Connect with us

Politics & Security

[All Politics is Global] Will China Make Bhutan Accept Its Territorial Fait Accompli?

Despite ongoing border negotiations, satellite images indicate that China is engaged in unsanctioned construction along the disputed border in northern Bhutan.



A general view of housing in the capital city of Thimphu, Bhutan, December 11, 2017. (©REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton)

China continues to carve its way into Bhutan by constructing outposts and villages. This, shockingly, is going on despite historic talks between Beijing and Thimphu that potentially could pave the way for a breakthrough in their boundary impasse. Ongoing discussions have taken place for decades between Bhutan and China aimed at officially demarcating their border. Nevertheless, Beijing has persisted in engaging in unauthorized construction activities within the Jakarlung Valley in northern Bhutan.

The latest satellite imagery of the region collated in December 2023 shows ongoing construction of at least 129 buildings in one settlement. It also shows the construction of another 62 buildings in a second enclave. The scale of activity suggests that these are not isolated outposts. They constitute integral components to support Beijing's territorial annexation plan — of unilaterally seizing territory and thereafter settling it with villages, military barracks, and outposts.

Prime Minister of Bhutan Lotay Tshering speaks during a news conference in Berlin, Germany, March 13, 2023. (© REUTERS/Annegret Hilse)

Warming Ties with Beijing

Notably, the timing of these new images is peculiarly alarming in that they have surfaced when Bhutan is stepping up its ties with China. In October 2023, Bhutanese Prime Minister, Lotay Tshering spoke to an Indian newspaper publication group in Thimphu. He affirmed hope to complete the demarcation of the Bhutan-China boundary. Further, Tshering made a noteworthy acknowledgment of a proposal being discussed between the two. This proposal involves a possible land exchange agreement between Bhutan's North under Chinese control, with Bhutan's Doklam area.

The reported land swap discussion includes territory in areas including Jakarlung. 

Voters cast their ballots in Bhutan's National Assembly election, January 9, 2024 in Thimphu (© Kyodo)

Violation of the 1988 Agreement

This also speaks volumes about China's scant regard for formal agreements. In fact, in 1988, China entered into a formal agreement with Bhutan not to alter the status quo in the disputed areas. By occupying and inhabiting Jakarlung, Beijing has brazenly violated that agreement. In 1988, Bhutan and China signed two key agreements, namely, the Guiding Principles on the Settlement of the Boundary Issues and the Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Border Areas. These were to set the base for talks focusing on the disputed areas to Bhutan's north and west, abutting the Doklam plateau. 

In 1989, both countries claimed the Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys. China offered Pasamlung and Jakarlung in return for Bhutan's key western sectors in 1990. Bhutan reasserted its claims in the western sector in 1996, highlighting its importance as a pastureland. It also complained of the intrusion of herdsmen from China (Tibet) in disputed regions in the north.

China declined to reduce or go back on any of its claims in the western sector. In 2000, Bhutan extended new claims in that sector and proposed technical discussions between experts. Almost a decade and a half later in 2014, Bhutan and China endorsed the joint technical field survey report on the Beyul-Pasamlung regions. They subsequently agreed that the next joint technical field survey should focus on the western regions.

Bhutan's King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema attend Britain's King Charles' coronation reception at Buckingham Palace in London, Britain May 5, 2023 (©REUTERS/Henry Nicholls)

Confronting China's Encroachment

In 2023, the 12th Expert Group Meeting (EGM) discussed a "three-step roadmap" for restarting stalled Bhutan-China boundary talks. The EGM, which oversees the actual boundary talks, was held in Thimphu just four months after the 11th round of EGM talks in Kunming. However, the meeting did not announce any breakthrough in setting a date for the next (25th) round of boundary talks, which have not been held since 2016.

Bhutan's China policy appears to have had limited objectives, at least in the short term. Securing a comprehensive agreement on the boundary question will remain Bhutan's priority. Nevertheless, its bilateral and regional initiatives are being driven by fear and apprehension for its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence. Like any nation-state, Thimphu remains intent on confronting any form of territorial violation to preserve its internal stability, political independence, and economic development.

Since the Sino-Indian border war of 1962, the Bhutanese have nursed anxieties of Chinese military intervention in the region. The strategy of prolonging border-related negotiations to extract maximum strategic concessions is a well-demonstrated tactic displayed by Beijing across Asia. The long-feared communist threat still looms large in Himalayan Asia. Perhaps its manifestation has changed over time into an aggressive economic-cartographic foreign policy posturing. 


The 21st century awaits to see how Himalayan state politics, particularly Bhutan's statecraft as a landlocked country, will strive to resolve the decades-old boundary issue with China. Thimpu must balance out the latter with its limited assets and longstanding friendship with India. It must also ensure that it does not lose out territorially to Beijing.


Author: Dr Monika Chansoria
Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter).

Our Partners