China-Bhutan Border Talks: Indian Stakes in the Discussions
Aarushi Gupta, Research Assistant, VIF

On 23 and 24 October 2023, the 25th Round of Boundary Talks was held between China and Bhutan in Beijing. Tandi Dorji, Minister for Foreign Affairs and External Trade of Bhutan visited China, and led the Bhutanese delegation for the talks, while Sun Weidong, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, represented the Chinese delegation[1]. The two sides held extensive discussions on border issues and signed a "Cooperation Agreement” on the responsibilities and functions of the Joint Technical Team (JTT) on the delimitation and demarcation of the China-Bhutan Boundary. The 24th Round of Boundary Talks was held in 2016. Talks had stalled after the Doklam standoff in 2017.

The JTT was formalised and had its inaugural meeting during the 13th Expert Group Meeting (EGM), held between the two countries in Beijing from 21 to 24 August 2023[2]. Bhutan and China had reached an agreement to form a collaborative technical team in the 13th EGM to work together to fast-track the execution of a ‘three-step roadmap’ aimed at defining their shared boundary.

On the sidelines of the border talk with Sun Weidong, Tandi Dorji engaged in separate meetings with Chinese Vice President Han Zheng on Tuesday and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Monday. In these meetings, they noted that both nations have committed to accelerating the boundary negotiation process and spoke of enhancing bilateral relations and matters of mutual interest. They significantly emphasized the importance of Bhutan establishing diplomatic relations with China and promptly addressing the boundary dispute to formalize the relationship between the two neighbouring countries[3].

Han Zheng had said, "China always respects Bhutan's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and is willing to strengthen exchanges at all levels and in all fields, expand practical cooperation on the economy, trade, culture and tourism, and accelerate the boundary demarcation process and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Bhutan to bring more benefits to the two countries and the two peoples” [4]. Further, Wang Yi also emphasised the need for the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries for the long-term fundamental interests of both countries. Tandi Dorji agreed that the demarcation of the boundary and the establishment of diplomatic relations must happen at an early date.

Bhutan’s Diplomatic Engagement

China and Bhutan do not have formal diplomatic relations, although they maintain contact through periodic official visits. Bhutan does not have formal diplomatic ties with any of the Permanent five (P-5) countries of the UN Security Council (UNSC) that is, the US, Russia, France, China and the UK[5]. Despite facing ample pressure from these countries, Bhutan’s foreign policy has maintained this consistent position. It believes that opening doors for the establishment of one P-5 country embassy in the country will open the floodgates for other countries, inevitably embroiling Bhutan in great power politics. Bhutan is extremely cautious of its engagement with the international community and wants to progress at a speed that preserves its ethno-cultural identity. Currently, Bhutan has diplomatic ties with 53 countries but only has three embassies in Thimphu that is, India, Bangladesh and Kuwait. In recent years, China has intensified its efforts to establish comprehensive diplomatic relations with Bhutan and accelerate negotiations to find a solution for their longstanding border dispute.

India Bhutan Relations

India and Bhutan share a unique and strong relationship rooted in a long history of cultural, economic, and political ties. Despite Bhutan's small size, it holds a strategically significant position in South Asia and has played a crucial role as a partner with India in regional cooperation efforts. India's foreign policy has consistently prioritized Bhutan's socio-economic development and territorial integrity. Bhutan is among India's closest allies in the region, and India has consistently provided both economic and military support to Bhutan. With a shared border of 699 kilometres that touches four Indian states, India is the largest export market for Bhutan, accounting for 93 per cent of its total exports. Bhutan also plays a vital role in India's Neighbourhood Policy and Act East Policy.

To strengthen this strategic partnership, India established its Military Training Team (IMTRAT) in Bhutan in 1961 to train Bhutanese security forces. This effort has led India to take an active role in ensuring Bhutan's security. Regular engagements involve discussions on security, border management, threat assessments, coordination of border crossings between India and Bhutan, and the exchange of real-time information. Recently, China has been increasing its diplomatic involvement with Bhutan, potentially presenting a challenge to India's influence in the region.

Chinese Land Grab

Bhutan shares a 477-kilometer border with its northern neighbour, China. Bhutan and China have ongoing border disputes in both the northern and western regions of Bhutan. China asserts its claims over territories such as the Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys in the north, which hold cultural significance for Bhutan. Additionally, China claims areas including Doklam, Dramana, Shakhatoe, Yak Chu and Charithang Chu, Sinchulungpa, and Langmarpo valleys in the west of Bhutan[6]. These areas are rich in pastureland and hold strategic importance at the tri-junction of Bhutan, India, and China, in proximity to India's Siliguri Corridor.

The border negotiations between the two countries commenced in 1984 and have since seen 13 expert group meetings and 25 rounds of border negotiations. Bhutan has displayed a high degree of flexibility in these talks and has even renounced its claim to the 154-square-mile Kula Khari area in the north, attributing that claim to "cartographic mistakes." After discussions in April 2021, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed on October 14, 2021, outlining a ‘Three-Step Roadmap’ aimed at expediting the boundary negotiations between China and Bhutan. However, the specifics of this 'Three-Step Roadmap' were not made public.

