The Himalayas: Where India Meets China and Others

Dr. Puyam Rakesh Singh *

The Himalayas stands firm and tall between India and China. Together with the Tibet-Qinghai plateau, it is home to the glaciers feeding some of the world's longest rivers in Asia. The Himalayan mountain ranges are witnesses to the unresolved boundary problems which could shape the future of Asia in the 21st century.

The Doklam standoff is an example. The standoff between India and China (also Bhutan) has given birth to a new era of India-China relationship following the Wuhan Summit held in April 2018. The India-China Boundary Question looms large on the horizon as India and China look forward to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of diplomatic relations in 2020. And Wuhan spirit prevails across the Himalayas.

After taking charge of EAM, S. Jaishankar has embarked on a two-day visit to Bhutan in June 2019 marking his first overseas visit. It reflects continuation of India's Neighbourhood First policy. He had extensive discussion with King of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lyonchhen Lotay Tshering and his counterpart Tandi Dorji.

The Bhutanese Prime Minister attended the swearing-in of Prime Minister Modi on May 30 this year. Also, Prime Minister Modi visited Bhutan as his first overseas destination after assuming charge in 2014.

During Jaishankar's visit, the two sides discussed development partnership, hydro power cooperation and upcoming high-level exchanges. Though Bhutan does not have diplomatic ties with Beijing, China has stepped up efforts to engage the small Himalayan state. Geostrategic importance of Bhutan remains a key factor in India-Bhutan relationship. Interestingly, the issues of India-China-Bhutan tri-junction point and China-Bhutan boundary talks did not find any place in the official and media reports on the visit.

As Wuhan spirit continues, India's External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar will travel to Beijing to attend the second India-China High Level Mechanism on Cultural and People-to-People Exchanges in August 2019. Reportedly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Bhutan during this period. Bhutan is important for India-China relations and for peace and stability in Asia.

Surely, Bhutan has taken the centre stage as both India and China look forward to enhance mutual trust and resolve the boundary problems. Earlier, Beijing wanted to resolve its boundary issues with Bhutan first. This is not favourable to India's interest. But as the India-China boundary talks progress, a boundary settlement between China and Bhutan, which is acceptable to India as well, might receive the ray of the sunlight.

Progress in India-China boundary talks matters for Bhutan. Voices coming out from Bhutan in the wake of the Doklam standoff also matter for New Delhi. Thimphu has high stake in India-China boundary settlement that is "fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable".

In July 2018, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou visited Bhutan from July 22 to 24, 2018, to discuss bilateral relations. He was accompanied by Chinese Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui. During Kong's visit, the Chinese side conveyed willingness to "maintain high-level contacts, expand practical cooperation, and strengthen multilateral communication and coordination" to achieve common development.

China also invited Bhutan to actively participate in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) besides calling the two sides to promote the boundary negotiations and jointly maintains peace and tranquility in border areas.

Covering the high-level visit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reported that the Bhutanese side welcomes the positive outcomes of the BRI. Despite such a note, Bhutan did not participate in the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in April 2019.

China is aware of India's close ties with Bhutan and, therefore Beijing maintains close contacts with New Delhi over its Bhutan affairs. It was the first Chinese official visit to Bhutan following the Doklam (China calls Donglang) standoff in 2017.

The China-Bhutan boundary talks did not happen in 2017 as a result of the standoff. Thus, the upcoming Informal Summit between Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping is important for the Himalayan boundary talks.

Moreover, the second summit to be held in India this year may cover issues ranging from Nepal to Bhutan in the wake of China's BRI. In fact, China's expanding footprint in South Asia is high in New Delhi's foreign policy priority under its Neighbourhood First policy.

Over the years, Beijing has held 24 rounds of talks with Thimphu to resolve the boundary issues. The 24th round of talks was held in Beijing on August 11, 2016. The Chinese side expressed desire for early establishment of diplomatic relations and solutions to boundary issues during the meeting. The crucial part of the boundary talks between Beijing and Thimphu has been the swapping of territories that China has proposed.

As far as boundary settlement is concerned, China wants a piece of land in the western Bhutan which constitutes the Doklam plateau in return of larger chunk of land in the northeast Bhutan. The narrow Chumbi Valley protruding towards Siliguri Corridor is vulnerable from Beijing's point of view.

Therefore, it is working for a favourable settlement with Bhutan to gain more territory in the western sector. Naturally, India is not in favour of such a settlement which poses strategic challenges for New Delhi. This reality puts Bhutan in a complicated situation with its two big neighbours.

As India and China plan to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of diplomatic relations, the two countries would further strengthen collaboration and make efforts to enhance mutual trust. Thus, it is a period in which New Delhi and Beijing can work out ways to resolve several challenges in the bilateral relations.

Over the last few years, Beijing has expanded its footprint in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Nepal. While Bhutan continues to maintain its close ties with India, Nepal has joined the BRI in 2017 as part of embracing its northern neighbour.

China's infrastructure development in southern Tibet along the Himalayas will continue to expand. The Doklam stand-off started following Chinese road construction in the tri-junction area where India, China and Bhutan meet. Lately, the Chumbi Valley in China has seen hectic construction activities. China's desire to build Yadong into a gateway to South Asia and regional centre of trade and logistics hub remains intact.

Nevertheless, India's position on BRI and security concerns of opening the sensitive trans-Himalayan region would continue to overshadow China's plan for building connectivity projects to integrate Tibet with South Asia.

Despite such impediments, the Nathu La border trade in Sikkim will continue to flourish. It remains the sole trading point between India and China in the eastern sector since the opening of the route in July 2006. Besides, India and China have opened Shipki La in Himachal Pradesh and Lipulekh in Uttarakhand for border trade.

