While the world’s giants wage their battles in the international arena – first India vs. China over borders, now Google Vs. China over the internet – far up in the Himalayas, tiny Bhutan (with a population of 600,000) also took on China recently, albeit with no alternative other than quiet diplomacy and tact.
On 14th January Bhutan wrapped up the 19th round of border talks with the People’s Republic of China. According to the talks the two governments will meet again to carry out a “joint field survey” of the disputed territories in the north, which comprise 4 areas amounting to a total of 874 sq km.
A press release from the Foreign Ministry after the talks stated that both the governments will resolve the boundary issue through mutual consultation according to the basis of previous agreements in 1988 and 1998. They will also refrain from taking any unilateral action and maintain status quo on the boundary. The press release also stated that the talks were held in a “cordial and most friendly manner.”
But the Chinese Government’s actions on Bhutan’s northern borders have hardly been ‘cordial’ or ‘most friendly’. Between 2008 and 2009 several border intrusions by Chinese soldiers deep inside Bhutanese territory were reported.
Not only that, the Chinese soldiers had also started constructing roads leading right into Bhutanese territory. It took several protests from the Bhutanese government's side and many discussions at the State level for the Chinese to stop the road constructions.
It seems like the sentiment among Bhutanese officials when it comes to China is to tread carefully with the giant. After all, Bhutan is the last country that can afford to stir its ire. The official stand, therefore, has always been to say that the discussions were “meaningful, productive,” despite what happened.
Perhaps it is for this very reason that most Bhutanese writers and bloggers have been silent on this issue, but Bhutantimes.com, a site where many Bhutanese interact – anonymously or under pseudonyms – to voice their dissent, seemed to ask some questions: “Is China really taking away Bhutan’s land silently?”
On that thread a commentator named Farmer said:
It is definitely not an easy problem because we are dealing with a powerful (and yet dictatorial) nation that has no regard for human rights or independence of other nations…. Few years ago Bhutan’s size was 46,000 sq km and now it has decreased to 38,000 sq km. So Bhutan is now the only country in the world which is shrinking…
Bronze 2000 responded:
The Chinese will soon be laying more roads inside Bhutan and set up posts. They will show new maps with the new Bhutanese areas inside China. This is what is being done for all these years. The govt. should really wake up to this issue and give priority as this issue can really threaten the sovereignty.
And Geasar added:
China has one of the worst records of human rights abuses. Despite that no country, including the USA, seems to pressurize this country into being a disciplined and humane country. With such a track record and virtual immunity from external pressure we can never rule out when Bhutan will also fall prey to this Giant.
Tamerlane, a non-Bhutanese blogger, pointed out why the Chinese were interested in claiming these border regions:
“The region at issue is important geopolitically because it is so close to India's Chicken's Neck, or Siliguri Corridor. It was created when East Pakistan (Bangladesh) and West Pakistan separated from India. Its purpose is to provide India with a narrow path to reach its faraway northeastern states. The area is also used by smugglers from Bangladesh and as a refuge for Maoist Nepalese rebels.
China has every desire to stir up instability here, as it will inevitably result in the weakening of India. Much of India's army is on the western front defending Kashmir, so China has almost free reign on the eastern front. PLA troops are entering Bhutan. Roads and bridges are being built inside Bhutan (allegedly).”
India, meanwhile, has been keeping a close tab on developments. Dr. S. Chandrasekharan, Director of South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG) in New Delhi wrote about the developments at the site of the Chennai Centre for China Studies:
“There are two views in India on the border problems between Bhutan and China. One view is that Bhutan’s border problem will be settled once the border dispute between India and China is resolved. The other view is that once Bhutan is weaned away from India, the Chinese will probably be more reasonable and may be more generous.
While the first position is unlikely, there are no reasons to believe that the Chinese are going to be generous in the second case- as China is very unlikely to give up its position in the four areas of the western sector which is equally important for Bhutan’s security too.
In the near future while major clashes may not occur between the PLA and RBA, China will continue to tease and bully Bhutan and its border outpost personnel. This is the China that is supposed to rise ‘peacefully'!”
Throughout its history Bhutan had trade relations with Tibet, pre-Chinese occupation. But after 1960 Bhutan sealed all its northern borders. Today Bhutan has no diplomatic relations with China but according to the assistant minister of the ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Hu Zhengyue, “the two countries have been friendly neighbors since history.”
But just how friendly these neighbors are, is yet to be seen as the border issues remain unresolved and talks continue. Last year in March, when Canadian researchers uncovered a vast spy system that looted information from computers in 103 countries (including those of the Dalai Lama) Bhutan’s Foreign Ministry was also on that list.