China’s bullying of tiny Bhutan risks South Asian stability

David and Goliath struggle exposes Beijing’s expansionist intent

The Merak village, Eastern Bhutan, pictured from the footpath heading towards Sakteng in May 2015: Xi Jinping’s expansionism has not spared China’s smallest neighbor.   © Corbis/Getty Images

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

China has failed to settle the frontier with its tiny neighbor Bhutan, despite holding talks with Bhutan since 1984. Now, after nearly four decades, it is trumpeting a newly signed memorandum of understanding with the kingdom to “expedite” the border negotiations.

The MOU cannot obscure the fact that China has in recent years incrementally encroached on Bhutan’s territory, one of the world’s smallest and least-populated nations, with just 778,000 people. Such aggression violates a 1998 bilateral treaty committing China and Bhutan “not to resort to unilateral action to alter the status quo of the border.”

Druk Yul, or the land of the thunder dragon, as Bhutan is known, lies sandwiched between the elephant of India and since 1950 when Beijing swallowed Tibet, whose religion and culture has greatly influenced Bhutan, the giant Chinese dragon on the other side.

Despite popularizing the concept of gross national happiness as a measure of development, Bhutan’s own happiness is coming under pressure from Chinese aggression under President Xi Jinping, who is implementing the expansionist agenda that Mao Zedong left unfinished.

While China under Mao more than doubled its size, making it the world’s fourth-largest country by area, Xi’s expansionism has not spared China’s smallest neighbor.

Several newly built Chinese villages, unnoticed by the world, have cropped up inside internationally recognized Bhutanese territory, demonstrating how Xi has taken his South China Sea strategy to the Himalayas. With the villages have come planted settlers, roads and military infrastructure.

China’s program to build militarized villages in Himalayan borderlands it claims, or has seized, from Bhutan, Nepal and India gained momentum after Xi in 2017 called on Tibetan herdsmen to settle in frontier areas and “become guardians of Chinese territory.”

Establishing such facts on the ground has become integral to Xi’s strategy of territorial aggrandizement because international law recognizes civilian settlements as evidence of a country’s effective control over an area. This explains why artificial villages have been created in inhospitable Himalayan terrain, just like the human-made islands in the South China Sea.

Satellite images reveal new Chinese villages on land in Bhutan’s west and north. After the Colorado-based Maxar Technologies disclosed one such village named Pangda, Chinese state media claimed it was on Chinese territory.

Meanwhile, China has built military roads through Bhutanese territory to open a new axis against India’s most vulnerable point — the Siliguri Corridor, which connects its far northeast to the heartland. Known as the Chicken Neck, the corridor, at the intersection of Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, is barely 22 kilometers wide at its narrowest point.

Not content with such stealth encroachments, Xi’s regime has upped the ante by opening a new territorial front against Bhutan. Out of the blue, China last year laid claim to Bhutan’s rhododendron-laden Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, which spreads across 741 sq. kilometers and is known for its unique flora and fauna, including endangered species such as the red panda, Himalayan serow, gorals, capped langurs, Himalayan black bear and barking deer.

The new claim to Bhutan’s easternmost territory is unusual because China has no common border there, it being a region that can only be accessed through the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. This is the first time since the end of World War II that one country has laid claim to another state’s territory that can only be accessed via a third nation.

In doing so, Beijing has sought to simultaneously advance its designs against Bhutan and India. Its maps already show the entire area of Arunachal Pradesh — more than two times larger than Bhutan — as being part of China. To be sure, this is not the first time that Xi’s regime has targeted Bhutanese territory to bolster China’s military advantage over India.

In 2017, China occupied most of Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau overlooking India’s Chicken Neck, following a 73-day military standoff with India, the de facto guarantor of Bhutanese security. In fact, China is currently locked in another standoff with Indian forces that was triggered more than 19 months ago by Chinese encroachments on India’s northernmost territory of Ladakh, located almost 1,500 kilometers to Bhutan’s west.

Beijing has long pressed Bhutan to open diplomatic relations with it and accused India of blocking the kingdom from establishing such ties. In the absence of diplomatic relations, China has used the protracted border talks as a channel of communication with Bhutan on issues extending beyond their shared boundary.

Indeed, China’s new claim to the wildlife sanctuary appears aimed at intensifying its discussions with Bhutan to woo the kingdom away from India’s embrace. This may also explain the new MOU, whose text has not been released thus far. Chinese state media reports suggest that the MOU is more about getting Bhutan to establish diplomatic ties with China than about settling the border.

Xi, however, is giving Bhutan ample reason to resist subordination to China. The MOU was signed at a virtual event by the Bhutanese foreign minister and an assistant Chinese minister, as if Bhutan were a client state.

More fundamentally, by employing its South China Sea tactics to unilaterally change facts on the ground, China is presenting a territorial and military fait accompli to a helpless Bhutan.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”