Bhutan is the last standing Buddhist Kingdom in the world. It has one of the fastest growing economies and is consistently ranked as the happiest country in Asia. It is a small country with a remarkable past and present, but its future is threatened by the aggression of neighboring China.
China’s 1951 annexation of Tibet brought Beijing closer to Bhutan’s doorstep than ever before, and successive Chinese administrations have since laid ever-expanding claims on areas integral to the kingdom’s historic and strategic territory. Unlike neighboring Tibet, Bhutan has no history of being under China’s suzerainty, nor that of the former British Raj in India. Before 1959, there were pre-existing pockets of disputed land between Tibet and its smaller neighbor, but nothing that—in part due to both territories’ strong historical and cultural ties—was not handled amicably.
China’s advance, however, has accompanied an increase in high stakes clashes such as the 72-day border standoff in 2017, in which Indian troops stopped their Chinese counterparts from constructing a road through Bhutan’s 14,000 ft Doklam Plateau. If completed, this passage would facilitate Chinese military access to the Siliguri corridor and thus India’s resource-rich northeastern states. For obvious reasons, it is in the U.S. and Indian interests to prevent a Bhutan-China settlement that would cede this strategic zone to the latter. The opening of a U.S. embassy in Thimphu, and a continuation of its commitments to India will be crucial steps toward this.
Although China also maintains no embassy in or official diplomatic relations with Bhutan, protracted negotiations and parlays over border arrangements have dragged out between the two governments for four decades. Beijing is deliberately prolonging these discussions, while it steadily improves its situation on the ground. In December 2020, satellite footage revealed the Chinese military’s construction of an entire village in the Doklam Plateau area. Other areas of Western Bhutan have also been gradually encroached upon by China to secure access to the Indian frontier and sure up supply chains in the event of war. China’s claims have now expanded to include areas of Central and Eastern Bhutan, where since June 2020 China has claimed the 650 sq km Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary.
In a 1996 United States Institute of Peace report on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, analysts pointed to such actions as “so-called ‘salami tactics,’ in which China tests the other claimants through aggressive actions, then backs off when it meets significant resistance.” These tactics have been seen throughout the last three decades, including more recently in the South China Sea. Through consistent and repeated incursions, such as those now active in Bhutan, China is able to hold rivals militarily hostage, meanwhile shifting international vocabulary regarding frontier zones to those of “disputed” territories. The voice of the international community at the United Nations and elsewhere, then begins to take for granted that China has a legitimate, if unsettled, claim, even in cases where there is no legal or historic precedence to support it—such as Bhutan.
It is essential to the integrity of international discourse that the Biden administration not only secure closer ties with Bhutan, but that it openly name and shame the expansionary tactics it is increasingly victim to. While Taiwan, an island currently at no imminent risk of Chinese invasion, constantly makes headlines, western governments and observers pay Bhutan little to no attention, a situation that meaningful rhetoric from the U.S. administration could quickly shift. As Beijing well knows, throwing money around will only go so far. The United States must prove its commitment to ensuring Bhutan’s safety and individuality against the forces of globalization and Xi-style imperialism if it is to gain the small nation’s trust.
What Bhutan’s administration wants, or at least, is willing to stomach, is currently less clear, and this itself perhaps speaks to the success of China’s continuing strategy. After issuing a press statement on the border standoff in June 2017, the Bhutanese government and media maintained a studious silence. This has characterized their public reaction to Chinese incursions since. Is it that China has been able to bully Bhutan into acceptance or is Bhutan simply eager to cede a huge chunk of real estate in exchange for making a quick buck? It is likely a mixture of both. Yet, Bhutan remains one of the only states on China’s Southern border—alongside India and Afghanistan—to have not officially (nor unofficially) signed onto the $8 billion Belt-and-Road Initiative. Although Bhutan is heavily reliant on India for imports and exports, the establishment of formal Chinese relations would not officially violate its agreements with India, and such a new relationship is certainly a possibility in coming years. But an increase in Chinese influence would not immediately outmaneuver India and America, nor would it ensure long-term Chinese success in subduing the kingdom.
Bhutan’s size and historic tendency toward isolation—presently exaggerated by various pandemic travel restrictions—make it difficult for ‘outsiders’ to accurately gauge what level of knowledge there is regarding Bhutan’s disputes with China, or public sentiment towards it. A mere glance at the English-language version of Bhutan’s most circulated and part state-owned newspaper ‘Kuensel,’ one of only three national papers in circulation, it seems that these issues are scarcely the subject of national reporting, never mind robust national debate. Only if the United States and its allies begin to publicly acknowledge China’s unacceptable incursions into Bhutan will the latter’s state and private actors feel emboldened to bring these issues to regular national and international attention.
Looking north to its mistreated Tibetan cousins, it is unlikely that Bhutan’s staunchly Buddhist elite and general populace would be overly enthusiastic about the possibility of being subsumed into the hegemony of the Chinese Communist Party. Bhutan is budding democracy with a fierce spirit of cultural independence in a rapidly globalizing world. Whatever threats and opportunities China poses, Bhutan has plenty of positive reasons to align itself with the United States and India. Thus, as China edges toward closer economic and possibly formal diplomatic ties with Bhutan, it is vital that America gets serious about doing the same.
Georgia Gilholy is a Young Voices contributor.