A Test To Both Neighbours
In a step towards resolving their long standing boundary disputes, Bhutan and China signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on a three-step roadmap to help speed up talks. The roadmap "for expediting the Bhutan and China Boundary Negotiations" kick started the progress on the boundary talks process that has been delayed for 5 years first due to Doklam standoff in 2017 and then by the pandemic. This will have implications for Indian security and bearing on the bilateral relationships these countries are having with one another.
The boundary talks between Bhutan and China began in 1984 and they signed the Guiding Principles on the Settlement of the Boundary Issues in 1988 and the Agreement on Maintenance of peace and Tranquility along the border areas in 1988. China Bhutan border talks traditionally focus on two areas. One is two valleys - Pasamlung and Jakarlung - and the other is Doklam, along the trijunction with India. Around the time of the Galwan Valley incident last year, China had opened a new front by raising objections about Sakteng Century in Bhutan about which there was no discord earlier. This is seen as an attempt by China to put additional pressure on Bhutan to come to the negotiating table. China is quite keen to establish diplomatic relationship with Bhutan. This is one country in South Asia where it hasn't been able to make major inroads.
Bhutan is one of India's strongest allies. Both countries re-negotiated their 1949 treaty and entered into a new treaty of friendship in 2007. The new treaty replaced the provision which required Bhutan to take India's guidance on foreign policy. Moreover, Bhutan has also seen a transition to multi-party democracy. Initially, India was the only development partner but Bhutan has 53rd development partners.
Bhutan is increasingly keen to assert its independent stature in the global comity of nations. However, it still wants to make its economic progress largely with the help of India. As Bhutan can't meet the growing military assertions of China on its border, it has signed the present MoU with the hope to buy temporary peace. New Delhi must do quietly offer Thimpu technical, diplomatic and other support for future border negotiations with China, including satellite imagery or historical maps that Bhutan might need to strengthen its case. It is easy-and-understandable to look at everything that Bhutan does through the prism of the India-China rivalry.