The China Factor in India-Bhutan Relations

Prof. Mohammed Badrul Alam and Dr. Sarish Sebastian
May 14, 2020


The Kingdom of Bhutan is a landlocked nation in the South Asian region located at the Eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains, sandwiched between two major world powers, the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China. Both the neighbors are characterized by distinct geography, economy, military strength, natural resources, cultures, and civilizations of their own. However, both India and China have been competitors in the region for political and economic power dominance, creating a delicate situation for smaller buffer states like Bhutan in the region. Bhutan, with its geostrategic location, is critical in the connectivity and security perceptions in the region, above all, between India and China.

For a buffer state like Bhutan, the relations between both India and China are crucial for its defense and, in particular, its economic development. It is imperative for Bhutan to keep both the parties happy and, at the same time, at a distance. Turning against one and favoring, the other might result in unpredictable geopolitical consequences. It is clear from past experience that a small state like Bhutan may influence the behavior of both India and China in their bilateral relations. Alternatively, the position of a small buffer state sandwiched between two great powers is also that of a pawn in the game, which sometimes could be a transformative factor in the power games of international relations.

The strategic geographic location of Bhutan has driven the Chinese to establish some control over parts west and northern region of Bhutan. From the strategic point of view, both China and India need Bhutan for their security and economic expansion. In that sense, both great powers pose a grave security threat if Bhutan is unable to remain neutral to both neighbors. In order to maintain the security and stability of the nation, Bhutan must adopt specific policies of safety precautions, which allows it to withstand the pressure from one or both of the neighbors. 

Bhutan and Indian security

From the perspective of India, Bhutan is one of the most vulnerable sectors in the security system as it causes a vast vacuum in the border frontiers of the northeast region. A robustly guarded neighborhood is vital for India’s security in the Himalayas. Thus, India incorporated Bhutan into her security system and prevented it from falling under any other foreign powers. For India, this worked as a buffer state as well as for having an exclusive influence in the southern Himalayan country. Situated between the two giants of Asia, Bhutan serves as a buffer state for India to prevent the entry of China to India’s northeast.

Since the Duar War of 1894-65, no country has threatened Bhutan’s territorial integrity using military force. Bhutan’s greatest threat and concern was over its northern border with China due to suzerainty claims, cartographic invasion, territorial intrusion, enclave’s occupation, etc. New Delhi has been Bhutan’s single most trustworthy partner will resource supplies and friendship of years. The Doklam incident proved that India stands hand-in-hand with Bhutan in peace and distress alike.

Bhutan has always wanted to resolve the border issues with China without so that it could have a peaceful border in the north, as is in the south. However, in June 2013, the Peoples’ Liberation Army units intruded through the Sektang region in the east and the Pang La region in the north to build military posts inside the Bhutanese territory. It was clear that Bhutan could not escape from China’s growing economic power in the region and could not resist Beijing’s claim due to its limited capabilities. 

The situation began to worsen in June 2017 when the PLA began moving construction vehicles and equipment to extend the road southward towards India’s northern border in Dokhlam. This was seen as a security threat by both India and Bhutan. Both nations objected to it, and Indian troops, in aid of their Bhutanese counterparts as part of Operation Juniper, crossed the Sikkim border into Doklam to stop the Chinese troops from constructing the road. The standoff lasted till August 2017. The Bhutanese government declared that the territory on which the Chinese army was constructing the road was, in fact, Bhutanese territory, which was wrongly claimed by China and part of the ongoing border dispute with them for many decades. Bhutan wanted to avoid the risk of war between India and China and eliminate any possibility of annexation of the Doklam region by Beijing like that of Tibet in 1951. However, Beijing blamed India for unnecessarily interfering in the border disputes between Bhutan and China.

Recently in April 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, India dispatched 500 vehicles carrying essential goods to Bhutan, many vehicles entering the country on a daily basis, and sent three medical consignments to the country which included Hydroxychloroquine tablets. India also made necessary logistical arrangements for around 1,700 stranded Bhutanese citizens in eight Indian cities to go back to Bhutan safely via special Druk Air flights.

These recent incidents have once again etched Bhutan’s importance to India. New Delhi has realized that a healthy relationship between both the nations is vital, especially in the present circumstances. Given Bhutan’s strategic importance, India cannot ignore the tiny buffer state and should always be sensitive to its relations to create a long-term relationship.

 ***Prof. Mohammed Badrul Alam was Professor (Rettd.) in Department of Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi ***

*** Dr. Sarish Sebastian is currently an Assistant Professor in Department of Political Science at Christ University, Ghaziabad, UP ***