reports and objections raised in particular by Tibet expert Professor Robert Barnett that China was “salami slicing” Bhutan’s territory by building several villages. “There is a lot of information circulating in the media about Chinese installations in Bhutan,” Tshering told the newspaper. “We don’t make a deal of it because it’s not in Bhutan. We said categorically, there is no intrusion as mentioned in the media. This is an international border and we know exactly what belongs to us.”

“Salami slicing” refers to the process of cutting into the opponent’s territory incrementally.

The speculation

Tshering’s comments revived concerns that Thimphu was possibly planning to cede territory under Beijing’s package deal.

Barnett questioned why the prime minister was claiming that there had been no Chinese incursion when at least 10 Chinese villages show up within what Bhutan’s own maps mark as its borders.

“This suggests either longstanding Bhutanese, Chinese and international maps of the border have all been wrong,” Barnett said, “Or it could mean that Bhutan has agreed to cede these areas to China.”

Although Barnett later said that Tshering’s comments seemed to be about areas other than Doklam, such observations heightened concerns in India that Thimphu was possibly making room to cede territory to China under the so-called package deal.

The deal proposes that Thimphu cede disputed areas in its western region, which includes Doklam, to China in exchange for territorial concessions by Beijing along Bhutan’s disputed northern border.

The clarification

Tshering’s comments predictably caused a political stir in India. “Remarks by the Bhutanese prime minister Lotay Tshering that ‘there is no intrusion’ into Bhutan by China and that Beijing has an ‘equal’ say in any discussion over its illegal intrusions raises several concerns,” Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said, launching an attack on the Narendra Modi government. He asked if Tshering’s remarks meant that there was a dilution in India and Bhutan’s position that the trijunction is situated at Batang La.

Presumably mindful of the furore that his statements had sparked in India ahead of the king’s visit, Tshering sought to reiterate his country’s position on the border dispute and assuage India’s concerns. “I have said nothing new and there is no change in position,” Tshering told The Bhutanese newspaper on Saturday.

King Wangchuck, accompanied by foreign minister Tandi Dorji, is visiting from Monday to Wednesday.

The visit, India’s foreign ministry said, is in line with “the long-standing tradition of regular high-level exchanges between the two countries”. The Indian Express also reported, quoting unidentified persons aware of the development, that the king’s visit was being planned for some time and should “not be linked with recent Doklam comments”. Some observers, however, speculated whether the visit was connected to the controversy.

India’s concerns

China’s package deal for Bhutan has long concerned New Delhi because of the great strategic importance of Doklam.

Rajesh Rajagopalan, professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, suggested that the Doklam plateau’s location and the advantages of controlling that height just north of the Siliguri corridor make it critical from India’s point of view. “By controlling Doklam, China will have a better surveillance view over the Siliguri corridor,” Rajagopalan told Scroll. “There has already been a military build-up on the Chinese side. Therefore, India is concerned about it.”

The Siliguri corridor, or the so-called Chicken’s neck, refers to a very narrow track of land around Siliguri city in West Bengal that connects the North East to the rest of the country. China possibly threatening this land bridge induces a sense of vulnerability in India.

Indian PM Narendra Modi and Bhutanese PM Lotay Tshering. Credit: Ministry of External Affairs/Raveesh Kumar/Twitter
Indian PM Narendra Modi and Bhutanese PM Lotay Tshering. Credit: Ministry of External Affairs/Raveesh Kumar/Twitter

Harsh V Pant, vice president of studies and foreign policy at the think tank Observer Research Foundation, also suggested that any change to the status quo in Doklam would pose serious security concerns for India. “Any attempt by China to unilaterally create infrastructure and change the boundary at the Doklam will be taken very seriously by India,” Pant told Scroll.

Pant said another reason for India to oppose the deal is that a change of status quo in Doklam will set a dangerous precedent.

Author and journalist Manoj Joshi has previously pointed out that while Doklam has no particular significance to Bhutan itself, handing it over to China would be unfavourable for New Delhi due to India’s security considerations.

Similarly, Pant suggested that while resolving its border dispute through such a territorial barter with China might make sense for Bhutan, it would be “very dangerous” for Bhutan and India and their bilateral ties in the long term.

The experts, however, argued that the recent developments in Bhutan’s possible boundary dispute resolution with China and Tshering’s initial comments do not necessarily mean that Thimphu will give in to Chinese pressure on the package deal involving Doklam at this stage. “India and Bhutan have deep economic ties and they can’t risk an Indian blockade,” said Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. “Bhutan won’t and can’t give up Doklam to China. India too won’t let that happen.”

Similarly, Pant highlighted that India will push for its interests given its perception about China. He said New Delhi will need to assertively tell Thimphu that China is now being seen as a very serious strategic challenge and not merely as a “problem state”. “Once Bhutan becomes more aware about these Indian sensitivities about China, it will become aware of the costs that will be imposed on it if it reaches that resolution with China,” he added.

Moreover, observers such as Barnett see Tshering’s comments as a reiteration of Thimphu’s position that discussions over the trijunction will involve India and not happen bilaterally with China. This is seen as a reassurance to New Delhi.