Bhutan’s China Policy

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Bhutan and China represent two ends of the international system, one being a small power and the other a great power. The annexation of Tibet by China and Bhutan’s close historical and political affinity with India put Bhutan into a dilemma and force always them to pose a question – ‘how to deal with China.’ The small state fear of Bhutan is intensified by the dilemma of not hurting the sentiments of its traditional friend India and at the same time needing to respond to Chinese overtures and to solve the border problems with China urgently. The last three decades bilateral talks on border issues show that both countries are moving to a tendency of normalization of relations through its soft diplomacy.


Bhutan is an extraordinary destination surrounded by myth and secreted within the mightiest mountain chain, and it bumps shoulders with the global giants of China and India. Traditional culture is proudly cherished, and natural heritage is equally treasured in Bhutan. But this small country is equally conspicuous in its modernization and development process. The fear of losing their cultural sanctity forced this thunder dragon country to pursue strict policies towards other communities of the Bhutanese society which is backed by ethnic outbidding and cultural imperialist or hegemonic policies. The same fear pressurized the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB) to keep aloof from international politics and even its relationship with neighbors. If it is cultural fear forces the government to introduce Driglam Namza like policies inside the state, it is small state security, and political fear or dilemma compels the state to keep aloof from all kinds of international events and relation except its relation with India. This paper analyses Bhutan’s relation with People’s Republic of China (PRC) after the Indo-China war in 1962. It examines what the relation between two countries are getting improved and rejuvenated through soft diplomacy.

Traditional theories on states claimed that all states, irrespective of their size, pursue power. But the behaviour and concerns of small states are fundamentally different from big states. Some of the important concerns and behavioral patterns of small states can be listed as follows. One, the small state recognizes that it cannot obtain security primarily by use of its capabilities, it must rely fundamentally on the aid of others. Two, the small states would seek out multilateral organizations and alliances to ensure their security and foreign policy goals. Three, generally the behaviour of small states is limited to their immediate geographical area. All these behavioral patterns are visible in the case of Bhutan. It is important to note that more than state and individual level factors, systemic factors shape the available options for small states. In the case of Bhutan, apart from its geography the other important determinants are its very small population, landlocked nature, the fact that it was never colonized, that it was traditionally a monarchy (now a constitutional monarchy), is predominantly a Buddhist state with a close link between society and religion, and is a very poor and underdeveloped state and has a negligible military power. Within these (systemic and state level) constraints, Bhutan has had few foreign policy options to follow: alliance, neutrality, equidistance or becoming militarily powerful to inflict unacceptable damage to adversaries.

Chinese Western Development Strategy and the Tibet

The geographical location of Bhutan gives it both political and strategic importance in the Himalayan region. Bhutan has a long tradition of cultural and religious interaction with Tibet and shares a common border with China. The kingdom is China’s only neighbor who does not have diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Even trade and economic contacts between the two countries are minimal, and their common border remains closed. Political contacts have been resumed since the mid-1980s. The two governments have been using the annual border consultations to exchange views on a wide range of bilateral issues. Both countries have interest in the normalization of their relationship. Both China’s and Bhutan’s perspectives are different. While Bhutan prefers to remain cautious according to the approach it has always favored on the diplomatic scene, China is considering its relation with Bhutan as part of its Western development strategy, that could allow Tibet to regain a central position in the Himalayan region.

The Tibetan question is an important element to be considered in the perspective of an evolution of the relations between Bhutan and the PRC. In some respects, the complexity of the relations between Bhutan and ancient Tibet has survived through the ages. The Drukpa sect has remained independent from the Gelugpa establishment. The relations between Bhutan and the Tibetans in exile must be addressed in that context. Bhutan’s policy towards Tibetan refugees has not been designed to fit Chinese interests. The Chinese authorities, however, have all reasons to be satisfied with the RGOB’s policy that excludes all kind of official contacts with Dharamsala. Surprisingly enough, the Dalai Lama, who travels a lot, has never visited Bhutan. As the only Mahayana Buddhist state in the world, with strong cultural, religious and historical links with ancient Tibet, Bhutan has sympathy for modern Tibet. However, the RGOB has never advocated a pro-active policy on the international scene in favor of the Tibetan question.

