China Alters Status Quo Along Bhutan Border

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 3

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi addressing the Joint Session of the Parliament of Bhutan, in Thimphu, Bhutan on June 16, 2014. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Executive Summary:

  • The PRC’s claims over Bhutanese territory have expanded over the years, including recent large-scale construction in disputed valleys, which contradicts the 1998 agreement to maintain the status quo, challenging Bhutanese sovereignty and raising strategic concerns for India.
  • The PRC is pushing to resolve the border issue through negotiations, as well as to finally establish diplomatic relations. But the new Bhutanese government under Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay is expected to continue navigating the delicate balance, though he will likely lean closer to India than the PRC.
  • India’s close relationship with Bhutan is crucial, especially regarding the Doklam Plateau, with India viewing any concession to the Beijing as a threat to its strategic interests, influencing Bhutan’s stance on border negotiations.
  • Despite historical tensions, some in Bhutan admire China’s economic success and advocate for stronger ties, while the PRC seeks formal diplomatic relations with Bhutan as part of its broader regional ambitions, despite international and regional concerns over its aggressive territorial policies.


On January 9, Bhutan held its fourth parliamentary elections since it became a democracy in 2008 (Election Commission of Bhutan, January 10). The liberal, pro-Indian People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won 30 of 47 seats in the National Assembly. Tshering Tobgay, who was prime minister in 2013-2018, has been sworn in for a second term. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was swift to offer his congratulations, as was the US Department of State (PMIndia, January 12; US Department of State, January 12). The People’s Republic of China (PRC), which is yet to establish diplomatic relations with its small neighboring kingdom, has not publicly acknowledged the new government.

The election comes on the heels of the 25th round of border talks, which took place in late October. During the talks, Bhutan’s foreign minister met both PRC Vice President Han Zheng (韩正) and Wang Yi (王毅), Director of the Central Committee’s Foreign Affairs Commission (MFA, November 2023). In recent years, the border dispute has been exacerbated by PRC construction of permanent structures within Beyul Khenpajong—sacred ancestral lands for many Buddhists, as well as for the Bhutanese royal family. Tensions are unlikely to be resolved under the new government, but an analysis of recent developments reveals useful details for understanding Beijing’s approach to regional states.

Beijing’s Expansionist Foreign Policy

Beijing appears to be robustly altering the status quo on the ground along its border with Bhutan. Recent satellite images reveal “the staggering pace” at which the PRC is building “townships along a river valley in Beyul Khenpajong” located in territory it claims in northcentral Bhutan. According to experts cited by the Indian news channel, NDTV, the Chinese constructions are “large format settlements capable of housing hundreds [of people” (NDTV, January 6). At present, there are over 200 single- and multi-storey structures and their numbers are likely to increase, as construction is not yet complete. According to Himalayan and Buddhist studies expert Phunchok Stobdan, satellite images have provided “detailed evidence of China’s massive construction of permanent settlements in the remote Jakarlung valley of Bhutan as well as in the Menchuma valley to its east.” [1] The images reaffirm that the PRC has spent almost a decade building entire villages, roads, hydropower stations, communications facilities, and military and police outposts inside Bhutanese territory. The PRC, which now controls Menchuma Valley and most of the Beyul, has since populated these villages (Foreign Policy, May 7, 2021; The World Today, December 1, 2023).

Chinese encroachment in western and northern Bhutan is not new. For decades, Chinese soldiers and grazers have been encroaching on Bhutanese pastures. The PRC has previously laid claim to 269 sq km in Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana, and Shakhatoe in western Bhutan, and another 495 sq km in the Jakurlung and Pasamlung Valleys in northcentral Bhutan (IDSA Comment, January 19, 2010). More recently, in June 2020, it added the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, an area spanning 650 sq km in the eastern Bhutanese district of Trashigang, to its territorial claims (Indian Express, July 6, 2020). By 2006,the PRC had built at least six roads near Bhutan’s northern border, of which three crossed into Bhutanese territory (Observer Research Foundation, July 22, 2023). In 2017, such activity by the PLA at Doklam in western Bhutan resulted in a 73-day military standoff between the Indian and Chinese armies. However, one Bhutanese official alleges that what is unfolding in Beyul Khenpajong is “unprecedented,” arguing that the construction activity here is “more systematic, on a larger scale, and of a more permanent nature.” [2]

Negotiations over the border have been ongoing for 40 years. In 1996, Beijing put forward a package proposal under which it offered to recognize Bhutanese sovereignty over Pasamlung and Jakarlung in exchange for Bhutan ceding control of Doklam (IDSA Comment, January 19, 2010). Bhutan rejected the swap proposal. An oft-cited milestone in the negotiations was the 1998 Agreement to Maintain Peace and Tranquillity on the Bhutan-China Border. Under this, the two countries agreed under Article 3 to “refrain from taking any unilateral action to change the status quo of the boundary (不采取任何单方面行动改变边界现状)” (FMPRC, December 8, 1998). However, PRC actions in recent years appear to be contravening this agreement. Nevertheless, talks continue in parallel, and in October both sides signed a “Cooperation Agreement on the Functions of the Sino-Bhutan Joint Technical Team for Boundary Delimitation and Demarcation” (MFA, November 2023).