The western sector will see further expansion in trade and people-to-people exchanges as the two sides strengthen the strategic and cooperative partnership. For tourism development and poverty alleviation, Beijing is undertaking more infrastructure development in Tibet's Ngari prefecture.

In Lipulekh, the main market on the Indian side is located at Gunji. Every year the border trade is opened for five months from June to October in Gunji and Burang (also called Taklakot). The trade route was resumed in 1992 following the closure of the same after the 1962 war. The Gunji (Uttarakhand) - Burang (Tibet) route is also used for the Kailash Mansarovar pilgrimage. Also, China has opened the Nathu La pass for pilgrims since 2015.

At present, there are five airports in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). In June 2018, Beijing has announced plans to build three more airports in Tibet for economic development and tourism promotion. Moreover, China plans to upgrade the Ngari Kunsa Airport into an international airport to facilitate the pilgrims from India going to Kailash Mansarovar.

Nevertheless, stability in Tibet continues to be high on the priority list of China. Chinese President Xi Jinping has put forward the idea: To govern the country well we must first govern the frontiers well, and to govern the frontiers well we must first ensure stability in Tibet.

At the same time, Beijing is working on opening Tibet to South Asia with Lhasa and Shigatse as the "two important nodes on the Belt and Road". Poverty alleviation campaign in Tibet will enhance development of China's infrastructure along the India-China Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Moreover, signing of the Transit Transport Agreement (TTA) between China and Nepal has implications in the Himalayan region. China has agreed to open Shenzen, Lianyungang, Zhanjiang and Tianjin ports to Nepal besides opening three land ports of Lanzhou, Lhasa and Xigatse for third country trade. Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli's visit to China from June 19 to 24, 2018, marked a new shift in the relationship. A memorandum of understanding on building the Kathmandu-Kyirong railway was also signed.

The two sides have agreed to build Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network which includes ports, railways, highways, aviation and communications. In a major development, the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network is mentioned in the joint communiqué of the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in April 2019.

The increasing influence of China in Nepal will impact Tibetan movement and Nepal's dependence on India. Nepal reiterates commitment to 'one China' policy and put ban on any anti-China or separatist activities using Nepalese territory.

The opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway in 2006 and completion of extension of the line up to Xigaze (Shigatse) in 2014 provide China opportunity to deal with transport and logistics problems in the region. Extension of the railway line to Gyirong will mark an important landmark in building the China-Nepal rail connectivity. But the project is easier said than done.

China continues to expand transport infrastructure in Tibet. China is making progress in construction of the Lhasa-Nyingchi section (435 km) of the Tibet-Sichuan railway. Track laying works on this line has started from October 2018. When the Lhasa-Chengdu line is completed, it will bring China's railway network close to Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern sector. Most importantly, the Himalayan states of Nepal and Bhutan will experience the full centripetal force of China's infrastructure build-up in southeastern Tibet.

When a comprehensive network of highway and railway connecting Tibet and sea ports of China is established, the internal dynamics in Nepal and Bhutan will find it hard to ignore the temptations of China's bandwagon across the Himalayas. The Yunnan-Tibet railway will primarily become Beijing's showpiece project to link the Himalayan states with the South-East Asian countries with large Buddhist populations.

Besides Nepal, China's BRI will continue to entice Bhutan with offer for an alternative route to the outside world. Yet, India is the natural partner for these countries. The 2019 car rally 'Bhutan-Thailand Friendship Drive – Connecting Peoples of the Two Kingdoms by Land' commemorating the 30th friendship anniversary of Bhutan and Thailand passed through Northeast India and Myanmar. The problem lies in lack of modern transport infrastructure which connects Bhutan with South-East Asia.

End Notes:

o PM to visit Bhutan, Jaishankar to China, The Times of India, July 22, 2019,

o 24th round of Bhutan-China boundary talks held, Kuensel, August 16, 2016,

o China hopes to forge diplomatic ties with Bhutan, Xinhua, August 11, 2016,

o Tenzing Lamsang, 'Chinese Vice Foreign Minister's visit show Bhutan-China ties are back on an even keel', The Bhutanese, July 28, 2018,

o Ankit Panda, 'Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Visits Bhutan in First High-Level Interaction Since the 2017 Doklam Standoff, The Diplomat, July 26, 2018,

o Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou Visits Bhutan, July 24, 2018, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People's Republic of China,

o Traders export goods worth Rs 3.75 crore at Nathula border, The Economic Times, November 30, 2018,

o Prem Punetha, 'India-China border trade through Lipulekh Pass gathers pace', The Times of India, July 21, 2019,

o Claude Arpi, 'A worrying scenario at Ladakh border', The Asian Age, June 19, 2016,

o China plans to upgrade the domestic airport in Tibet for Kailash-Mansarovar yatra, The Times of India, April 3, 2019,

o Tibet to build three more airports, Xinhua, June 9, 2018,

o Tibet to strengthen railway construction in 2019, Xinhua, January 11, 2019,

o Wang Keju & Daqiong, 'Sichuan-Tibet railway progress picks up steam', China Daily (Hong Kong), July 9, 2019,

o White paper on "Democratic Reform in Tibet—Sixty Years On", March 2019, Government of PRC,

o China opens new tourist route to help western regions reduce poverty, Xinhua, January 6, 2019,

o Joint communiqué of the Leaders' Roundtable of the 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, April 27, 2019,

o India-China Informal Summit at Wuhan, April 28, 2018, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India,

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.

* Dr. Puyam Rakesh Singh wrote this article for
The writer is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi and can be reached at khuman_mei(AT)yahoo(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on July 24 2019.

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