Tibetan refugees, including a few with marital ties to prominent Bhutanese families, who started pouring into Bhutan from 1959, were first welcomed in the Kingdom. Cultural and religious relations facilitated their installation. The RGOB even distributed land. During the 1960s, the Tibetan community prospered in Bhutan. Several Tibetans started businesses and opened shops in Thimphu, Trongsa, Trashigang, and Bumthang. In 1973 the Tibetan community in Bhutan represented approximately 6,300 refugees. There were eleven Tibetan monasteries in Bhutan. Difficulties began in the late 1960s. The situation became critical during the mid 1970s19. Tibetans became a factor in domestic politics and were regularly suspected to have helped foster some of Bhutan’s internal upheavals. Although they respected Bhutan’s political and religious institutions, their primary allegiance was towards the Dalai Lama. From the RGOB point of view, the risk was real to see Bhutan become a shelter for Tibetan political activists who could use the Bhutanese territory to back up actions against China. The arrival of new refugees forced the RGOB to take action to clarify the situation of the Tibetans in Bhutan.

In 1979, the National Assembly decided that Tibetans who had arrived in Bhutan after 1959, had to choose between becoming Bhutanese citizens and leaving the country. About 2,300 people accepted to make allegiance to the Druk Gyalpo and therefore became Bhutanese citizens. The situation of the remaining 4,000 refugees proved to be a difficult question to be solved. In the early 1980s, the Dalai Lama regularly touched this issue while visiting Western countries. Some members of the National Assembly proposed to expel refugees who refused to become Bhutanese. Such a drastic solution was not consistent with Bhutan’s principles and tradition. Therefore, the RGOB preferred to negotiate their departure with India. Half of the refugees eventually settled in India, while the others scattered in the west, mainly in Europe and North America. Since that period, the Tibetan question did not surface in international politics.

Bhutan and the People’s Republic of China: Towards Normalization

The establishment of official contacts between Bhutan and the PRC has been a slow and cautious process. In 1971, Bhutan joined the United Nations and voted in favor of giving to the PRC the Chinese seat in the UN. In 1974, China, along with few other countries, was invited to the coronation of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The Chinese delegation was led by Ma Mumin. Ma’s visit to Thimphu was described by Xinhua News Agency as a new page in the friendly contacts between the two countries. The Chinese congratulatory message emphasized the desire of the Bhutanese government in developing its economy and safeguarding its national independence. The invitation of a Chinese delegation in Thimphu was a clear message showing that Bhutan was ready to normalize its relations with China. In 1974 Bhutan’s Survey Department examined claims and historical records. In 1976, the National Assembly began discussing the boundary issue and the prospects of negotiation. In 1979 intrusions were found to be on a larger scale than in former years, and the need for negotiation became urgent. It was precisely that year that Bhutanese and Chinese leaders started to exchange annually congratulatory messages on the occasion of National Days.

Bhutan did not consider that its move towards China had to be submitted to a formal authorization from New Delhi. The RGOB was keen enough to inform India. Incidentally, the official announcement of Bhutan’s intention to have direct and bilateral discussions with China on border issues was made by the Bhutanese foreign Minister, Lyonpo Dawa Tsering, in June 1981, after a visit in Thimphu by the Indian Minister for External Affairs V.P. Narashima Rao, and before a visit in New Delhi of the Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua. In 1983, Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian and Bhutanese Foreign Minister Dawa Tsering met in New York and held consultations on developing bilateral relations. The first round of talks on the boundary issue was held in Beijing in April 1984. From 1984 to 2002, Bhutan and China have had sixteen such rounds, alternatively in Beijing and Thimphu. Progress has been slow. During the first ten rounds of talks, both sides have reached consensus on the guiding principles on the settlement of the boundary issues and narrowed their differences.

