Recently, China and Bhutan held the 24th round of boundary talks in Beijing. Bhutan, a Kingdom in the foothills of the Himalayas known as “the last Shangri-La” once again attracted the attention of the people of China.
Bhutan may be called as an amazing special case of Chinese diplomacy. Peculiarity number 1: “No demarcation”. Bhutan is the only country other than India, out of China’s 14 land neighbors which is yet to demarcate its boundary with China. Both the countries over the past 32 years have conducted 24 rounds of talks and friendly negotiations over the approximately 1,200 square kilometers of disputed territory, but are yet to come up with a final solution. Peculiarity number 2: “No diplomatic relations”. Bhutan is the only neighboring country, even the only country in the whole of Asia, which has not established diplomatic relations with China. Peculiarity number 3: “No confrontation”. Bhutan voted in favour of restoring China’s legitimate seat in the United Nations. It has continuously supported China in the United Nations Conferences on Human Rights and in the World Health Assembly to foil the anti-China, Taiwan-related proposals, and has adhered to the “One China” stance on the Tibetan issue.
This situation of “Three NOs” is the combined product of historical culture, geopolitics and relations between big powers; and is closely related to the “India factor” behind this. In January 1910, Britain and Bhutan signed the “Treaty of Punakha” stipulating that Bhutanese Foreign Affairs accept the British “guidance”. After independence, India inherited the legacy of Britain, considering the countries like Bhutan and Nepal— which are at the southern foot of the Himalayas—as strategic buffer zones while seeking geographic advantage. In August 1949, India and Bhutan signed “Treaty of perpetual peace and friendship”, stipulating Bhutanese Foreign Affairs accept Indian “guidance”, and even needing India’s permission to buy arms. Under India’s “guidance”, Bhutan has established diplomatic relations with only 53 countries including India. It has not established diplomatic relations even with the “Permanent Five” of the United Nations. There have always been jokes in Nepal about “even the air of Kathmandu being filled with the flavor of New Delhi”. Walking in Bhutan, everywhere on the roads of urban and rural areas one can see Indian government troops constructing roads. When the author was applying for a visa to visit Bhutan, he was surprised to find—within Bhutan Embassy in India, except the Ambassadors and a few diplomats, rest all were Indian staff. At first glance it appeared like entering some government office in New Delhi!
In February 2007, India did not revise the provisions of “Treaty of friendship”, allowing Bhutan to autonomously decide its diplomacy, and to purchase non-lethal weapons from other countries. Although on the surface this has nullified the “despotic clauses”, putting an end to the unequal and abnormal relation—of “the controller and the controlled”— between the two countries; the New Pact at the same time stipulates that Bhutan’s behavior cannot harm India’s strategic interests. But what is meant by “harming the interests of India”? The right to interpret this is not with Bhutan. Not only that, but half of Bhutan’s revenue come from exporting hydroelectricity to India; its military expenditure and equipment, all come from Indian aid. Moreover, Bhutan is a landlocked country, and India is its largest trading partner, donor and creditor nation. It is thus clear that Bhutan at the present stage has only elevated its bilateral relations with India to the position of India-Nepal relations. In the future, it still needs to worry about India’s “disposition”.
China-Bhutan border stretches to about 600 km. Historically, it has never been formally demarcated, but there exists a traditional customary line, and the border region has been basically stable. For a time, China-Bhutan border talks used to be linked up with China-India Border Issue, trapped in the tenacious “India factor” and the ups and downs of Sino-Indian relations. For a long time, the progress was slow, and relapses occurred many times; and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries was nowhere in sight. In 1984, China and Bhutan began to independently hold talks and signed a treaty of friendship in this regard in 1998, creating favorable conditions for the final settlement of the border issue. In recent years, bilateral exchanges between China and Bhutan in various fields are continuously expanding. Border talks between the two countries have reached at further guiding suggestions, entering a substantive stage. Both the sides have successfully completed a joint survey of the disputed area. More importantly, the royal family of Bhutan and the government has time and again publicly expressed the willingness to establish diplomatic relations. A lot of media conjecture that behind all this, there is the “tacit consent” of India.
Good-neighborliness is the general trend. It can be predicted that with the continuous improvement in the independence of Bhutan’s Foreign Affairs, and with the substantial rise in China’s regional and global influence— in particular the sustained improvement in Sino-Indian relations and continued enhancement in political mutual trust, establishment of China-Bhutan diplomatic relations and demarcation of the border is only a matter of time. This will not only further enhance strategic mutual trust and economic cooperation between China and South Asian countries, but also will be a new advantage to the China-India relations. (The author is the Executive Director of the Chinese Society of South Asia)