At a time when China continues its assertive policy toward its neighboring countries, the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Bhutan last month to resolve a longstanding border dispute.
However, this is not the first time China and Bhutan have taken such efforts on this issue.
Over the years, China has expanded its claim over territory in Bhutan. China claims over 764km2 of Bhutan’s territory, which includes Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe in the northwestern region and the Pasamlung and Jakarlung Valleys in the central part of Bhutan.
Although the two sides held 24 rounds of talks up to 2016, those meetings produced no positive outcome. More to the point, Bhutan refused to accept China’s unilateral proposal that it would give up its claims on areas in central Bhutan in return for western Bhutan.
Saying that Bhutan was uncooperative, the Chinese establishment tried to intimidate that country by constructing concrete roads in the Doklam region in 2017. The Indian military’s intervention forced Chinese troops to withdraw from the area after 73 days.
However, one year later, satellite images revealed the permanent settlement of a Chinese village, called Pangda, inside the territory of Bhutan near the junctions between India, China and Bhutan in the Doklam region. Continuing its diplomatic pressure against Bhutan, China laid fresh claims over the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan last year.
While China’s position against Bhutan has remained unchanged, Beijing has attempted to fulfill its multiple interests through the government in Thimphu, the capital, via the MOU in seven ways.
First, as China controls a major chunk of the disputed territory with Bhutan, the renewed effort is seen as a calibrated effort to legalize China’s existing border with Bhutan. Second, China is sending a message that it holds the last word on turbulent issues with its neighbors. Third, while the Doklam region does not hold much importance for Bhutan, it is strategically crucial for China’s ability to keep an eye on India’s military activities. Fourth, Bhutan is the only South Asian country with which China does not have diplomatic ties and India enjoys a close bond with Bhutan. Thus, by building a working relationship with Bhutan, China aims to minimize India’s influence in the Himalayan country. Fifth, as the Chinese and Indian militaries have been facing each other in the Ladakh region, the Xi regime intends to open another front for India with the prospect of clinching a deal with Bhutan. Sixth, Xi wishes to be seen as a messiah of China, and territorial expansion in South Asia is at the core of his wish list. Lastly, China’s new claim over the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary would help it gain better access to Arunachal Pradesh in India.
Bhutan is not alone in facing the danger of China’s territorial expansion. In fact, through the Panchsheel Agreement signed in 1954, China bought time to annex a huge portion of Indian territory in a war in 1962, and Beijing continues to claim other parts of Indian territory in the eastern and western sectors.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has also constructed nine buildings in Nepal, even though Kathmandu has become closer to China.
China’s expansionist policy is not only visible in South Asia. The Xi regime has intensified its claim over the South China Sea region as well. It has increased intimidating tactics against Taiwan and forced the Philippines to toe its line on resolving a bilateral order issue.
Moreover, Xi is trying to complete the unfinished agenda of the territorial expansion of Mao Zedong (毛澤東), to realize his dream of making China the most powerful country of the world by 2049, when the Chinese Community Party (CCP) is to celebrate the centenary of its rule.
However, the PLA’s longstanding practice of “salami slicing” has not gone unnoticed. China’s territorial expansionism has received backlash from other countries.
Given India’s deep involvement with Bhutan, it is highly unlikely that China would succeed in unilaterally pronouncing the outcome of border talks with Bhutan. To counter China in a bold strategic move, India plans to build a road in Bhutan’s “Yeti territory” connecting Lumla in Arunachal Pradesh with Trashigang through the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, which would impede China’s claim over the sanctuary.
India has dealt a blow to China’s adventurism in the Ladakh region.
Many experts and others in Nepal and Pakistan have raised concerns about China’s attempt to eat into their territories. Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and other neighbors have not only strongly contested China’s territorial claims, but have taken a slew of bilateral and multilateral efforts to face China.
It remains to be seen how Xi uses a historic CCP resolution to augment its authoritarian interests domestically and internationally, or how the idea of liberty, democracy, free and open society prevails over Chinese autocratic rule.
Sumit Kumar is a former Ministry of Foreign Affairs visiting fellow at National Chengchi University and a post-doctoral fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research.
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