China and Bhutan are aiming to resolve a long-standing border dispute

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cdiplomatic Hinse has been on a rough ride in South Asia for most of the past four years. Relations with India took a nosedive after a deadly conflict in 2020. Debt problems, political instability and militant attacks on Chinese nationals have put pressure on “ironclad” relations with Pakistan. Sri Lanka’s China-friendly president faced massive unrest last year after he fell into a debt crisis linked to Chinese loans. Bangladesh also suspended several infrastructure projects linked to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Photo: The Economist

Recently, however, China has pushed back in some parts of the region – to India’s dismay. The latest Chinese success came with Bhutan, a Himalayan kingdom of 770,000 people sandwiched between China and India. It is the only Asian country that does not have formal diplomatic ties with China. Along with India, it is also one of only two countries that have an official land border dispute with China. And to make matters more complicated, the disagreement covers an area, called the Doklam plateau, where the Indian, Chinese and Bhutanese borders meet (see map).

This development was the first ever visit to Beijing by a Bhutanese foreign minister. Tandi Dorji met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on October 23 (see photo) and with the Chinese vice president, Han Zheng, the next day. He also participated in the first talks between the two countries on the border dispute since the standoff between Chinese and Indian troops in Doklam in 2017.

In his meeting, Mr. Wang said that China was ready to complete the border talks as soon as possible and to establish formal ties with Bhutan, describing it as a “historic opportunity”. China’s reading quoted Mr Dorji as saying he was also keen on an early border settlement and progress towards establishing formal ties. A joint press release was less definitive, saying only that both sides agreed to continue pushing forward with border talks.

But Bhutan’s Prime Minister, Lotay Tshering, suggested to an Indian newspaper earlier in October that formal ties with China were the ultimate goal. “Theoretically, how can Bhutan not have bilateral relations with China? The question is when, and in what way,” he said. He also mentioned that a land swap was proposed with Doklam.

The rapprochement is geopolitically important for several reasons. Bhutan has no formal diplomatic ties with any of the five permanent members (or P5) from the UN Security Council – America, Great Britain, China, France and Russia – largely due to their history of isolation and non-alignment in the cold war. By opening formal ties with China Bhutan could do the same with others P5, drawing him into the ongoing struggle for diplomatic influence around China’s borders.

But it is more important for India. Under a treaty signed in 1949, India was given the formal right to direct Bhutan’s foreign policy in exchange for free trade and security guarantees. The foreign policy provision was deleted in 2007, but India has remained Bhutan’s most important diplomatic and economic partner.

Doklam is the main concern of Indian officials because it is close to the Siliguri Corridor (also known as the “chicken’s neck”) that connects India’s northeastern states with the rest of the country. Indian authorities have long feared that China, which won a brief border war with India over a nearby part of the disputed border in 1962, might try to split the Siliguri corridor.

India may now have accepted that diplomatic ties between China and Bhutan are inevitable, given the attractiveness of Chinese trade and investment. But he wants a part in the border talks and is skeptical about land swaps. Progress may still be possible, as China and India both appear to want to stabilize their border dispute. Since the deadly clash in 2020, they have withdrawn troops from several flash points, creating buffer zones where neither side keeps watch.

But Indian officials are also concerned about China’s renewed efforts to strengthen its position in an area India considers its backyard. Several South Asian states are indebted to China. The Maldives, where India has recently reasserted its influence, elected a new president for China, Mohamed Muizzu, in September. India has since been asked to remove the approximately 70 Indian soldiers stationed there to maintain radar stations and other military assets.

In Sri Lanka too, India has pushed back against China’s influence in recent years, but the island nation has recently indicated that it is seeking strong relations with the two Asian giants. On October 25 the Sri Lankan government allowed a Chinese scientific research vessel to dock in Colombo, its largest city, despite American and Indian security concerns. The president of Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, also attended the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in October. The geopolitical jockeying certainly continues. But China is still very much in the game.

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