Chinese Expansionism in Bhutan: A Threat to India’s Security

Srikanth Kondapalli

In 1910, China’s warlord Zhao Erfeng dreamt of controlling the five Himalayan states of Tibet, Bhutan, Ladakh, Nepal and Sikkim. China’s current leadership has stepped up efforts to fulfil that dream, with the latest inroads being made in Bhutan.

China and Bhutan do not have diplomatic relations, but with Tibet coming under China’s rule in 1951, they share borders since. The Dalai Lama’s flight in 1959 resulted in Bhutan, a staunch Vajrayana Buddhist country, sealing borders with Tibet. However, in 1984, Beijing and Thimphu began discussing the territorial dispute resolution and 25 rounds of discussions had taken place till this October. The 2012 and 2021 bilateral MoUs further added momentum on the border talks.

China applied its time-tested strategy to wear out its opponents in territorial dispute resolution – Mao Zedong’s “tan, tan, da da” [talking, talking, (but) preparing for war]. The 477-km long border is gradually being converted into a war zone by China with military mobilisation, constructing “well-off society” villages, and mercantilist policies of aid, loans and coercive diplomacy.

China proposed a “package deal” in 1996 — Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys in the central sector in return for Bhutan recognising China’s sovereignty over Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana, and Shakhatoe in the western sector. However, the western sector border makes vulnerable India’s Sikkim and the “chicken neck” connecting northern India with its northeast at Siliguri. Bhutan earlier signed “perpetual friendship” treaties with India in 1949 and 2007 to ward off challenges from China. Beijing is currently testing such “special relations” between Bhutan and India in its quest for regional and global hegemony, unveiled by the Communist Party of China in 2017.

2017 coincided with the Doklam crisis, when China unilaterally began constructing a road in opposition to Bhutan, which requested India’s help. The 73-day military stand-off was finally called off. China sees India as a spoiler of its ambitions.

To exert further pressure on Bhutan, China began constructing “well-off society” villages at Gyalaphug (in Doklam Plateau in 2015) and several other places claimed by Bhutan. Further, in June 2020, China began claiming 650 sq km of the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan’s eastern district of Trashigang. Thimphu suspects that through these China’s military will make inroads into Bhutan and send Chinese migrants for regional domination efforts.

Another stealthy effort of China is in the economic field. India used to be Bhutan’s biggest trading partner as well as aid provider. However, in the last few years, China has displaced India and now accounts for more than a quarter of Bhutan’s trade.

To extend China’s influence, it is necessary to invest in physical connectivity projects such as roads, railways, hydro-electricity and other projects. The Power Construction Corporation of China is involved in the Chukha hydropower project and the Punatshangchu Hydropower Project. Sinohydro Corporation, China Gezhouba Group, China Road and Bridge Corporation and other Chinese State-owned companies are involved in several infrastructure projects in Bhutan, while China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group Co is exploring railway connectivity through the Lhasa-Gyantse link. Chinese Party-State companies also built the 220-km Friendship Highway in 2008, 290-km Lateral Road in 2013, 100-km Gelephu-Gomtu Road in 2016, 60-km Wangdue-Trongsa Road in 2017, in addition to mining copper and gold.

Additionally, China dominates the crucial telecom sector in Bhutan laying down fibre optic cables, expanding mobile networks, and establishing internet access points. Huawei is involved in Bhutan since 2009 in 3G and 4G telecom networks. Prior to the pandemic, China sent over 80,000 tourists to Bhutan, but the latter is aware that China could weaponise tourism, as it did against South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan. China is thus exerting tremendous pressure on Bhutan to establish diplomatic relations. Territorial dispute resolution is a step in that direction, though China’s overbearing conduct towards Thimphu and New Delhi could stall that process for the time being.

China’s territorial concessions to Bhutan are nominal and tactical in the central sector while the gains it seeks in the western sector are substantial and strategic in nature, aimed at countering and weakening India.

This article was first published by Deccan Herald as Bhutan under China’s shadow on 3 December, 2023.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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This article was posted by Swetha Shanker Pydimarry, a visiting researcher and assistant editor at IMPRI.