Context : China and Bhutan this week held the first meeting of the newly set-up joint technical team on the delimitation of their disputed boundary, as officials from both sides met for four days in China and agreed to speed up a boundary resolution.
Background of India Bhutan Relationship
- The India-Bhutan relationship is steeped in history, marked by close cultural and geographical proximity. The foundation of this friendship was laid when India became the first country to recognize Bhutan’s independence in 1949.
- Diplomatic relations between India and Bhutan were established in 1968 with the
establishment of a special office of India in Thimphu. Before this our relations with
Bhutan were looked after by our Political Officer in Sikkim.
- The basic framework of India- Bhutan bilateral relations was the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed in 1949 between the two countries, which was revised in February 2007.
- The Golden Jubilee of the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between India and Bhutan is being celebrated in the year 2018.
Significance of Bhutan for India
- Bhutan’s significance to India stems from its geographic location. Nestled in the Himalayas, it is sandwiched between India and China. Thus, it serves as a buffer between the two Asian giants.
- Bhutan’s value as a buffer soared after China annexed Tibet in 1951. As the 2017 crisis in the Doklam region revealed, India will strongly oppose, even militarily, any Chinese attempt to assert control over Doklam. Securing Bhutan’s present borders especially its western border is clearly important for India.
- Doklam in the hands of a hostile power would heighten the vulnerability of India’s Siliguri Corridor, a narrow strip of land that links India to its Northeastern states.
Treaty of Friendship
- On August 8, 1949 Bhutan and India signed the Treaty of Friendship, calling for peace between the two nations and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.
- However, Bhutan agreed to let India “guide” its foreign policy and both nations would consult each other closely on foreign and defence affairs. The treaty also established free trade and extradition protocols.
- Scholars regard the effect of the treaty is to make Bhutan into a protected state, but not a protectorate, because Bhutan continues to have the power to conduct its own foreign policy
The New Treaty of Friendship 2007
- India re-negotiated the 1949 treaty with Bhutan and signed a new treaty of friendship in 2007. The new treaty replaced the provision requiring Bhutan to take India’s guidance on foreign policy with broader sovereignty and not require Bhutan to obtain India’s permission over arms imports.
- India allows 16 entry and exit points for Bhutanese trade with other countries (the only exception being the People’s Republic of China) and has agreed to develop and import a minimum of 10,000 megawatts of electricity from Bhutan by 2021.
- There are a number of institutional mechanisms between India and Bhutan in areas such as security, border management, trade, transit, economic, hydro-power, development cooperation, water resources.
- There have been regular exchanges at the Ministerial and officials’ level, exchanges of parliamentarian delegations to strengthen partnership in diverse areas of cooperation.
- Hydropower Cooperation Hydropower projects in Bhutan are an example of win-win cooperation, providing a reliable source of inexpensive and clean electricity to India, generating export revenue for Bhutan and cementing our economic integration.
- Government of India has constructed three Hydroelectric Projects (HEPs) in Bhutan totaling 1416 MW, which are operational and exporting surplus power to India
- About three-fourth of the power generated is exported and rest is used for domestic consumption.
- India has strong military and economic ties with Bhutan. The Indian military “is virtually responsible for protecting Bhutan from external and internal threats” and to this end, the Eastern Command of the Indian Army and Air Force have integrated Bhutan’s defence into their role and responsibilities.
- Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) trains Bhutanese security personnel as well.
China – Factor in India – Bhutan Relationship
- Strategic Balancing Act: China’s emergence as a global power has led to a nuanced approach in the region, with India and Bhutan navigating their relationship while considering their respective ties with China. Bhutan, a landlocked nation nestled between India and China, faces the challenge of balancing its close historical and strategic ties with India while managing its growing interactions with China.
- Territorial Disputes and Sovereignty: China’s territorial claims, such as those concerning Tibet and parts of Bhutan, have the potential to impact the India-Bhutan relationship. The Doklam standoff in 2017 highlighted the delicate nature of border disputes and how they can affect regional stability. India’s support to Bhutan during the standoff underscored its commitment to safeguarding Bhutan’s sovereignty.
- Infrastructure and Connectivity Initiatives: China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive infrastructure and connectivity project, has implications for the region, including Bhutan. India has expressed concerns over the BRI’s potential impact on the strategic balance and sovereignty of nations in the region. Bhutan’s careful approach to the BRI reflects its cautious assessment of the initiative’s implications.
- Trade and Economic Engagement: China’s economic influence extends beyond its borders, impacting the economic choices of neighboring countries. Bhutan, while maintaining strong economic ties with India, has also explored limited economic engagement with China. Balancing economic interests with strategic considerations remains a challenge, especially in light of Bhutan’s dependence on India for its economic well-being.
- Environmental Concerns and Water Security: China’s upstream development projects and dam construction on transboundary rivers raise concerns about water security downstream, particularly for Bhutan and India. The potential impacts on water flow and environmental stability have implications for the entire region.
China – Bhutan Boundary talks
- The boundary talks between Bhutan and China began in 1984, and the 24th round was held in 2016. The talks have largely focused on disputed areas to Bhutan’s north, and to its west, abutting the Doklam plateau. However, these have been stalled since 2016, especially after the 2017 Doklam stand-off.
- India and China were involved in a stand-off in Doklam near the India-China-Bhutan trijunction in 2017.
- Experts in India have said any deal between Beijing and Thimphu that accedes to a “swap arrangement” between areas to the North (Jamparlung and Pasamlung valleys) with Doklam to the West would be of concern to India, given the proximity to India’s narrow “Siliguri corridor” that connects northeastern States with the rest of India.