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The Ides of March: Reciprocal visits of the PMs of India and Bhutan - Intent, Imperatives and expected outcomes; By: Cmde R S Vasan IN (Retd.)

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Article 10/2024

The fact that PM Modi started his foreign visits to Bhutan as the first destination during both his tenures on assuming office is as significant as it is now when he commences his visit tomorrow when his second term is about to come to an end.

Coming close on the heels of the visit of his counterpart Dasho Tshering Tobgay to India last week, it is very clear that Bhutan is very high on the list of neighbourhood priorities. In this case, on the face of it, it is clear that while the election campaigning is important domestically after the announcement of the election schedule, Bhutan issues are equally important at the strategic level. This reinforces the fact that Bhutan issues needed focused attention with or without the election as it impacts the big picture in the Himalayas. The perpetual friendship treaties with India in 1949 as modified in 2007 reinforces the role of India as a benign guarantor of Bhutan’s security. The Chinese factor is indeed the biggest variable or a constant in the relationship between India and Bhutan depending on how it is analysed. With the bordering Indian states of Assam, West Bengal and Sikkim, many connectivity and infrastructure projects in the border areas would ensure that both India and Bhutan prosper by addressing connectivity paradigms.

To recap the vexed border issue, the area of the territorial dispute between China and Bhutan covers an area of 764 square kilometres out of which 269 sq km is in the western sector and the balance in north central Bhutan. China also claimed portions of the Salting Wildlife Sanctuary in the eastern sector. This follows a familiar pattern of staking claims in new areas and then applying pressure on the disputants to accept new boundaries. Bhutan and China signed an MoU in October 2021 for a three-step roadmap that envisaged delimitation of the border on maps as a first step, followed by joint survey in the second step leading to the final step of demarcation of the border. The first meeting was held in Kunming in April 2021. Another meeting was held in January 2023 in the Yunnan province. A joint technical team (JTT) was formed to demarcate the boundary.

There are obvious concerns in the Indian political and security establishment on the possible outcomes of such meetings that may place India in a disadvantageous position. Going by the statement of the Foreign Ministry of China, it is clear that China would like to resolve the border issues and have diplomatic relations with Bhutan. This would progressively address the long-term objective of achieving the five fingers policy of China as envisioned by Mao Zeadong. He believed that Tibet was the right-hand palm of China while Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nepal, Ladakh and Bhutan were its five fingers. Even in the case of India, though Aksai Chin was occupied, as per archival reports, China tried to use this as barter to claim Arunachal Pradesh as its part of China.

While during the visit of the PM of Bhutan last week, the usual emphasis on economic packages, hydroelectric projects, connectivity, support for the Special Economic Zone, and even supply of drones was publicized, the less publicized but privately acknowledged by sources who choose to remain anonymous, there are serious concerns about China’s inroads in to Bhutan in multiple areas of investment and engagement more specifically on the efforts to redraw the borders. China is viewed as a huge challenge for India to maintain the momentum of its neighbouring diplomacy. India is committed to promoting the interests of its neighbours on the neighbourhood first policy and the adherence to Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). The past demonstrated actions of India with respect to its smaller neighbours have reassured the neighbours that India does not nurture the big brother attitude.

Traditionally, India has been overseeing the security arrangements including training and military advice. It's understandable if some of this will not come out in the media glare with consideration to the sensitivities associated with the issues; China will be relentless in trying to advance its military/ strategic interests in the contested areas. The efforts of China to redraw the borders with its neighbours are too well known to bear repetition. There seems to be a pattern in using all modes of applying pressure to obtain results on its terms. India justifiably therefore would like to ensure that no stone is unturned to protect its long-term strategic interests that has worked to both countries' advantage.

Therein, lays the importance of this visit of the Prime Minister Modi, who in the last two terms has clearly analysed Chinese intent and actions and would like to ensure that there are no surprises. With the constitutional monarchy in place in Bhutan, the King continues to be the one responsible for military and economy. The meeting with the King would be of great importance to both sides as the free and frank discussions are expected to pave the way for better handling of the situation along the border.

India on its part is accustomed to the pressure tactics and is concerned about the cartographic changes that China seeks to bring about by offering inducements, promise of investments, and also peace along the borders. From the point of view of Bhutan, it would not like to choose sides, though India is still the preferred choice for helping it with peace, prosperity, and stability initiatives. India is also the second most preferred destination after Australia for the youth from Bhutan who are moving out in large numbers. This is also an issue of concern to Bhutan which would like to retain its population by making the country attractive for its youth. This demands better job prospects, educational, and business opportunities which cannot be created without massive investments in infrastructure and educational systems.

Though there is no diplomatic relation between China and Bhutan, the forward momentum in trying to resolve the long-standing border dispute has been taken note of by the security establishment of India. The visit by the Foreign Secretary of India to Bhutan soon after elections and the reciprocal visits now are indicative of the importance attached by both sides to be in touch on the developments in the borders that have great strategic importance to India. Soon after the visit of Xi Jinping to India in 2017, when he was still in dialogue with PM Modi, Doklam flared up much to the consternation of India which considered it as an attempt to redraw the boundaries in the tri junction of the three countries.

Doklam Plateau is an area of 89 sq. kilometres within the contested area of 269 sq. kms in the western Bhutan. PLA forces had started reinforcing their position and had made inroads into areas of Bhutan. India did intervene on behalf of Bhutan and after many parleys behind doors stretching over 73 days, the status quo was restored. China intensified its efforts to negotiate with Bhutan and desired an advantageous position from which the PLA could overcome the challenges in the narrow Chumbi valley and gain some advantages in monitoring the Siliguri corridor. Just as in the case of India where multiple dialogue on the border standoff numbering more than 21 occasions have failed to yield any results, even in the case of Bhutan, there is not much headway despite twenty-five plus meetings on the issue. China has offered to forsake its claims on the northern Bhutan if the borders are redrawn between Bhutan and China in the eastern sector. This indeed is at the centre of India’s concerns. As far as Bhutan is concerned, just as many other smaller neighbours, it too cannot choose to be in the crossfire of the emerging dynamics of power play between India and China.

From the Indian experience, it is clear that China in all negotiations would like to wear out the smaller countries by long drawn processes till it reaches a solution that it seeks to achieve. One of the analysts called it the “tan tan da da'' policy of China which is to keep talking while preparing for war. This conforms to the old prescription and guiding principle of Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy who advocated hiding one’s strength while bidding for time.

In conclusion, by all the developments in the two terms of Modi Government, it can safely be inferred that Bhutan continues to occupy a high place in the strategic thinking of India which would like to secure its neighbourhood both in the seas, and along the land borders. Any change in the status quo would seriously undermine the strategic preparedness of India in this important region. The visit of Modi before the end of his present term is an indication of the highest importance attached to the developments between China and Bhutan in the shadow of the long-drawn LAC standoff since 2020.

(Commodore R S Vasan IN (Retd.) is the Director General of C3S. The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)

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Very well analyzed and written. Presents the complete gamut of the situation.