The point of disagreement at the tri-junction of China, India, and Bhutan is situated in the Chumbi Valley. India and Bhutan both assert that the tri-junction is located near Batang La, while China maintains that it is at Mount Gipmochi, which is further to the south of Batang La[7]. In June 2017, Indian and Chinese troops confronted each other on the Doklam plateau, near the Indian Army post of Doka La, positioned between Batang La to the north and Gymochen to the south. Over the years, India has worked on enhancing connectivity and defence capabilities in these areas.

Likewise, in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), China has established extensive infrastructure and model villages in the Chumbi Valley. They have also implemented defence measures and deployed large Radome radar systems[8]. The notion of a Chinese threat to India's Siliguri corridor in modern warfare appears improbable. It might seem unwise for Chinese troops to attempt a 1962-style operation by scaling the Jampheri ridge, particularly due to the lack of existing roads, to isolate northeastern India, but the notion cannot be dismissed altogether. The concern lies in the potential establishment of Chinese observation posts on the Jampheri Ridge.

Bhutan PM’s Interview

Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, in an interview earlier in March this year with Belgian Daily La Libre, said, “It is not up to Bhutan alone to solve the problem. There are three of us. There is no big or small country; there are three equal countries, each counting for a third”[9].

In 2021, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite imagery from Capella Space offered observations on recently established Chinese settlements near the China-Bhutan border. An examination of this new dataset by Chris Biggers, a satellite imagery expert based in Washington, indicated that a substantial portion of the constructions in these new villages comprises two-storey buildings.

PM Lotay Tshering had denied in the interview the reports regarding Chinese villages being constructed on Bhutanese land, even though these claims emerged two years after satellite images revealed the presence of Chinese settlements and road infrastructure extending beyond the Bhutanese-claimed boundary in both northern and western regions[10].

Gyalaphug is one of three to five established villages, along with 66 miles of new roads, a small hydropower station, two Communist Party administrative centers, a communications base, a disaster relief warehouse, five military or police outposts, and suspected major installations like a signals tower, a satellite receiving station, a military base, and potentially up to six security sites and outposts. China claims these constructions are in parts of Lhodrak in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), but in reality, they are located in the far north of Bhutan[11]. It's important to note that China's interest in settling in Bhutan is not driven by a need for this specific land itself; rather, it aims to pressure the Bhutanese government into ceding territory that China desires elsewhere in Bhutan. This strategic move is intended to provide China with a military advantage in its geopolitical competition with India.

Before Bhutan PM’s comments on the Chinese villages during the interview with La Libre, Thimphu authorities had not officially acknowledged the existence of these alleged Chinese villages within Bhutanese territory. This raises the possibility that either the longstanding border maps used by Bhutan, China, and the international community are incorrect, or it could imply that Bhutan has consented to relinquishing these areas to China.

India’s Importance in the Border Talks

China's aggressive behaviour towards its neighbouring countries, particularly in the South Asian region, has long been a cause for concern. China has consistently pressured smaller nations, often coercing them into complying with its demands. This approach, characterized by 'wolf warrior' diplomacy, ‘salami-slicing’ of territories and the use of economic debt as leverage, has led to governments feeling compelled to follow China's lead.

Chinese dominance over the contested Doklam plateau would provide Beijing with unrestricted mobilization and additional access routes in the event of a military conflict with New Delhi. Consequently, discussions between China and Bhutan extend beyond a mere bilateral concern, forming part of a broader Chinese strategy to secure a crucial advantage over India. A resolution between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Bhutanese government could have far-reaching implications for India, posing a threat to regional peace and potentially exacerbating the crisis along the Sino-Indian border.

Negotiations between China and Bhutan on the border issue commenced in 1984, and starting from the seventh round in 1990, China consistently advocated for a "package proposal."China has proposed a territorial exchange with Bhutan, suggesting a withdrawal of its claim to disputed northern regions, covering an area of 495 square kilometers, in exchange for Bhutan conceding more strategically significant territory in the west, encompassing 89 square kilometers, which includes Doklam[12]. Beijing's primary objectives for this deal were Doklam, situated at the crossroads of Tibet, Bhutan, and India, and to enlarge the strategically placed but narrow Chumbi valley, offering the Chinese Army a tactical advantage. Despite initial traction, the negotiations in 1996 eventually fell apart.

Bhutan's steadfast rejection of the proposed deal may have compelled China to further encroach into Bhutanese territory and later introduced the Sakteng claim, signalling the extent to which it is willing to push its agenda. Simultaneously, China has intensified coercive tactics and adopted innovative approaches to achieve a breakthrough. This commenced with border intrusions, escalating notably in the 2000s and transitioning into the swift construction of cross-border civilian and military infrastructure[13]. The subtle occupation is designed to pressure the Bhutanese leadership into more willingly engaging in discussions about the future of Doklam.

The 1949 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between India and Bhutan, reaffirmed in 2007, clearly commits both countries to maintaining peace and refraining from interfering in each other's internal affairs. It also stipulates that neither government should permit activities on its territory that harm the other's national security and interests. Given this commitment, it is imperative for both nations to collaborate on matters of national importance. Any unilateral action on a significant territorial or national security issue which is clearly a concern involving all three countries would be a pressing matter for India. India and Bhutan share a longstanding friendship built on mutual trust, respect, goodwill, and understanding, and this relationship will remain steadfast in the future.



(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

Image Source:

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
1 + 8 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us