Bhutan and China signed an Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility in Bhutan-China Border Areas. This was an important step not only for bor0der talks but also for the global relationship between the two countries, which signed their first ever intergovernmental agreement. China reaffirmed that it completely respects the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bhutan. Both sides stand ready to develop their good neighbourly and friendly co-operative relations by the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence. According to debates that took place in July 2002 there were four disputed areas: Starting from Doklam in the west the border goes along the ridges from Gamochen to Bangla, Sinchela, and down to the Amo Chhu. As a result of the talks, the disputed territory had been reduced to 1,128 sq. Km to 269 sq. Km in three areas in the northwestern part of Bhutan. After the interim agreement was signed in 1998, the Chinese government had responded immediately to the problem of the mule track and timber extraction in Pasamlum. The agreement also helped settle the complaints that Tibetans were crossing into Bhutan searching for medicinal herbs, were given severe and unwarranted punishment at Pasamlum by the Bhutanese border security.

During the 14th round of talks held in Beijing in November 2000, Bhutan extended the claim line of the border beyond what the Chinese government had initially offered. During the 15th round of talks, held in Thimphu in December 2001, the Chinese negotiator, Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the boundary issue had, by and large, been resolved. The Bhutan side mentioned considerable progress. At the end of 2001, it was admitted that the discussion was close to final resolution. The next round of talks including the 16th round, the Bhutanese side conceded that the subject matter was rather complex, so both sides would continue to work towards finding a solution. It was agreed therefore to bring technical experts to decide which part of the territory was Bhutanese and which part was Chinese and to depict the claims on a map. Both sides decided to use common names of the disputed areas to avoid confusion. In June 2002, the Bhutanese Home Secretary led an expert team to China for the first meeting of the expert group. Technical discussions have to be pursued.

Bhutan – China Bilateral Relations

The two countries have been using the annual consultations to exchange views on ways to expand bilateral relations. Chinese authorities have regularly expounded the basic principles of their policy towards Bhutan, expressing that China cherishes the traditional friendship between the two people, attaches importance to the friendly relations between the two countries, respects Bhutan’s independence and sovereignty, and adheres to the principle of non-interference in Bhutan’s internal affairs. On the political front, Chinese authorities have noticed that since 1995, Bhutan had supported China in defeating anti-China drafts at the UNHR Conference. On the Taiwan question, Beijing has been praising Thimphu for supporting one-China policy. In June 2000, Bhutanese Ambassador to India visited China. These visits have opened up a new channel of contacts other than the boundary talks. Other occasions have also been used to deepen mutual understanding in religious, cultural, political and technical fields. In 1990, Bhutan sent a delegation to take part in the 11th Asian Games held in Beijing.

In 1995, Bhutanese Princess Sonam Choden Wangchuck attended the 4th World Women Conference held in Beijing. In July 2001, a delegation led by the Bhutanese Foreign Secretary visited Beijing and other places in China. So did the speaker of Bhutan’s National Assembly who attended the conference for peace of the Asian parliaments held in Beijing and Chongqing in April 2002. Exchanges have also developed at the experts level. Bhutanese experts recently attended seminars in China in fields like security and development of small hydropower. Chinese experts have been visiting Bhutan to identify sectors of co-operation in disaster management and environment conservation audit policy. Sino-Bhutanese trade is very small. In 2002, China’s export and import from Bhutan amounted only to US$ 637.000 including US$ 616.000 for Chinese exports. Co-operation in areas such as culture and education have not started yet. In 2001 China offered to provide government scholarships to Bhutan, but Bhutanese students still have to learn Chinese. In 2000, the two governments reached agreement on preserving the Bhutanese honorary consulate in China’s Macao Special Administration Region, but individual exchanges remain minimal.

