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Bhutan - China Relations

The other nation that borders Bhutan is China, with which Bhutan had no diplomatic relations. The part of China that borders Bhutan—Tibet, or the Xizang Autonomous Region - has important historical, cultural, and religious ties to Bhutan. Historically, Bhutan was once a vassal state of China. It was part of the Tubo (Tibet, 618-842) territory in the 8th century, and became part of China from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when it gradually began to split off due to its weakening national power. The Kingdom of Bhutan means "border of Tibet" in Sanskrit; it is also known as "the dragon country", and there is a large dragon on the national flag, from which one can see a connection with China. Bhutan and China’s Tibet share a similar language, customs, and culture, and most Bhutanese are followers of Tibetan Buddhism.

Bhutan and China had long had differences with respect to the delineation of their common border, which follows natural features—the watershed of the Chumbi Valley in the northwest and the crest of the Great Himalayan Range of mountains in the north. China and Bhutan have two border disputes Kula Kangri Mountain and parts of Haa district of Bhutan, both controlled by China and claimed by Bhutan. Beijing’s policy in the Himalayan frontier region was to claim disputed areas on the basis of usage by Tibetans. The two countries share about 470 km long contiguous borders and have held several rounds of talks to resolve the dispute and signed for the first time an agreement promising to 'Maintain Peace and Tranquillity on the Bhutan-China Border Areas,' in 1998.

But China said that, as a nation which shared its border with 25 other countries they could not afford to be generous with one particular neighbour. The two governments used the annual border consultations to exchange views on a wide range of bilateral issues. The ideal solution would be for China to give to Bhutan whatever the Indian map shows as being Bhutanese land along the Sino Bhutan boundary. And India should also give to Bhutan whatever land the Chinese map shows as Bhutanese land along the Indo Bhutan boundary.

China had been heavily involved in Tibetan affairs since the 1720s, and it was through this involvement that Bhutan and China had their first direct relations. Bhutanese delegations to the Dalai Lama came into contact with the Chinese representatives in Lhasa, but there never was a tributary relationship with Beijing. Relations with Tibet itself, never particularly good, were strained considerably when Bhutan sided with Britain in the early 1900s. Trying to secure its southwestern flank against increasing foreign aggression, China claimed a vague suzerainty over Bhutan in the period just before the Chinese Revolution of 1911. The new Republic of China let the claim lapse, however, and it never again was raised publicly.

Tension in Bhutan-China relations increased with the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1951 and again rose with the anti-Chinese revolts in eastern and central Tibet between 1954 and 1958. The massive Tibetan uprisings in 1959 and the flight to India of the Dalai Lama, as well as the heightened presence of Chinese forces on the ill-defined frontier, alerted Bhutan to the potential threat it faced, and its representative in Tibet was withdrawn. Included in the territory occupied by the Chinese People's Liberation Army were the eight western Tibetan enclaves administered by Bhutan since the seventeenth century.

New Delhi intervened with Beijing on behalf of Thimphu regarding the enclaves, but the Chinese refused to discuss what they considered a matter between China and Bhutan. Another problem with China emerged at this time as the result of the flight to Bhutan of some 6,000 Tibetan refugees. The specter of renewed Chinese claims to Bhutan, Sikkim, and Nepal was raised after China published a map in 1961 that showed alterations of traditional Sino-Bhutanese and other Himalayan borders in Beijing's favor. Bhutan responded with an embargo on cross-border trade and closer links with India.

In mid-1961 the Chinese approached the Bhutanese with an offer to negotiate a border agreement; also, to recognize Bhutan's sovereignty, to extend diplomatic recognition, and to provide technical aid. In roughly the same period, the Chinese reportedly advanced a proposal for a Confederation of Himalayan States to some Sikkimese political figures.

During this period, Thimphu continued to withstand Beijing's mixture of threats and offers of conciliation in the form of economic aid and assurance of independence. Tension was renewed during the 1962 Sino-Indian border war when the Chinese army outflanked Indian troops, who, with permission of Bhutanese authorities, retreated through southeastern Bhutan. More fearful of China than confident of India's ability to defend it, Bhutan formally maintained a policy of neutrality while quietly expanding its relations with India.

In 1971, Bhutan voted in favor of the PRC resuming its lawful seat in the United Nations. In 1974, Bhutan invited the chargé d’affaires, Ma Muming, of the Chinese Embassy in India to attend the coronation of the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuk. Since 1979, leaders from the two countries have exchanged messages of congratulations for each other’s National Day each year. China and Bhutan maintain good cooperation in international arenas. Bhutan continued to defend China against anti-China sentiments and Taiwan-related proposals in the United Nations Human Rights Council and the World Health Assembly.

