Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s recent visit to India comes amidst the renewed efforts by Beijing and Thimphu to expedite their border talks. This has raised eyebrows in New Delhi due to an increased possibility of a land swap deal. The bigger concern is how these developments would alter the geopolitical dynamics of the region, as it could question India’s influence over Bhutan, a friendly neighbor sharing border with the Indian states of Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh.
Beyond its cultural affinity to India, Bhutan’s political and economic stability is strategically significant to New Delhi for several reasons. Being situated along the Siliguri Corridor, also known as Chicken’s Neck, an extremely vulnerable and strategic point for India – any reconfiguration in the region could severely affect India’s territorial integrity and connectivity to its Northeastern states.
Historically, while Thimphu’s foreign policy has been guided by New Delhi, the last decade has seen Bhutan gradually expanding its diplomatic horizons, initiating informal dialogues with China over border disputes. The concerns back in India hinge on the fear of Chinese intrusion in the contested border areas shared with Bhutan as well as a possible loss of important Indian strategic footing.
A key point of contention is the Doklam plateau, where the Chinese intrusion in 2017 led to the 73-day India-China military standoff. If Bhutan agrees to a deal with China, India fears it may lose the strategic advantage over Doklam, which provides a military vantage point overlooking the Siliguri Corridor.
As the border talks fast-track between Bhutan and China, India has to tread carefully to strike a balance between respecting Bhutan’s sovereignty and protecting its own strategic interests. The outcome of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s visit comes at an important juncture. India is expected to firm up its commitments to Bhutan, as it negotiates the fine line between the strategic imperative, a rapidly changing geopolitical dynamic, and the preservation of a valuable alliance. The challenge lies in managing its concerns without coming across as intruding on Bhutan’s sovereign decisions.