Map of claimed territories by the PRC, according to Foreign Policy magazine.

Bhutan, a small Himalayan nation with few official diplomatic connections, has been facing a continuing crisis over land with its northern neighbor: the Middle Kingdom.

This is no new subject, however. It has hosted numerous talks with the People’s Republic of China to settle this matter of border integrity since 1984, beginning the nearly-annual summits that have since amounted to 24 meetings. However, the 25th meeting has yet to come to fruition, with the last occurring in 2016. The meeting was delayed in 2017 due to the standoff over the Doklam plateau between Indian forces and the Chinese military, and again in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This past April, the ’10th Expert Group Meeting’ was held to schedule the illusive 25th meeting. In the meantime, between the diplomatic pomp and circumstance, encroachments of Bhutanese territory (or, rather, alleged territory, if you prefer the PRC’s view of things,) have continued.

The famously remote and difficult to traverse border between the two nations is also incredibly difficult to maintain. The borders are frequently crossed by ethnic Tibetans — and contested settlements of peoples are located close to the borders. China has utilized these settlements in the past to justify their claims, and these claims are typically backed up through military buildup to maintain them.

The contested territories so far have amounted to nearly 760 square kilometers in Bhutan — and even recently this number has grown. It added an additional 740 square kilometers through its claim of ownership over the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in 2020. This grabbing of lands has continued, particularly in the strategically-important areas of Bhutan that border both itself and India, providing China with further ability to reinforce its military buildup in the Himalayas.

China’s long-game is to put military pressure onto the small state, pushing for concessions of land granted through deals that, in essence, give back territory it already had loose claims on in exchange for the ‘legal’ recognition to continue its military buildup in more strategically important areas. Bhutan, with its small military and limited means of mobilization on its existing claims, can do little to nothing.

New Delhi has put pressure on Bhutan in the past to reject these deals — however, these summits and subsequent ‘solutions’ only do so much. Bhutan faces an encroaching force from which it can’t defend — and that creates an issue for India, already on the defense along its own border — let alone its neighbors.

– Liam


Further reading:

https://southasianvoices.org/bhutans-coming-border-crisis-with-china/

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8981371/Satellite-images-China-built-village-disputed-Himalayan-region.html

https://thefederalist.com/2021/05/28/in-bhutan-china-takes-disputed-territory-without-firing-a-shot/

(I may continue with this topic in the future — there’s a lot to talk about here.)