India’s close relations with Bhutan, and its concerns about the PRC, underlie much of Bhutan’s positioning. India is apprehensive that any arrangement that results in Thimphu ceding control of the Doklam Plateau to the Chinese will undermine its security. According to a retired lieutenant general of the Indian Army, Doklam in Chinese hands would provide the PLA with “a launch pad to choke India’s vital lines of communications running through the Siliguri Corridor to the Northeast” (Newslaundry, July 8, 2017). It is out of sensitivity to Indian security concerns that Bhutan has not accepted deals offered by the Chinese. [3]

The PRC, for its part, often sees Bhutan through the prism of its own relations with India. A recent article by a former lecturer at the PRC’s National Defense University blames the Sino-Bhutanese diplomatic impasse on “India’s obstruction,” and laments that Bhutan has been under New Delhi’s control for many years (“掌控不丹多年的新德里…”) (WangYi, December 8, 2023). It goes on to claim that concern about Chinese activity around Bhutan’s border is due to “impure motives”—namely, election interference by the West and an attempt to disrupt the border talks. Another article from 2021 concludes with the hope that “positive progress in China-Bhutan relations will create favorable conditions for resolving the China-India border issue (中不关系的积极进展能够为解决中印边界问题创造有利条件)” (, October 22, 2021).

The PRC also tends to see Bhutan to some extent as a part of its own territory. In 1930, for instance, Mao Zedong claimed that Bhutan fell under “the correct boundaries of China.” Official maps of the PRC released in 1954 and 1958 reflected Beijing’s expanding territorial claims in Bhutan, and in 1959, amid its annexation of Tibet, the pRC occupied eight Bhutanese enclaves in western Bhutan. [4] The bloody suppression of the Tibetan uprising and the flight of the 14th Dalai Lama and his followers left a deep impression on the Bhutanese. Accounts of Chinese atrocities on Tibetans who fled to Bhutan convinced them that the Chinese were “out to destroy Buddhism and Buddhists” (China Brief, April 20, 2017). Even the PRC’s most recent standard national map includes disputed Bhutanese territories as its own (People’s Daily App, August 28, 2023).

At a minimum, deepening integration with Bhutan is clearly a key aim for the PRC. As part of the most recent round of discussions, Liu Jinsong (刘劲松), Director General of the Department of Asian Affairs, presented Bhutan’s foreign secretary with a copy of “China’s Neighborhood Foreign Policy Outlook in the New Era (新时代中国的周边外交政策展望)” (MFA, October 25, 2023). This document gives a clear sense of Beijing’s desires for the region. It advises that “Chinese-style modernization provides a brand-new option for the vast number of developing countries to explore the road of modernization,” and states that the PRC is willing to “join hands in realizing the ‘Asian dream’ of sustained peace and common development (携手实现持久和平、共同发展的亚洲梦)” (Xinhua, October 24, 2023).

Bhutanese Perception of China

Bhutan’s relations with China have not always been hostile. This is in contrast with its former relations with the independent Tibetan kingdom, with whom relations were “close, although often conflicting.” [5] Stobdan argues that there is little animosity towards the country, even today. “There is nothing called [the] China threat. It is all about the Tibetan expansion into the Himalayan regions,” he says. Even after Tibet’s annexation by China, “Tibetan assertion” in Bhutan continued. In addition to “Tibetan nomadic intrusions,” thousands of Tibetan refugees fled to Bhutan in the wake of Chinese repression in the 1970s, threatening national security. An episode of palace intrigue led to concerns that some Tibetans were involved in Bhutanese internal affairs. This led Thimphu to expel many Tibetan refugees in the late 1970s for their “lack of allegiance” to Bhutan. Additionally, Stobdan says, Bhutan “shunned all contact with the Tibetan province” in 1979. [6]

In international fora, Bhutan has been very supportive of the PRC. It firmly abides by the one-China principle and considers Taiwan and Tibet as parts of the PRC. A growing number of young Bhutanese are impressed with its rise as an economic power and wish to see some of the same prosperity. [7] There is some resentment over Bhutan having to be sensitive to India’s security concerns. In an interview, a Bhutanese political commentator argued that Bhutan is “paying the price on the ground” for not accepting the package proposal from the PRC and establishing diplomatic relations. He framed Beijing’s construction activity in Beyul Khenpajong as occurring in part because Bhutan “refused” the package proposal [8]

Former Prime Minister Lotay Tshering addressed the tensions in an interview to a Belgium newspaper last year. Noting that Bhutan did not have major border problems with its neighbor, he admitted, however, that “certain territories are not yet demarcated,” though expected that they would “probably be able to draw a line” after “one or two more meetings” (La Libre, March 25, 2023). Importantly, he dismissed claims of Chinese building activity in Beyul: “It’s not in Bhutan … categorically, there is no intrusion as mentioned in the media. This is an international border, and we know exactly what belongs to us.” Either Tshering believed there is no Chinese construction in the area or was of the view that the land on which this construction is taking place is not Bhutanese.

