The other nation that borders Bhutan is China, with which Bhutan had no diplomatic relations as of mid-1991. Bhutan and China have long had differences with respect to the delineation of their common border, which follows natural features--the watershed of the Chumbi Valley in the northwest and the crest of the Great Himalayan Range of mountains in the north. The part of China that borders Bhutan--Tibet, or the Xizang Autonomous Region--has important historical, cultural, and religious ties to Bhutan. China had been heavily involved in Tibetan affairs since the 1720s, and it was through this involvement that Bhutan and China had their first direct relations. Bhutanese delegations to the Dalai Lama came into contact with the Chinese representatives in Lhasa, but there never was a tributary relationship with Beijing. Relations with Tibet itself, never particularly good, were strained considerably when Bhutan sided with Britain in the early 1900s. Trying to secure its southwestern flank against increasing foreign aggression, China claimed a vague suzerainty over Bhutan in the period just before the Chinese Revolution of 1911. The new Republic of China let the claim lapse, however, and it never again was raised publicly.
Tension in Bhutan-China relations increased with the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1951 and again rose with the anti-Chinese revolts in eastern and central Tibet between 1954 and 1958. The massive Tibetan uprisings in 1959 and the flight to India of the Dalai Lama, as well as the heightened presence of Chinese forces on the ill-defined frontier, alerted Bhutan to the potential threat it faced, and its representative in Tibet was withdrawn. Included in the territory occupied by the Chinese People's Liberation Army were the eight western Tibetan enclaves administered by Bhutan since the seventeenth century. New Delhi intervened with Beijing on behalf of Thimphu regarding the enclaves, but the Chinese refused to discuss what they considered a matter between China and Bhutan. Another problem with China emerged at this time as the result of the flight to Bhutan of some 6,000 Tibetan refugees. The specter of renewed Chinese claims to Bhutan, Sikkim, and Nepal was raised after China published a map in 1961 that showed alterations of traditional Sino-Bhutanese and other Himalayan borders in Beijing's favor. Bhutan responded with an embargo on cross-border trade and closer links with India.
During this period, Thimphu continued to withstand Beijing's mixture of threats and offers of conciliation in the form of economic aid and assurance of independence. Tension was renewed during the 1962 Sino-Indian border war when the Chinese army outflanked Indian troops, who, with permission of Bhutanese authorities, retreated through southeastern Bhutan. More fearful of China than confident of India's ability to defend it, Bhutan formally maintained a policy of neutrality while quietly expanding its relations with India. Cross-border incursions by Chinese soldiers and Tibetan herders occurred in 1966, but tensions generally lessened thereafter and during the 1970s. In 1979 a larger than usual annual intrusion by Tibetan herders into Bhutan brought protests to Beijing from both Thimphu and New Delhi. China, again seeking a direct approach with Bhutan, ignored the Indian protest but responded to the one from Bhutan. As part of its policy of asserting its independence from India, Bhutan was open to direct talks, whereas India continued to see the Sino-Bhutan boundary issue as intimately related to the Sino-Indian border dispute. A series of border talks has been held annually since 1984 between the ministers of foreign of affairs of Bhutan and China, leading to relations that have been characterized by the two sides as "very good."
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