Nepal, Bhutan: Beijing's new (charm) offensive in the Himalayas meets with southern legitimate concerns
By Olivier Guillard, author, among other books on Asian geopolitics, of Géopolitique de l'Inde, ambitions nouvelles, Presses Universitaires de France (PUF), Paris, 2016. A specialist in Asian issues, Olivier Guillard is a research associate at the Institut d'études de géopolitique appliquée, a researcher at CERIAS (Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada), Director of Information at CRISIS24 (Paris), and lecturer (geopolitics; political science) at EDHEC Business School (Lille).
How to cite this publication
Olivier Guillard, Nepal, Bhutan: Beijing's new (charm) offensive in the Himalayas meets with southern legitimate concerns, Institut d'études de géopolitique appliquée, Paris, October 27, 2023.
The views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author. The illustrative image, which is free of rights, was chosen by the editorial team.
While the autumn of 2023 has seen the People's Republic of China display an obvious rigidity, if not aggressiveness, towards certain nations in the Indo-Pacific (here, we're thinking of the Philippines  on the issue of the South China Sea, or Taiwan, which is constantly exposed to Chinese air and sea incursions ), it also knows how to present itself in a completely different light - more peaceful, pleasant, if not outrageously charming - towards other courted Asian states. This is particularly true of its two southern Himalayan neighbors, the Kingdom of Bhutan and Nepal, both of which have recently been the object of special attention and consideration from Beijing - a gentle diplomatic approach that is less disinterested and generous than it first appears.
By the end of September, flying to China from New York where he addressed the 78th General Assembly of the United Nations , Nepalese Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal spent a full week in China during which, among other highlights of his visit, he held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping (September 23; in Hangzhou).
Skillfully, confident of his effect, the Chinese head of state spared neither effort nor sweet words to welcome and flatter his Nepalese host and visitor: ''Welcome Prime Minister Prachanda to attend the opening ceremony of the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou and pay an official visit to China. You've been committed to promoting the development of China-Nepal friendly relations, and firmly supporting the Belt and Road  co-operation between the two countries, which I highly appreciate. This is your first visit to China since you took office as Prime Minister of Nepal for the third time, and I believe that this visit will yield fruitful results and inject new impetus into the friendly co-operation between our two countries (…). China and Nepal are connected by mountains and rivers and have enjoyed an everlasting friendship. Over the 68 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, China, and Nepal, on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, have been respecting and supporting each other and treating each other as equals, which sets an example of equal treatment and win-win co-operation between big and small countries'' .
Special attention and literally guest-of-honor treatment, which naturally had an effect on the former Maoist guerrilla leader turned Nepalese head of government: ''This is my fifth meeting with you, Your Excellency. You are a visionary and great leader of our time, and a true friend of Nepal. I'm grateful to you for the invitation to be a part of the grand celebration of the Asian Games. The message of this event will go a long way in cementing ties and promoting understanding among Asian nations and people (…). As a close neighbor, it is but natural for Nepal to desire for enhanced economic partnership with China for mutual benefits" (PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal) .
Nepal and China have signed 12 agreements and one memorandum of understanding (MoU) during this official visit. ''Had a fruitful meeting with Xi Jinping, President of PR China. We exchanged views on a range of issues of bilateral relations and cooperation in our mutual interests. We agreed to collaborate closely and advance Nepal-China relations to strengthen ever-lasting friendship," synthesized with obvious pride the 33rd head of the Nepalese government on his Twitter account (X) at the end of his stay with the northern giant.
A month later, on October 23, Chinese diplomacy once again rolled out the red carpet and the most courteous manners to welcome another high-ranking Himalayan neighbor, Dr. Tandi Dorji, the Bhutanese Foreign Minister. The visitor from Thimphu took advantage of a context conducive to dialogue during his stay in Beijing, in stark contrast to current Sino-Philippine or Sino-Taiwanese tensions.
Hence, during his visit in the capital of the neighboring People's Republic, China and Bhutan held their 25th round of boundary talks and signed a Cooperation Agreement on the "Responsibilities and Functions of the Joint Technical Team (JTT) on the Delimitation and Demarcation of the Bhutan-China Boundary'' . Let's briefly recall here that from the mid-1980s to 2016, Thimphu and Beijing had held 24 rounds of talks to resolve their border dispute  (originally, the dispute was part of border discussions between India and China). The 25th round have been held up after the Doklam Standoff  between Indian and Chinese armies in summer 2017. Let's make it clear to our readers that of the 14 countries with which China shares borders, 12 have settled their borders; in 2023, only the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and India still have a territorial dispute with China over the delineation of their common borders. It is worth adding here that Thimphu and Beijing do not have diplomatic relations but maintain contact through periodic visits by officials.
The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Bhutanese counterpart that his government is ready to work with Bhutan to conclude the ongoing boundary talks "as soon as possible" and to establish full diplomatic relations with the Himalayan Kingdom: ''The conclusion of boundary negotiations and the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Bhutan fully serve the long-term and fundamental interests of the country and nation of Bhutan. China is ready to work with Bhutan in the same direction, seize the historic opportunity, complete this important process as soon as possible, and fix and develop China-Bhutan friendly relations in legal form" (press release from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, October 23).
