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Bhutan Buffer

Bhutan’s reluctance to have diplomatic relations with China all these decades has been one of the many irritants in Sino-Indian relations.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
June 28, 2012 2:49:06 am

Bhutan Buffer

Bhutan’s reported decision to establish diplomatic relations with China marks an end to the system of buffer states that the British Raj had created in the 19th century to secure the subcontinent against encroachments from external powers.

Although the government of Bhutan has not confirmed these reports,which have all emanated from the Chinese side,there is no denying Thimphu’s growing interest in the normalisation of relations with Beijing.

The Prime Minister of Bhutan,Jigme Y. Thinley had apparently told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of a recent international summit in Brazil that Thimphu is ready to forge diplomatic ties with China. Pleased with the diplomatic breakthrough,Wen,according to the Chinese media,has offered to “complete border demarcation with Bhutan at an early date”.

Bhutan’s reluctance to have diplomatic relations with China all these decades has been one of the many irritants in Sino-Indian relations. Beijing was convinced that Delhi,which has a special relationship with Thimphu,was limiting Bhutan’s engagement with China.

Beijing never accepted Delhi’s presumed claims that the subcontinent was India’s “exclusive” sphere of influence. China always affirmed its right to establish comprehensive relations with India’s smaller neighbours.

In the past,whenever bilateral relations with India were tense,Beijing denounced Delhi’s attempts to perpetuate the regional “hegemony” of the Raj. Through a series of treaties in the 19th century,the Raj had created a ring-fence of protectorates from the Persian Gulf to Southeast Asia.

These smaller states agreed to limit their interaction with other European powers and gave considerable say for Calcutta and later Delhi over the conduct of their foreign policies. In return,the Raj provided financial support and military security.

This system inevitably fell apart after India’s independence,Partition,the Cold War and China’s emergence. The only exceptions were the three fresh treaties that India signed with the Himalayan Kingdoms — Bhutan,Nepal and Sikkim — during 1949-50. Alarmed by Communist China’s entry into Tibet in the middle of the 20th century,the monarchies turned to India for protection.

By the early 1960s,Nepal’s political classes discovered the virtues of playing the China card in Delhi and criticising the 1950 peace and friendship treaty with India. When Sikkim’s Chogyal crossed the red line and its people called for India’s assistance,Delhi integrated the state into the Indian union in 1975.

Bhutan,by contrast,chose to build on the special relationship with India defined by the 1949 treaty of friendship and established a deep economic and political relationship with Delhi. Bhutan,it is quite clear,cannot forever remain at arms length from China.


Sections of the Indian strategic community continue to hanker after an “exclusive” sphere of influence in the subcontinent and frequently protest against cooperation between the smaller states of South Asia and China.

Realists in the security establishment,however,recognise the impossibility of maintaining the ring-fence erected by the Raj through unequal treaties. Instead of objecting to China’s outreach to South Asian states,Delhi,over the last decade,has emphasised the deepening of its own special relations with neighbours.

India recognises that Bhutan will,sooner rather than later,develop productive cooperation with China. That applies equally to other neighbours of India,all of whom must be expected to develop deeper ties with China in the coming decades.

Signalling a new approach,Delhi took the initiative to rewrite the 1949 treaty with Thimphu. In 2007,India signed a new treaty that modernised the political framework for the bilateral relationship amidst Bhutan’s internal democratic transition and growing external interests.

Seeking to anchor its relations with neighbours in sets of shared interests,India has signed special partnership agreements with Afghanistan,Bangladesh,and the Maldives last year. India says it is ready to review the 1950 treaty with Nepal.

Chumbi Salient

While it is unlikely to oppose Bhutan’s diplomatic relations with China,Delhi would surely stay in close touch with Thimphu on the nature of its proposed boundary settlement with Beijing.

Delhi would want to assess the political consequences of China resolving the boundary dispute with Bhutan while putting that with India on the back-burner. Even more important are the military implications of any territorial adjustment in the Chumbi valley between Thimphu and Beijing.

The Chumbi salient — where India,China and western Bhutan meet — is like a dagger pointed at the narrow Siliguri Corridor that connects India with its northeastern states. Any boundary settlement between China and Bhutan that alters the currently disputed Chumbi trijunction in Beijing’s favour will have a negative bearing on Delhi’s military plans for the defence of its northern frontiers.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi

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