Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou’s recent three-day visit to Bhutan failed to galvanize much media attention outside of the immediate region. But seasoned observers saw the senior envoy’s tour as a renewed Chinese charm offensive to win influence in the small, remote Himalayan kingdom at the expense of its traditional ally India.
The Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece newspaper, quoted a Chinese academic referring to Kong’s visit saying, “So far Bhutan cannot completely get rid of India’s influence on politics, economy, diplomacy and security. [But] China hopes Bhutan could be independent in these respects like Nepal.”
Nepal is a textbook example of how China’s mix of soft diplomacy, generous aid and getting on the right side of local politics has won over a South Asian nation that was previously firmly in India’s sphere of influence.
Another example is the island republic of Maldives, where China’s deft diplomacy, rich infrastructure-building and picking the right winner between incumbent President Abdulla Yameen and his pro-Indian, coup-ousted predecessor Mohamed Nasheed has paved new diplomatic inroads for Beijing.
Kong’s July 22-24 visit to Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, was the first by a senior Chinese official since last year’s 72-day standoff between Indian and Chinese forces on the Doklam plateau, a high-altitude tri-junction area which is claimed by China while India and Bhutan see it as Bhutanese territory.
In June 2017, Chinese road construction crews protected by Chinese troops began to build a road through the disputed area located on the eastern flank of the Chumbi valley, a narrow salient between western Bhutan and the mountainous Indian state of Sikkim. The stand-off ended inconclusively when both India and China agreed to withdraw from Doklam last August.
But India’s initial reaction to the roadworks was likely exactly what China wanted in a well-laid diplomatic trap. India’s response to the infrastructure project made it appear as the belligerent party while at the same time raising concern in Bhutan, where India’s military presence is politically sensitive.
Now, some Bhutanese politicians want to lessen the small landlocked country’s dependence on India, an issue that has emerged ahead of National Assembly elections scheduled for later this year.
P Stobdan, a well-known Indian security analyst, argued in a local media article last year before the Doklam incident that Bhutan’s election “will be fought on pro- versus anti-Indian slogans.” That seems more likely in the standoff’s aftermath, where certain local politicians are pointing to the geopolitical risks as an argument for reducing national dependence on India.
If China wants to drive a wedge between India and Bhutan, then Kong’s visit was strategically timed. The Chinese envoy used the opportunity to promote President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), though firm plans will likely have to wait until the sides establish formal diplomatic relations.
India is known to view China’s BRI with suspicion as envisioned railways, roads and ports under the US$1 trillion venture crisscross its traditional areas of influence in the region and if fully realized will give China new access points to the Indian Ocean, where the two sides are increasingly jockeying for strategic advantage.
Unresolved border issues with China are known to compound India’s trepidation, as do recent revelations that ethnic insurgents from northeastern India have a clandestine presence in China’s southern Yunnan province. While Beijing has not acknowledged the rebel presence on its territory, Delhi will remember well China’s support for ethnic Naga, Mizo and Manipuri rebels in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
That aid came to a halt in the mid-1970’s, but it seems Beijing is now more willing than in the 1980’s and 1990’s to allow rebels from northeast India to have safe havens (though without weapons) in the Chinese border town of Ruili in southern Yunnan province. Some analysts see the rebel havens as a tit-for-tat response for India’s allowing Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader Dalai Lama to reside in its territory, a long-time irritant in bilateral ties.
Bhutan, another bastion of Buddhism, is the only neighboring country with which China does not have formal diplomatic relations, due in part to India’s past “guidance” of Bhutan’s foreign policy. But China and Bhutan have recently developed contacts through a long series of talks that have progressed on their disputed border.
In that dialogue, China has offered to give up its claim to a 495 square kilometer area in northern Bhutan and part of a 269 square kilometer area in the west in exchange for a nearly 100 square kilometer area in Doklam, near the China-Bhutan-India tri-border junction.
India views the proposed exchange as a potential security threat, as it would widen the area between Sikkim and Bhutan, just north of India’s so-called “chicken’s neck”, a narrow corridor that connects the volatile northeastern region with the rest of the country. Analysts say that if Bhutan agreed to the territorial exchange that the corridor could easily be cut off in a potential conflict scenario with China.
China and Bhutan have so far held 24 rounds of border talks, but they came to a halt following last year’s Doklam standoff. Now, some believe those talks could soon resume after Kong, a second-ranking official, met with Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay and Foreign Minister Damcho Dorji during his recent visit.
The Chinese foreign ministry said on its website that Kong “conveyed the warm regards of Chinese leaders to Bhutanese leaders, and expressed that China-Bhutan relations have maintained a sound development momentum in recent years.”
The statement also said that “the Bhutanese side admires the development achievements of China and welcomes the positive outcomes of the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by President Xi Jinping.”
The Bhutanese foreign ministry published a much shorter press release, mentioning little more than the names of the Chinese visitors and who they met in Thimphu.
China’s soft power overtures towards Bhutan have been wide-ranging, including the dispatch of circus artists, acrobats and footballers to the Himalayan kingdom. A limited but growing number of Bhutanese students have also received scholarships to study in China.
Beijing has also used its tourists as economic leverage. The number of Chinese tourists visiting Bhutan surged from less than 20 a decade ago to 9,220 in 2016. In 2017, in the wake of the Doklam standoff, that number fell to 6,421 out of a total of about 70,000 international visitors to the hermetic small nation that only recently opened to global tourism.
That figure does not include more than 170,000 Indians who do not require visas to visit Bhutan. The number of Chinese visitors last year was surpassed only by Indians, 9,220 Americans and 10,536 Bangladeshis. The number of Chinese visitors could rise again following Kong’s visit, which some believe signaled a re-normalization of relations after the Doklam incident.
Bhutan, a 38,394 square kilometer mountainous nation with only 797,000 inhabitants, now finds itself in the unenviable position of being squeezed between the world’s two most populous nations as they parry and thrust for regional influence.
Bhutan’s relationship with India dates back to old friendship treaties first signed with India’s British colonial masters and later with independent India. In 1971, Bhutan became a full member of the United Nations with India’s support and a revised treaty in 2007 gave the Bhutanese more independence from Delhi over its foreign affairs.
Even so, Bhutan is still highly reliant on India for security, including through the euphemistically named Military Training Team, a unit located in the Bhutanese town of Haa responsible for training the Royal Bhutan Army. Haa is located just 50 kilometers from Doklam and the strategic Chumbi valley.
China’s renewed charm offensive with Bhutan will inevitably stoke new suspicions in India. Indeed, with China’s growing influence in Nepal and Maldives, India is running out of assured allies in its immediate neighborhood.
Some suggest India has taken its long cozy relationship with Bhutan for granted and until now has been complacent about China’s overtures towards the kingdom. But Bhutan is clearly in China’s strategic sights ahead of an election that will be largely defined on how close the country wants to remain to India.