Pleasant words for the kingdom's emissary, confirmed shortly afterwards by those of Chinese vice-president Han Zheng, in a similar vein: ''China always respects Bhutan's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and is willing to strengthen exchanges at all levels and in all fields, expand practical cooperation on the economy, trade, culture and tourism, and accelerate the boundary demarcation process and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Bhutan to bring more benefits to the two countries and the two peoples" .
It may be useful, if not opportune, to recall several points of importance here, both for the present and future of this small kingdom of less than 40,000 km² with 876,000 subjects, but also for neighboring India, which is legitimately very attentive to recent Sino-Bhutanese diplomatic developments.
In Summer 2020, Beijing claimed the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (eastern Bhutan) as its own. This mountainous region shares borders with the Arunachal Pradesh State in India. Three years later, about this territorial dispute stretching back several decades, the Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering declared: ''Doklam is a junction point between India, China and Bhutan. It is not up to Bhutan alone to fix the problem. There are three of us. There is no big or small country; all are three equal countries, each counting for one-third" . A statement full of fairness and common sense, appreciated in the Indian capital. As the Indian press noted in the spring of 2023, during the visit to India of Bhutanese monarch Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (who then met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi), the two leaders resolved to expand the close ties between their countries .
For New Delhi, the Doklam plateau holds great significance from a security perspective. Beijing's control of this strategic perimeter would theoretically and practically pose a potential threat to India's Siliguri Corridor (commonly known as the "chicken's neck"), a 20 km stretch linking mainland India to the 5 Indian states of the North-East (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura, commonly known as the "Seven Sisters"). As shown on the regional maps, this narrow but strategic "chicken's neck" also links India to Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh.
The "apprehensions" of some Indian commentators about this first-ever visit to China by a Bhutanese diplomatic chief are therefore easy to understand: ''This week's visit of Bhutan's Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji to China, was unprecedented on several levels. Bhutan and China do not maintain diplomatic relations. His visit is the first ever by a Bhutanese Foreign Minister. Moreover, the main purpose was the holding of boundary talks that have not taken place in more than seven years'' .
Certainly, in summer 2022, Bhutan's Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji promised in an interview to The Hindu  that India's interests on the Doklam tri-junction will not be harmed or "compromised" by the agreement between Bhutan and China for a three-step "road map" to resolve their outstanding border disputes.
In the Indian capital, however, a certain nervousness prevails in this tense autumn of 2023 regarding these latest Sino-Bhutanese territorial and diplomatic discussions. And we can understand why; let's go back a quarter of a century. In 1997, under a "package deal" with obvious and worrying consequences for India, Beijing proposed to give up its claim over central Bhutan in exchange for territory in western Bhutan, including Doklam. Then, Thimphu declined the Chinese offer. Could it be that, in the not-too-distant future, the kingdom will be more receptive to this old Beijing proposal? The question is certainly worth asking.
 ''South China Sea: Philippines says it's 'not at war with China', dismisses Xi's 'just for show' talks'', The South China Morning Post, October 26, 2023.
 ''China sends 35 military aircraft, 15 navy ships around Taiwan'', Taiwan News, October 27, 2023.
 ''Nepal PM jets from U.S. to China to talk connectivity, security'', Nikkei Asia, September 23, 2023.
 And this, according to many observers, for dividends that fall far short of what Beijing suggested to its Nepalese partner (see in particular ''The BRI Status: A Grand Report on Its Present and Future'', Reportika, May 27, 2023).
 ''Nepal's PM Prachanda meets Chinese President Xi, attends Asian Games opening'', WION, September 23, 2023.
 ''Natural To Desire Enhanced Economic Partnership With China": Nepal PM'', NDTV, September 25, 2023.
 Bhutan and the Tibetan Autonomous Region share a contiguous border to Bhutan's north and west of 470 km.
 Focusing on Jakarlung and Pasamlung areas in north Bhutan, and the Doklam area in west Bhutan. The Chinese authorities claim over 800 km² of land in the northwestern and central regions of Bhutan.
 This refers to a military border standoff between the Indian Armed Forces and the China's People's Liberation Army over Chinese construction of a road in Doklam (80 km north of the Indian city of Darjeeling), near a trijunction border (Bhutan, India, China). As a reminder, New Delhi considers the strategic Doklam Plateau as an undisputed territory of Bhutan, while Beijing claims the region as its own.
 ''Bhutan, China Hold Border Talks, Sign "Cooperation Agreement", NDTV, October 24, 2023.
 ''China, Bhutan Vow to Conclude Border Talks Soon; Will Have Implications for India'', The Wire, October 24, 2023.
 ''PM Modi holds talks with Bhutan King; focus on bilateral ties, issues of national interest'', The Hindu, April 4, 2023.
 ''Warming ties: On Bhutan-China relations and India's concerns'', The Hindu, October 26, 2023.
 ''Bhutan-China ties won't harm India's interests: Bhutan Foreign Minister'', The Hindu, July 17, 2023.