Country Listing

Bhutan Table of Contents



Strategic Location

Bhutan is a strategic buffer state wedged between India and China. After centuries of close ties to Tibet and less definite connections to China, Bhutan developed a southerly political orientation, first with British India and then with independent India. British troops in or near Bhutan presented a considerable deterrent to China from the eighteenth century until the early twentieth century. Britain's withdrawal from India in 1947 and India's replacement of Britain as Bhutan's protector coincided with the communist military victory in China in 1949.

Because of its location in India's strategic defense system, Bhutan has long had foreign defense arrangements, first with Britain and then with independent India. Despite common international policy goals of Indian and Chinese leaders, territorial problems between the two powers continued to define Bhutan's buffer status. The 1962 border war between India and China had serious implications for Bhutan and could have embroiled it in the fighting. Thimphu permitted Indian troops to cross Bhutanese territory and Chinese airplanes allegedly violated Bhutanese air space. In addition, China reportedly had six divisions stationed near the borders of Bhutan, Sikkim, and Nepal. China had its own boundary disputes with Bhutan, and Chinese troops reportedly breached the Bhutanese frontier on several occasions in 1966, 1970, and 1979. In each case, New Delhi attempted to represent Thimphu's interests in protest notes to Beijing, all of which were rejected.

As the Chinese threat grew, India became increasingly involved in the buildup of Bhutan's indigenous defensive capability, specifically in the training and equipping of the Royal Bhutan Army (see Armed Forces , this ch.). The headquarters of the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) in Bhutan was located in Ha District, which is adjacent to Tibet's Chumbi Valley, where China routinely kept large concentrations of troops, at the junction of the Bhutanese, Indian, and Chinese borders.

The 1949 Indo-Bhutanese treaty makes no reference to India's defense of Bhutan except what might be inferred from Article 2 of the treaty. Prime Minister Nehru, however, declared in 1958 that acts of aggression against Bhutan would be taken as acts of aggression against India itself. Also, by the terms of the 1949 treaty, Bhutan has the right to import arms, munitions, and other military matériel from or through India as long as the Indian government is satisfied that such imports do not threaten India. Bhutan, on the other hand, agreed not to export or allow private citizens to export any arms, ammunition, or military equipment. The Indian Ministry of Defence also made provisions for the rapid deployment of helicopter-borne troops to Bhutan in the event of a Chinese invasion and made related plans for air force operations. Suggestions from within the Bhutanese government to allow Indian troops to be stationed in Bhutan were rejected. An important defensive consideration has been the construction of extensive roads with major assistance from the Indian government's paramilitary Border Roads Organization.

Data as of September 1991