China would like to normalize its relations with Bhutan as soon as possible, as shown by its acceptance in overcoming its neighbour’s setbacks while discussing border issues. From China’s point of view, resuming trade with Bhutan is part of an overall strategy in the Himalayas, which has been framed in the global context of the development of China’s western provinces. The resumption of trans-Himalayan trade is a key element of that strategy. Another aspect to be considered in Bhutan’s China policy concerns the resumption of religious links between Bhutanese and Tibetan monasteries. There was no political dimension in the traditional relationship that existed in ancient times between the Gelugpa-dominated theocracy in Tibet and the Drukpa in Bhutan. Various exchanges had existed through times, via pilgrimages, reincarnations who were discovered indifferently in Bhutan or Tibet, retreats in monasteries, and visits of great lamas. China is willing to welcome Bhutanese friends to China to make pilgrimages or to visit relatives and friends. The resuming of religious exchanges between monasteries, assuming that they would remain under the strict control of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission in Lhasa would be in the interest of the Chinese side, that could illustrate its policy of freedom of religion in Tibet.


The future course of the Sino-Bhutanese relationship depends upon three important factors: (i) the interests, policies, and concerns of Bhutan; (ii) the emergence of China and its strategic goals and (iii) the regional dynamics of South Asia. For Bhutan, maintaining its sovereignty and independence is the critical national interest question. Being hemmed in between two giant nations makes Bhutan ever concerned about happenings around its borders. Hence, as Bhutanese experts point out, issues of security occupy a great deal of attention of the state even in peacetime. However, economics will also play an important role in future Bhutanese foreign policy. In last six decades, Bhutan has become gradually integrated into the South Asian economic system in general, and with Indian economy in particular.

Economically, it appears almost impossible to revive the ancient Bhutan–Tibet economic linkages under present political conditions. Politically, Thimphu understands the limitations of playing the China card against India and has observed the failure of this strategy in Nepal. However, as Bhutan is continuously diversifying its foreign policy, it is almost impossible to neglect or ignore its ‘powerful’ neighbour China. Hence, Thimphu will try to settle its border dispute with China as soon as possible. For a small country like Bhutan, it is hazardous to live with an undefined and disputed border.

The Chinese policy towards Bhutan, meanwhile, will likely be based upon three important interests. One, its desire to achieve the strategic upper hand in South Asia and to contain India within the region. Two, an important characteristic of any world power is that it has few or no border disputes. In the last decade, China has attempted to settle most of the remaining border disputes. Notably, the Chinese government has set up a special department to deal with the international boundary problems of China. Third, Tibet remains an important factor in the Chinese relationship with Bhutan. A relationship with Bhutan allowing cross-border movement of people would help in legitimizing Chinese rule in Tibet. The China–Bhutan relationship is linked to the Sino-Indian relationship. It is believed that an improvement in Sino-India relationship would lead to diminishing Chinese interest in Bhutan. However, the Sino-Indian relationship is only one important factor in the China–Bhutan relationship and given the increasing Chinese interest in South Asia—as signified by China’s lobbying for and securing observer status in SAARC, Chinese connections with Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and Chinese manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean—it is difficult to accept this line of argument.

The assumptions emerged from the ongoing relations between this two country is that one, a formal diplomatic relationship between China and Bhutan is a real possibility within the foreseeable future. Two, border talks are in a decisive phase, but any undue pressure from the Chinese side might disrupt the process. Three, if the border talks succeed and a formal diplomatic relationship is established, China will try to use ‘carrots’ to wean Bhutan away from India’s sphere of influence. Four, the Indo-Bhutanese relationship will be able to sustain the growing Sino-Bhutanese engagement. In short, as the whole world increasingly ponders the issue of how to deal with an emerging China, Bhutan as its smallest neighbour can no longer either avoid or ignore China. Therefore, Sino-Bhutanese engagements are likely to grow but Bhutan will all the while have to perform a tightrope walk between two economic and military giants.


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