People in Bhutan seem to think it is time to resolve the dispute with China once and for all, without pandering to Indian interests.
As the India-China standoff persists, the key question is where Bhutan actually stands. India’s claim that Bhutan is fully with India on the issue seems questionable. The official statement issued by the Bhutanese government on June 29 does not make the country’s position explicit.
The 1949 Friendship Treaty (updated in 2007) guides the contemporary Indo-Bhutan relationship and aims to ensure India’s non-interference in Bhutan’s internal affairs. Article 2 of the 1949 version, however, entrusted India with the power to guide Bhutan’s foreign policy. But Article 2 of the 2007 version freed Bhutan from seeking India’s guidance on foreign policy and obtaining permission over arms imports, among other things. The article now only says that India and Bhutan “shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.”
Even before the revised treaty, Bhutan’s UN membership in 1971 had fundamentally impaired the sacredness of the old Article 2. Bhutan is an independent country. It raised its diplomatic representation in New Delhi to the full ambassadorial level in 1971.
Notwithstanding all the geopolitical pulls and pressures, Bhutan has steadfastly stood behind India as its most reliable ally. But the impression among the Bhutanese now is that India has been coming in the way of Bhutan reaffirming its status as an independent state, especially in the foreign policy arena.
People in Bhutan think that India has for too long prevented their country from normalising diplomatic ties and negotiating a border settlement with China. India, on its part, fears that any boundary deal will not only impact Indian security but also impinge on its own negotiating position with China on the boundary issue. From Bhutan’s perspective, India’s position is adversely impacting its ties with China. This is the main issue that is leading to complexities and confusion, including the standoff at Doklam.
However, it appears that this is not the first time the Chinese have intervened and built roads not only in disputed territory, but also inside Bhutan.