China’s 3 Step Roadmap- Decoding Chinese strategy of seizing Bhutan’s territory

China’s aggressive attitude towards its territorial disputes, both on land and at sea, in the recent past, has cautioned many of its neighbours with who it shares its geographical boundaries. Its disagreements with many of its neighbouring countries has subsequently radiated a shadow of apprehension upon the Chinese administration and its foreign policy objectives. This has also invariably created a series of political, diplomatic and military conflicts with nations that seem to be locked in horns with the Chinese. The number of territorial disagreements regarding China currently stands at a staggering 17 disputes with its boundary sharing nations; of which at least 7 seem to territorial disputes related to land cover.

Amongst the most volatile disputes in the lot, however, is the conflict between China and India which very recently led to a fatal clash between their militaries. Both the nations have had a long-standing history of territorial dispute and matters have seemingly escalated in the past couple of years due to the violent clash that occurred in June 2020 at the Galwan Valley. However, within the wave of this dispute, an aspect that has largely gone unnoticed in China’s border disagreements with the Indian side, has been its discontentment with one of its other border-sharing neighbours, Bhutan.

Bhutan, a small Himalayan landlocked nation, shares a massive 470 km long border with China and is one of the only border nations that China does not share its diplomatic relations with. Both the countries had until 2021 signed two treaties in an attempt to resolve their border disputes in 1988 and 1998, yet to little effect.  Discussions on border resolutions have been ongoing between the two nations since 1984, with around 24 rounds of talks and at least 10 expert group meetings that had been held since then. However, these discussions had seemed to bear little fruit for 37 years until a new road map agreement was forged in October 2021. The ‘Roadmap for Expediating the Bhutan – China Boundary Negotiations’ was an MoU that was signed in October last year between both the nations after a break of 5 years in border negotiations due to the Doklam crisis and the Covid pandemic. The Chinese side in a step to resolve their boundary dispute specifically with Bhutan signed this 3-step road map that laid down the process for speeding up demarcation of territory negotiation talks. However, given the understanding of China’s negotiation tactics, it is important that Chinese strategy be deciphered for what it truly stands to mean.

Bhutan’s border dispute with the Chinese is largely focused on two separate areas of land. This dispute has historically also included the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction area of Doklam which measured up to 270 sq. km; the very same area that saw a 70-day stand-off between the two nuclear powered nation in 2017. However, the three step Roadmap between China and Bhutan does not include the tri-junction area, as an understanding in 2012 between India and China stated that any tri-junction dispute will only be resolved with all the three countries being involved. This process however, seems quite unlikely in the near future as both India and China are currently negotiating on the territorial dispute that emerged out of the fatal skirmish in Galwan valley. The other border dispute that Bhutan and China seem to face includes the Pasamlung and Jakarlung in northern Bhutan nearing Tibet. In 1997, the Chinese allegedly proposed a ‘package deal’ to Bhutan in which it was willing to trade off the disputed northern and central parts of Bhutan which included the Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys in return for its western part including Doklam. This proposal was henceforth rejected as the Bhutanese were not willing to give up their land that secured their strategic interests. The Chinese on the other hand were clearly targeting the western areas that would bring them strategic advantages with the narrow Chumbi Valley and also give them a vantage point over the Siliguri Corridor through Doklam. The Chinese in any case have paid little heed to Bhutan’s concern of transgression by building infrastructure on Bhutanese land; this had also invariably caused the Doklam stand-off and was a testimony to Chinese tactics.

Astonishingly, in 2020, the Chinese side in order to complicate the matter further, widened their territorial claims by claiming the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary (740 sq km) in Trashigang region in eastern Bhutan. It is widely understood around the world, that such a claim on eastern Bhutanese territory were made in an attempt to pressurize Bhutan to cede some of its most crucial territories in both its eastern and western frontiers. The territorial claim on the Sakteng sanctuary, which is linked and shares a border to Arunachal Pradesh in India is part of that same game plan where the Chinese feel negotiations can be held by exerting external pressures through demented territorial claims adrift of historical context.

In any case, these territorial demarcations that China so desperately wishes to rile up through its 3-step roadmap, is as farcical as its extended claims on Bhutanese territory; in an attempt to derail negotiations with the Indian side as well as to add leverage into their own positionings, the Chinese have rather unravelled the roadmap to their own method of dealing in such crucial situations. Nations currently undergoing territorial disputes with the Chinese must pay cautious attention to such sinister tactics which they wish to be indicating to the world. Excessive overreach on territorial claims is part of that very same strategy that China will deploy in most if not all of its disputes; the South China sea dispute is an example of such tactics as well. Hence it would be well advised that countries plan well beforehand in initiating discussions and negotiations with China; for it has time and again proven that it is willing to derail years of negotiations to attain a leverage over countries, through the means of economic, political or ever territorial encroachments.