The Doko-La sector in the tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan has recently become a potential military flashpoint due to yet another India-China faceoff. As P Stobdan wrote in a recent article for The Wire, the 1949 Treaty of Friendship between India and Bhutan gives India a role in Bhutan’s foreign policy. It also allows India’s adversaries to accuse it of having ‘hegemonic and expansionist ambitions’. Likewise, Wangcha Sangey, a Bhutanese expert, mentions in People’s Daily Online how China’s negotiation with Bhutan on border disputes is beneficial for the latter’s sovereignty, while India’s involvement suggests Bhutan’s surrender.
China and Bhutan have no diplomatic relations. In 1983, the two countries had held talks at foreign minister level on an establishment of bilateral relations. From 1984, both began annual direct talks over border disputes. Then, in 1998, they signed an agreement for maintenance of peace on the border. China affirmed its respect for Bhutan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and both sides sought to build ties based on the five principles of peaceful coexistence.
Coming to today, China building roads on what Bhutan claims as its territory has provoked tensions, as it is seen as a violation of the 1998 agreement. But the current tension in Doko-La sector is part of the border dispute between China and Bhutan, and India has no role in it.
Up to 1970, under the 1949 treaty, India even defined Bhutan’s concerns in its border disputes with China. But after becoming a member of the United Nations in 1971, Bhutan began to take a different path in its foreign policy. In the UN, Bhutan often took positions against India, voting in favor of China and openly supporting “One China” policy.
Whence special relations?
Bhutan and India share ‘special’ relations. In fact, India has had special influence over Bhutan since the time of the British, after a treaty in 1919 that permitted the British to ‘guide’ Bhutan’s foreign and defense affairs. With the 1949 treaty, Bhutan gave similar powers to India, which could now act as a ‘guardian’ of Bhutan’s foreign and defense policies. In addition, the treaty gave India extended powers on Bhutan’s ‘free trade’ and ‘extradition’ protocols.
Although Bhutan was ‘protectorate’ of India, at times the Bhutanese government expressed a need to renegotiate parts of the old treaty to enhance Bhutan’s sovereignty. In addition to Bhutan’s membership of the UN in 1971, it also exerted its independent stance at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Havana in 1979, by voting with China and some Southeast Asian countries, rather than with India, on the issue of allowing Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge to be seated at the conference. Unlike the case of Nepal, where it's 1950 treaty with India has been subject of great political controversy and nationalist resentment because of the presence of a great many Indian immigrants in Nepal, Bhutan’s relationship with India has not been affected by such concerns.
The 1949 treaty was eventually renewed in 2007, and the old provision requiring Bhutan to take India’s guidance on foreign policy was changed. Bhutan, likewise, would henceforth not have to get India’s permission to import arms, even as Nepal faces this constraint, unlike the 1950 treaty. In 2008, India’s then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Bhutan and expressed strong support for Bhutan’s move to democracy. India allowed 16 entries and exit points for Bhutanese trade with other countries (other than China) and agreed to develop and import a minimum of 10,000 megawatts of electricity from Bhutan by 2021.
In the border dispute between China and Bhutan, the former says the border was already fixed in 1890 while Bhutan was under British Raj. The point of contention is that British India in 1914 redefined the demarcation with Tibet, a redefinition China refuses to recognize. There was a fresh debate when Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigme Yoser Thinley and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met on the sidelines of the Rio Climate Summit in 2012. This hurt New Delhi but it accused Thimpu of lack of transparency and of keeping India in the dark. Consequently, as Stobdan writes, New Delhi not only played electoral politics to oust Thinley but also cut its subsidies on gas and kerosene on the eve of the Bhutanese general election in July 2013.
In relation to China-Bhutan border dispute, the 24th round of China-Bhutan border talks in Beijing in August 2016 made India suspicious of Bhutan’s geopolitics.
Then, in August 2015, China signed a series of bilateral treaties with Nepal despite India’s objections to Nepal’s new constitution. Later, in 2017, Nepal became an active partner on China’s OBOR project.
So all these pieces of evidence indicate that these two northern Himalayan states, Bhutan and Nepal, want to exercise their sovereignty and they want freedom of action. They are not ready to play by the old British playbooks that have been copied by the democratic India. In this connection, it is high time that India applies the Gujaral Doctrine of non-reciprocity with its small neighbors.
Bhutan was given greater autonomy in its foreign policy and military purchases thanks to the treaty revision of 2007. But Nepal’s wish to amend the 1950 Treaty is in limbo despite many rounds of meetings of the two sets of Eminent Persons Groups, which were formed to suggest treaty revisions to their respective governments.
In the current border dispute at Doko-La, the Chinese have been accused by India of constructing roads in disputed territories. Yet in a similar dispute over the Nepal-India-China tri-junction of Lipulekh, both India and China completely bypassed Nepal and signed a bilateral treaty allowing for trade through the crucial tri-junction. Such double standards do not behoove two rising world powers like India and China.