 Chinese Occupation of Beyul Khenpajong

Beijing has faced little pushback as it has consolidated control of Beyul Khenpajong. [10] The area is full of difficult terrain and a lack of roads. This has made it hard to access from the Bhutanese side. This inaccessibility has added to its mysterious image, [11] but has also facilitated PRC occupation.

The rationale behind Beijing’s landgrab is not entirely clear. Unlike Doklam, which is near India and where the PRC has also pressed ahead to alter the situation on the ground through construction of roads and bunkers, control over Beyul Khenpajong would have no strategic value in the event of an India-China war. Stobdan suggests that it “may be spiritually important for the Drukpas and Nyingmapas living on the Tibetan side,” something which Beijing could be playing on to boost support. [12] Alternatively, Beijing may be tightening its grip over the Beyul to pressure Thimphu to accept the package proposal. Stobdan believes that Beijing’s infrastructure buildup and “nomadic Tibetan infiltration” has been successful in the past. He notes that in 2006, Bhutan excluded Kula Kangri (an Himalayan peak) from its national map, supposedly under duress from the PRC. [13] Given such precedents, Beijing has likely learned the lesson that such pressure can pay off. In this case, as a Bhutanese official warned, the recent structures “are not temporary structures aimed at just pressuring Bhutan but seem built for the long run.” They added that this activity amounts to Chinese “occupation” of the Beyul. [14] This perception is not necessarily commonly held. However, foreign policy is not widely discussed in the kingdom and there is sensitivity to any public comments due to the outsized influence of both New Delhi and Beijing on the country’s politics. This makes it difficult to get a good sense of how Bhutanese feel about the situation without speaking directly with them.

The PRC side nevertheless intends to maintain its presence in the territory. Beijing’s approach to Bhutan echoes its “maximalist position” towards all sectors of the Line of Actual Control in its talks with India (Seminar, 2008). Its construction projects in the face of international criticism is also not dissimilar to its land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea. The permanent nature of constructions and the extensive settlements it is building in Beyul suggest that the PRC will not vacate the areas it has occupied for the foreseeable future.


Talks with China will continue under Bhutan’s new Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay but—judging from his last stint at the helm (2013-2018)—perhaps not at the rapid pace they did under the previous government. Tobgay will maintain a strong relationship with India. For the PRC, talks with Bhutan go beyond the border dispute, with the ultimate aim being the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with Thimphu. In the words of a report from an MSS-affiliated think tank, such a result is “the trend of the times and the wish of the people (大势所趋、民心所向)” (CICIR, November 15, 2023). Indeed, the PRC is in favor of establishing diplomatic ties irrespective of the border settlement.

Parallel to changing the status quo on the ground in its favor with its infrastructure-building activity, China is keen to enhance its economic and other presence in Bhutan. This would help the PRC to create a favorable environment for itself while increasing its leverage. Bhutan’s returning Prime Minister will be aware of this, but given the urgency of his country’s economic situation, it is unclear how willing or capable his government will be to alter this trajectory.


[1] Author’s interview with Phunchok Stobdan, Himalayan and Buddhist studies expert and author of “The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas – India and China’s Quest for Strategic Dominance,” Vintage Books, 2020, January 18, 2024.

[2] Author’s interview with a Bhutanese official based in Thimphu, Bhutan, January 22, 2024.

[3] Author’s interview with Bhutanese political commentator based in Thimphu, Bhutan, January 18, 2024.

[4] See Srikant Dutt, “Bhutan’s International Position,” in International Studies (New Delhi), vol.20, nos. 3-4, July-December 1981, pp. 605-06, and Pranav Kumar, “Sino-Bhutanese Relations: Under the Shadow of India-Bhutan Relations,” in China Report (New Delhi), vol.46, no.3, 2010, p. 245.

[5] Thierry Mathou, “Bhutan-China Relations: Toward a New Step in Himalayan Politics,” in Ura, Karma and Sonam Kinga (eds.), The Spider and the Piglet (Proceedings of the First International Seminar on Bhutan Studies) (Thimphu: The Centre for Bhutan Studies, 2004), pp. 390-92.

[6] Author’s interview with Stobdan.

[7] Author’s interview with Bhutanese official.

[8] Author’s interview with Bhutanese political commentator.

[10] Author’s interview with Indian military official, formerly posted in Bhutan, January 22, 2024.

[11] Author’s interview with Bhutanese political commentator.

[12] Author’s interview with Stobdan.

[13] Author’s interview with Stobdan.

[14] Author’s interview with Bhutanese official.