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Cross-border incursions by Chinese soldiers and Tibetan herders occurred in 1966, but tensions generally lessened thereafter and during the 1970s. In 1979 a larger than usual annual intrusion by Tibetan herders into Bhutan brought protests to Beijing from both Thimphu and New Delhi. China, again seeking a direct approach with Bhutan, ignored the Indian protest but responded to the one from Bhutan. As part of its policy of asserting its independence from India, Bhutan was open to direct talks, whereas India continued to see the Sino-Bhutan boundary issue as intimately related to the Sino-Indian border dispute. A series of border talks has been held annually since 1984 between the ministers of foreign of affairs of Bhutan and China, leading to relations that had been characterized by the two sides as "very good."

During the tenth round of Bhutan-China border talk held in Beijing in 1996, China offered to exchange 495 sq km area of Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys (Where China and Bhutan overlap) in Bhutan’s north for Sinchulumpa, Dramana and Shakhtoe with total area of 269 sq km, in the western Bhutan. On July 13, 1997 BBC reported that Bhutan accepted the proposals.

The Chumbi valley in the Dolam plateau is where the strategic interests of China, Bhutan and India collide. China’s territorial demands could bring it 500 kilometers closer to India’s narrow but extremely vital Siliguri corridor, which connects the North-Eastern region with mainland India. In December 2007, reports of a Chinese incursion into Bhutanese territory made headlines in Indian newspapers. The Chinese presence in the Dolam / Doklam Plateau was an effort to push its claim to the region and may also be an effort to pressure the Bhutanese to establish more formal diplomatic relations with China. As the Chinese develop their infrastructure and presence in Tibet and southwest China, China will likely increase its pressure on Bhutan to be more receptive to Chinese regional engagement.

India withdrew subsidies in 2013 to warn Bhutan against normalising relation with China. The China Bhutan Border Talks have been going on for decades. China has been quite sincere and mostly positive in conducting the international boundary negotiation with Bhutan. And Bhutan on the other hand has been trying to delay the progress for many years at the insistence of India. t India wants Bhutan to demand more land from China at the Tri-junction. The British Raj grabbed the Duars from Bhutan and made the Duars part of India. The Tri-junction is part of annexed Duar region and part of it was sold by British Raj to China Tibet after it was annexed from Bhutan.

From August 23 to 26, 2015, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin visited Bhutan to hold the 23rd round of talks on China-Bhutan boundary issue. He met with the 4th King Jigme Singye Wangchuk and Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay of Bhutan, and held talks with Foreign Minister Lyonpo Damcho Dorji of Bhutan. " The Chinese side pays high attention to the traditional friendship with Bhutan, stands ready to work with the Bhutanese side to propel bilateral exchanges and cooperation in various fields, and welcomes the Bhutanese side to actively participate in the "Belt and Road" initiatives and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), so as to join hands to seek common development. The talks on China-Bhutan boundary issue have made positive progress and entered a new stage. The Chinese side is willing to, on the basis of boundary negotiations in the past 31 years and in accordance with the important consensus reached in the 22nd talks on boundary issue last year, continue to seek a fair, reasonable and comprehensive solution to the issue which is acceptable to both sides by means of amicable consultation, in a move to delimitate the boundary between the two countries at an early date."

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said 15 August 2016 that the early establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Bhutan confirms the common interests of both countries, benefiting regional stability and development. Wang made the remarks when meeting Bhutan's Foreign Minister Damcho Dorji in China for the 24th round of boundary talks. Wang said that China respects Bhutan's independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. China also stands ready to work with Bhutan for an early solution to boundary issues through friendly negotiations, he added.

China planned to extend a railway line linking Tibet with the rest of the country to the borders of India, Nepal and Bhutan by 2020. China opened the railway to Tibet's capital Lhasa in 2006, which passes spectacular icy peaks on the Tibetan highlands, touching altitudes as high as 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) above sea level. The extention to Shigatse, the traditional seat of Tibetan Buddhism's second-highest figure, the Panchen Lama, formally opened in Agust 2014. That link was scheduled for its own extension during the 2016-2020 period to two separate points, one on the border of Nepal and the other on the border with India and Bhutan.

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Page last modified: 18-08-2016 15:47:18 ZULU