During the recent standoff in the Doklam region between China and India, India has claimed that the region in Yadong county, China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, belongs to Bhutan and that China is trying to grab it. Although the ‘1890 Convention Between Great Britain and China Relating to Sikkim and Tibet’ between the then Qing government of China and the UK explicitly stipulated the boundary between China’s Tibet and British-controlled Sikkim, with Doklam falling on China’s side. In 1975, after Sikkim was annexed by India, that border became the boundary between China and India.
India, however, claims that the region belongs to Bhutan, and is using Bhutan as an excuse for its current standoff with China.
Zhang Yongpan, a researcher with the Research Center for Chinese Borderland History and Geography at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), told the Global Times that the “treaty was legally binding, and whether from historical documents or from reality, there is no argument that Doklam belongs to China.”
“India is trying to push Bhutan to the front. But actually, China and Bhutan have been on good terms,” he said.
China and Bhutan have held border talks since 1984. Last August, the border talks entered their 24th round. The talks reportedly have made important progress over the recent years.
Sun Hongnian, another researcher at the CASS said there have been no territorial disputes in recent history over Doklam, and India is intentionally trying to create one.
Zhang said that though China’s infrastructure construction in Doklam has been slow, with the completion of the Lhasa-Shigatse Railway, roads in Yadong county and pathways in Nathula, India is worried that China might gain a strategic edge in the region.
India is also worried that as China boosts Doklam’s infrastructure, it will be able to threaten India’s Siliguri Corridor in the case of a major conflict. Often nicknamed the “chicken’s neck” by the Indian media, the corridor is a narrow stretch of land – at one point only 27 kilometers wide – that connects India’s northeastern states to the rest of the country.
India’s influence is everywhere in Bhutan with a population of only 770,000 and an area smaller than Switzerland. Apart from the local currency, every business accepts Indian rupees at an exchange rate of 1:1. The county’s laws on tourism stipulate that foreigners can only visit as part of a government-sanctioned tour group or accompanied by a tour guide. The rule, however, doesn’t seem to apply to Indians.
Since India controls Bhutan’s foreign policy and national defense, Bhutan does not restrict the country’s activities in the country. Many luxurious hotels in Bhutan are run by Indian hotel groups, with their staff all from India.
According to media reports, around 79 percent of Bhutan’s total imports are from India and India provides a market for 90 percent of its exports. India is Bhutan’s biggest donor. India has helped Bhutan with building infrastructure as well, such as hydropower plants.
In terms of the nation’s military, an article published in The Hindu said the Indian military is responsible for protecting Bhutan “from the kind of external threat that the Chinese military poses.”
The article said that India’s Eastern Army Command and the Eastern Air Command both have integrated the protection of Bhutan into their role, and the Indian Military Training Team plays a critical role in training Bhutanese security personnel.
However, with its heavy reliance on India, Bhutan has found it hard to gain diplomatic independence. In 1949, India and Bhutan signed the treaty in which Bhutan agreed to let India “guide” its foreign policy.
Observers think that Bhutan’s subordination to India is a remnant of the British Empire, which controlled Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, which had all previously been vassal states of the Qing Empire (1644-1911), in order to expand its influence in Tibet. In the 1940s, after British rule in South Asia came to an end, India naturally wanted to inherit its assets.
In 2007, as political reform reshaped Bhutan, the Treaty of Friendship between Bhutan and India was revised, and the provision on foreign policy guidance was replaced. However, it still says that Bhutan’s foreign relations cannot hurt India’s national interests.
Bhutan has not yet established diplomatic relations with any of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
Located at the heart of the Himalayas and sandwiched between two most populated countries in the world, Bhutan has a huge strategic significance. The Diplomat has referred to it as the Indian army’s front line.
Bhutanese government officials are anxious about India-Bhutan relations, worrying that the fate that befell Sikkim, which was annexed by India in 1975, could also befall Bhutan. As the country entered the 21st country, Bhutan’s king gave up much of his political power and launched parliamentary elections, hoping that democracy would give the government more authority.
Many analysts believe that India played a crucial role in Bhutan’s 2013 elections, using its economic clout to sway election results and change people’s view of the ruling party, according to the Diplomat.
It is widely suspected that during the election the Indian government used this leverage by cutting subsidized gasoline and kerosene to the country in response to what it saw as then Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigme Thinley’s warming of relations with China, resulting in his government’s eventual defeat at the polls.
Seeking to repair relations, India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose Bhutan as his first visit abroad, and came bearing gifts in the form of a 50 percent increase in aid and loans from the previous year.
Although the country has tried to enhance its sovereignty, as New Delhi still has a grip on its economy and military, Bhutan’s path to total independence is bound to be a bumpy one, the pro-Beijing Global Times said.