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A nation must think before it acts.
Resting at the eastern end of Bhutan is the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. Spanning some 750 square kilometers, it is spread out across a densely forested area of the Himalayan Mountains. The sanctuary is far better known for its unique flora and fauna (including the red panda and, reputedly, the fabled yeti) than its geographic boundaries. But the latter is precisely what brought it to international attention in June 2020. Early that month, Bhutan sought a grant for the sanctuary from a global environmental organization that funds sustainable development projects. Unexpectedly, China’s representatives to that organization opposed the grant. Their reason: China considers the sanctuary to be “disputed territory.”
That came as a surprise to Bhutan. For although Beijing and Thimphu do contest several areas along their border, China had never before claimed the land of the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary or, for that matter, any land in eastern Bhutan. Even more puzzling, Beijing had not mentioned the region during the 36 years of diplomatic talks that the two sides have held to resolve their boundary differences. Naturally, Bhutan protested China’s new claim. But, as Indian media reported, China’s foreign ministry has a different perspective, explaining that “the boundary between China and Bhutan has never been delimited. There have been disputes over the eastern, central and western sectors for a long time.”
Certainly, border disputes between Bhutan and China have existed for decades. They began in the early 1950s after China annexed Tibet, bringing China’s border directly into contact with Bhutan’s. At the time, Beijing published maps that claimed land in three of Bhutan’s western districts (269 square kilometers) and one of its northern ones (495 square kilometers). After many years, the two sides began negotiations to settle their boundary differences in 1984. Since then, they have held a total of 24 rounds of diplomatic talks. But progress has been slow. It was not until 1998 that Beijing even formally recognized Bhutan as a sovereign state and promised to respect its “territorial integrity and independence” by signing an agreement to “Maintain Peace and Tranquility on the Bhutan-China Border Areas.”
During the last round of negotiations in 2016, Bhutan and China agreed to little more than a joint survey of the disputed areas and a pledge for further discussions. Perhaps as a concession to move the dialogue along and keep the peace with its giant neighbor, Bhutan agreed to China’s Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence. Those include mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. But only a year later, adherence to those principles would be tested in western Bhutan when Chinese troops began building an all-weather road through the Doklam Plateau.
No doubt, China’s new territorial claim has also raised eyebrows in India, which shares a close relationship with Bhutan. During the Doklam incident, it was New Delhi to which Thimphu turned for help. In response, India rushed forces into the region, and a months-long standoff between Chinese and Indian troops ensued. To be sure, the Doklam Plateau is just as important to India as it is to Bhutan because the plateau sits near a narrow part of India, called the Siliguri Corridor, which connects its northeastern states with the rest of the country. Chinese control of the plateau would put China in a better position to sever the corridor and cut India in two. Conversely, Indian control of the plateau would put India in a better position to dominate the Chumbi Valley, through which Chinese forces would have to pass to seize the Siliguri Corridor. And so, India likely acted in as much its own interests as Bhutan’s. China’s new claim may draw in India again since the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary abuts Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state that China also claims as its territory.
India’s potential involvement is nothing new. It has long been a factor in Bhutan’s relations with China. In 1949, Bhutan, concerned about Chinese designs on it, agreed to let India “guide” its external relations in exchange for protection. Over the following decades, Bhutan formed strong ties with India. It now dominates Bhutan’s foreign trade and is the lone destination for its main export, hydroelectric power. New Delhi also supplies Thimphu with most of its foreign aid and trains its military. Most notably, in 2007, the two countries signed a treaty which pledged that neither one would allow its territory to be used in ways that would harm the security of the other. That has given India meaningful sway over the direction of Bhutan’s border negotiations.
Of course, China would prefer that India stay out of those negotiations. As with all its border disputes, China would rather keep its discussions with Bhutan strictly bilateral. But given the huge power imbalance between Bhutan and China, Thimphu likely takes some comfort from India’s support. Some Bhutanese, however, have come to see that support’s accompanying baggage as onerous. They feel caught between the interests of China and India. Indeed, China’s new claim closely followed on the heels of a rise in tensions between Bhutan’s giant neighbors that was triggered by a deadly brawl over a Sino-Indian territorial dispute in the Galwan Valley about 1,400 kilometers away. Perhaps predictably, China has characterized India’s support as interference. Chinese media and academics often suggest that the boundary issue between Bhutan and China could have been resolved years ago, were it not for India.
China’s new territorial claim took many by surprise and prompted speculation to explain why it chose to do so. Surely, if China controlled the sanctuary and the Twang Valley north of it, China could directly threaten India’s hold on Arunachal Pradesh and the rest of India’s northeast by posting forces only 60 km from the Brahmaputra River. But as it stands, India controls the Twang Valley. So, even if Bhutan surrenders its sovereignty over the sanctuary, China would be left with an isolated enclave sandwiched between the rest of Bhutan and India’s Arunachal Pradesh, hardly a strategic improvement.
One possible reason for China’s new claim is to simply enhance its bargaining position. In 1996, Beijing had suggested a “package solution” to its territorial disputes with Thimphu. Under that solution, China would recognize Bhutanese sovereignty over the disputed areas in northern Bhutan, and, in return, Bhutan would recognize Chinese sovereignty over the disputed areas, including the Doklam Plateau, in western Bhutan. Unfortunately for Beijing, Thimphu lost interest in such a solution by the early 2000s, possibly due to Indian pressure. By expanding its territorial claims, China could be trying to pressure Bhutan into reconsidering the deal.
Another possible explanation is that China’s new claim is an extension of its broader claim to Arunachal Pradesh and the Tawang region within it. That broader claim stems from the fact that Tibet once governed Tawang. And, since portions of eastern Bhutan at one time fell under the jurisdiction of the Tawang region, China might argue that its territorial claims should encompass all the areas over which it had administration.
Finally, perhaps the most likely reason for China’s new claim has more to do with India. Beijing’s real aim might be to cause trouble for India by complicating its relationship with Bhutan. Given that Beijing believes that India played a key role in derailing its “package solution” to resolve its boundary differences with Bhutan, Beijing might think that by claiming territory in eastern Bhutan it could drive a wedge between Bhutan and India or, at least, between those Bhutanese who want to maintain close ties with India and those who prefer a more independent foreign policy. Either way, such a strategy could be seen as putting indirect pressure on India, which recently has been a thorn in China’s side.
China’s new territorial claim in eastern Bhutan may seem like a small issue today. But it might resonate far beyond the Himalayan Mountains. Whatever Beijing’s intent, its sudden territorial claim reinforces the narrative that, as China has become more powerful, its behavior has grown more callous and capricious. China seems no longer content with discrete diplomacy, but rather seeks primacy in its international dealings.
That has implications for many countries on the periphery of China, including those with which it has maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. Already, those countries have been troubled by China’s assertiveness. How Beijing has dealt with low-key Bhutan may lead countries—like Indonesia and Malaysia which have traditionally played down their differences with China—to further contemplate how they should deal with its ambitions.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
 One report suggested that China’s new territorial claim might cover not only the sanctuary, but a total area of some 3,300 square kilometers in eastern Bhutan.