Sino- Bhutan border issue: A bone of contention

Published on Feb 13 2012 // News Analysis
By Buddha M Dhakal

Bhutan has been buffering the friction between two Asian giants since early times of Independent India. Bhutan’s border with both the neighbor has remained ill-defined as much of the work of boundary demarcation depended on Indian surveyors. The northern border prior to 1959 was maintained with Tibet, that happened to be the origin of Drukpa Kagyupa Buddhism in Bhutan. Bhutan administered five enclaves in Tibet, stationed a diplomatic mission in Lhasa, and allowed a mutual cross-border trade with Tibet. So the international boundary to the north was never foreseen to become an issue later- particularly with the northern giant.

Pema wangchuk, the secretary of international boundaries has been furnishing a pool of information about parleys of boundary talks to the National Assembly. The talks have been going on since 1984. So far nineteen rounds of boundary talks at various levels have ended up only to change the map of Bhutan reducing the area by about 1600 square km. Yet, the unsettled border issue has once again reverberated in the national assembly, the issue raised by a MP from Haa. MP Ugyen Tenzin has been in the front to raise the border issue, as China’s interest on the western frontier is fraught with strategic importance. Interestingly, the Indian Military Training Team(IMTRAT) has been based in Damthang, Haa for a long time which China might have considered wanton of Indo-Bhutan friendship.

The usual process to answer the questions of such degree of importance in parliament is repeating the chronology of events of talks rather than taking any resolution or presenting it as a bill. While MPs are quoted of emphasizing in maintaining peace and tranquility and continuing talks, the no-man’s-land in the north including Mt.Kulagangri have perpetually fallen to Chinese incursions. Such sporadic question answer session in the parliament will not resolute to end the dispute in favor of Bhutan.
According to a document of US library of congress, Tibetan herders and Chinese soldiers intruded inside Bhutan as early as 1966. Another major intrusion in 1979 was, however, protested by the Bhutanese side compelling the Chinese intruders to retreat. According to Tshering Tobgay’s blog, the Chinese army had entered deep inside Bhutan no less than seventeen times in 2008 and 2009.

Tshering Tobgay , the feeble opposition leader has frustratingly suggested the strategy shift of dealing with the Chinese side. He writes in his blog that 19 rounds of border talks have shown very little progress and the government must consider some alternative. MP Ugyen Tenzin is enthusiastic to incorporate the land area change in Bhutan geography syllabus of schools, to let the students know about it. However, he does not seem to show any regret over losing the land, neither express any determination to preempt the encroachment.

The issue is not yet publicized by the media in a way its gravity matters to such small country between the economic and demographic giants. The media cursorily relate the event of talks and report on the question-answer session of NA about the dispute. Nothing serious, nothing concrete ideas and no diplomatic strategy to handle the situation. Sonam Ongmo, a non-resident Bhutanese in New York, hinted of a vast spy system that operates and has stolen a wealth of information from 103 countries, with Bhutan’s foreign ministry on the list. There is quiet diplomacy and actions are even quieter.

Two landmark agreements signed by Bhutan and China to continue the border talks serve as binding documents. In 1988 the two governments agreed to four guiding principles, and in 1998 signed an agreement to maintain peace and tranquility on the border areas in accordance with the accepted boundaries before 1959. Despite of these agreements, the Chinese army had reportedly constructed roads in 2004 (from Langmarpo up to Zuri ridge), resumed the road construction beyond Zuri in August 2009, had built temporary sheds, and penetrated deep inside Bhutan up to RBA post in Lharigang.

Therefore such agreement between a small developing country and a large dominant economy of Asia make little sense to the mighty people’s liberation army even violating the agreement several times. For Bhutan, 1988 and 1998 agreements are important pillars of quiet diplomacy with China.

In pre-Chinese occupation of Tibet, Bhutan had a reason to maintain diplomatic ties with Lhasa as Buddhist heritage of the country. Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the spiritual and temporal head of Bhutan since early 12th century is said to have descended from Ralung Monastery of Tibet to Bhutan. Ruling of some monasteries in Tibet by Bhutan (five enclaves), exchange of the lamas and barter trade with Tibet could have favored the undisputed border with Tibet then. However, after the flight of Dalai Lama to India, China took advantage of the undefined border areas and had begun to claim it since 1960s. One document at US library of congress even mention of vague suzerainty of Bhutan by China before the cultural revolution of 1911. Such claim was never raised after People’s Republic was formed in China. After Bhutan sealed its northern border subsequent to Chinese occupation of Tibet, Sino-Bhutan diplomacy virtually become veiled.

Whether Chinese suzerainty was acknowledged by Bhutan is not known, but penetration of Chinese army inside Bhutan since 1966 had never come to public knowledge, and deliberately not reported by the state owned media then. Soon after the establishment of hereditary monarchy in 1907, Bhutan was predisposed to the offerings of British raj in India that modified to the shape of guiding Bhutan’s foreign affairs by India, signed in the 1949 Indo-Bhutan friendship treaty. Initializing the five year plan in 1961 and funding major development works in Bhutan, up to the agreement of sunkosh hydropower project, India has been enjoying every share of revenue generation while keeping the military team inside Bhutan. So the China factor is completely overlooked, which by now has grown to more belligerent and too engaging.

Most likely cause of the present Chinese claim of Bhutanese territory is India’s over indulgence with Bhutanese affairs that disallowed Bhutan from balancing a relationship with both neighbors. Nepal on the other hand has maintained that equilibrium, even at the level of King Birendra’s own discretion. Bhutan in a similar geo-political situation failed to understand the implications of such a balanced relationship with the two giants. However, Nepal is facing the Indian incursions that often aggravates to violent clashes. Bhutan’s southern border with India too is not very fairly maintained especially in the areas where both sides have urban population and flourishing cross-border trade. It was revealed in the joint survey of border maps and installation of pillars finalized on December 2006 that some places along Phuentsholing – Jaigaon corridor had no mark of the pillars, which were found to be dismantled and construction works erased them. And, there are number of other border posts not known to Bhutanese officials that fall in the dense, virgin forest of Assam and Bhutan that has coalesced inseparably.

The tri-national border between Bhutan, India and china is yet to be settled and this area on north-west of Bhutan is where Beijing continues to push for its claim over the disputed four pasture lands of Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulumpa and Dramana. Illegal poaching, unauthorized collection of Cordyseps by the Tibetans and poaching of valuable wildlife or even killing the yaks of Bhutanese herders are issues not been resolved with Chinese side even talking over the issue for nineteen times. The Bhutanese are simply grumbling; the public not openly protesting to stop the illegal activities on their own, while the secretary of international borders and the Parliamentarians are too slow relying on cautious diplomatic channel to curb the problem. In fact, there seems to be no one truly responsible taking the charge to stop such frequent illegal entry of poachers or the Chinese army.

It is now the time for all Bhutanese whether or not living in the country, to participate in the dialogue process in order to finalize the border with China and protect territorial integrity and sovereignty of such a small country buffering against the two south Asian giants. China has well-intended to be the observer of SAARC and both India and China should express their good intentions in this forum not to harm Bhutan’s internal and external affairs. Being the permanent member of UN Security council, China has to approach such small neighbors with care and justice so that it doesnot brand as the dictatorial annexation of Kuwait by Iraq in late 80s.

Let us all hope Bhutan will not be considered another Taiwan by the northern neighbor.