Even as Indian and Chinese troops disengage in Ladakh after the worst border skirmish between the two countries in decades, the aftershocks are being felt in Bhutan, sandwiched between the two Asian giants.

Last week, the Chinese government included Bhutan’s “eastern sectors” as part of the disputed areas between the two countries. “There have been disputes over the eastern, central and western sectors for a long time,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement.

A ‘shocking’ claim

The Chinese claims, political commentators in Bhutan say, came from “out of the blue” and were a “shock” to the Bhutanese administration. The two countries have been engaged in border talks since 1984. They have reportedly never discussed the eastern sectors as the Chinese allegedly did not lay claim to it.

The Chinese assertion follows its attempt last month to stop funding to the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, located in far-eastern Bhutan, from the United Nations Development Programme’s Global Environment Facility. The United States-based global body funds environmental projects. China claimed the sanctuary was situated in “disputed territory”.

Bhutan, news reports said, issued a démarche – the two countries do not share a diplomatic relationship – to the Chinese government in protest. The Chinese have refused to back down.

The India connection

Observers say China’s move may be linked to its feud with India. Bhutan’s far-eastern areas, where the Sakteng sanctuary is located, borders Arunachal Pradesh – which China insists is “South Tibet” and part of its territory. “We seem to have been dragged into this since the Chinese never claimed this part of our territory in all these years of discussion,” said a Bhutanese political observer who requested anonymity – border issues, handled directly by the Bhutanese king, are a no-go for public discussions. The Bhutanese government has not issued any statement on the matter so far, and it is unlikely to do so.

Not many in Bhutan may have seen the current move by China coming, but India has always loomed large over China and Bhutan’s border troubles. After all, India is Bhutan’s closest ally in the region, playing an outsized role in its defence and foreign policy. The Indian Army maintains a mission in Bhutan: the Indian Military Training Team, responsible for training the Royal Bhutan Army and the Royal Bodyguard of Bhutan.

Bhutan's Prime Minister Lotay Tshering visits checkpoints in Gelephu and Phuentsholing at the India-Bhutan border, following measures implemented against the outbreak of coronavirus in Feburary. Credit: Handout/Bhutan Prime Minister's Office/AFP

“The Sino-Bhutan border dispute is not so much a contest over territory as it is of China’s desire to punish Bhutan for allying with its regional rival, India,” wrote Dorji Penjore, who heads the Centre for Bhutan and Gross National Happiness Studies, in a paper titled “Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants”.

Rabilal Dhakal, who teaches in the country’s Royal Thimphu College, tended to agree. Bhutan has been party to the India-China conflict for a long time now, said Dhakal. “China has always had a problem with the presence of Indian troops inside Bhutan and on the Bhutan-China border,” he said.

According to Dhakal, tensions intensified during the conflict in Doklam, a contested plateau close to Sikkim and near the tri-junction of the three countries. In the summer of 2017, it was the site of a two-month stand-off between Indian and Chinese forces. “At the time, the Indian media manipulated the geography of Doklam to say that Indian forces were in Sikkim when they were actually in Bhutanese territory,” he said. “That irritated the Chinese so personally I will not be surprised if China makes even more claims given what transpired in Ladakh.”

He added: “We are getting into trouble with China only because India is having troubles with China. If the relationship between China and India improves, we don’t have anything to do with China.”

Lying low

The general public in Bhutan is not panicking yet, note observers in the country. China’s claim has not invoked strong nationalistic sentiments among the Bhutanese, either. In fact, the development has barely registered in public consciousness so far. “It is not like it is in the back of people’s head,” said a journalist from the country.

The primary reason for this lack of concern, the journalist said, was lack of trustworthy information in the public domain. The local media has ignored the development almost entirely so far and, according to the journalist, there is very little trust in the Indian media among the Bhutanese. “We were super quiet even during Doklam and it’s the same case here,” the journalist pointed out. “Even the contents of the démarche are not public.”

Another reason for the muted response, the journalist explained, was “the belief that the king would ensure that nothing would ever go wrong”.

But for those following the story in the Indian media, these are anxious times. “It is very stressful for the average Bhutanese to be stuck between India and China in a situation like this,” said Namgay Zam, a well-known Bhutanese journalist.

As has been the case historically, Dhakal said, Bhutanese sympathies continued to be with India. “The only problem is the Indian media which spreads all sorts of misinformation about Bhutan and keeps speculating that we, like Nepal, have sided with China,” he said. “That has put off a lot of people here.”