The Lit­tle Dragon

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Sal­man Haidar Sal­man Haidar is a for­mer for­eign sec­re­tary and has served as am­bas­sador to both Thim­phu and Bei­jing

One of in­de­pen­dent In­dia’s ear­li­est in­ter­na­tional ac­cords was its 1949 friend­ship treaty with Bhutan. It was con­cluded at a time of un­cer­tainty on In­dia’s pe­riph­ery: the Bri­tish were with­draw­ing, rev­o­lu­tion­ary China was mov­ing into Ti­bet, with which Bhutan had age-old ties of re­li­gion and cul­ture. The 1949 treaty, in ef­fect, af­firmed Bhutan’s in­de­pen­dence, pro­vided for In­dian sup­port when re­quired and helped bring sta­bil­ity to the sen­si­tive Hi­malayan fron­tier.

Just a few years later, Jawa­har­lal Nehru made a pi­o­neer­ing visit to Bhutan, which at that time in­volved trekking across Ti­bet’s Chumbi Val­ley. By then, the uni­ver­sal de­mand in all parts of the world was for ac­cel­er­ated de­vel­op­ment, and Nehru’s talks with the King led to agree­ment that In­dia would fully sup­port Bhutan’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. This has re­mained the pat­tern ever since.

Even while Bhutan drew closer to In­dia, it steadily in­creased its own pro­file as an in­de­pen­dent coun­try. A ma­jor step was its ad­mis­sion to the United Na­tions, which was done with In­dia’s ac­tive sup­port. Its greater in­ter­na­tional vis­i­bil­ity not­with­stand­ing, Bhutan re­fused to be­come en­tan­gled in the af­fairs of re­gional and other pow­ers in mat­ters where it had no di­rect con­cern; its own tra­di­tional state­craft drove it to­wards dis­tance, even iso­la­tion, from the af­fairs of others. En­try into the UN did not greatly al­ter these at­ti­tudes, and Bhutan even to­day re­mains spar­ing in the ac­cess it pro­vides to out­siders. Only a very few diplo­matic mis­sions are per­mit­ted, none from the P-5 and it keeps aloof from the pro­lif­er­at­ing dis­putes at the UN and other mul­ti­lat­eral fo­rums.

It thus came as a sur­prise when, a few weeks ago, se­nior Bhutanese of­fi­cials spoke up against Chi­nese en­croach­ments along the bor­der and asked China to re­spect the pro­ce­dure for bor­der set­tle­ment that it had it­self agreed on with Bhutan. This was an unusu­ally forth­right de­mand from a coun­try that is nor­mally very re­strained in its diplo­matic ex­pres­sion. Such un­typ­i­cal ac­tion sug­gests that China had caused ap­pre­hen­sion by be­ing un­re­spon­sive to Bhutan’s con­cerns and had thus in­vited crit­i­cism.

Since then, there has been a spate of com­ment and spec­u­la­tion about the mat­ter, in­clud­ing sharp ex­changes be­tween In­dia and China. The place in ques­tion is in the area of the tri­junc­tion be­tween In­dia, Bhutan and China, a ge­o­graph­i­cally sen­si­tive area with im­por­tant se­cu­rity and strate­gic fea­tures. In­dia and China have both es­tab­lished mil­i­tary de­fences in the area, which have been strength­ened in the course of the cur­rent dis­agree­ment.

From the Chi­nese side, there have been ac­cu­sa­tions that In­dia has been in­cit­ing Bhutan to take a tougher line on its claims. How­ever, for more than three decades, Bhutan has con­ducted its bor­der ne­go­ti­a­tions with China ac­cord­ing to its own lights. In an ear­lier phase, In­dia did have a role in at­tempts to de­lin­eate the bor­der, de­rived from his­toric fac­tors, but long ago, this gave way to a Bhutan-China process with­out third party in­volve­ment. Bhutan was well aware that the pro­longed In­dia-China bor­der talks were go­ing nowhere and felt it should make an in­de­pen­dent bid for a set­tle­ment, to which In­dia was per­suaded to agree. Bhutan ex­pected that its bound­ary is­sue would soon be set­tled and China would be gen­er­ous to its small neigh­bour. In the event, China was un­yield­ing, of­fered no con­ces­sions and ap­peared to be try­ing to lever­age the bor­der talks to es­tab­lish a new or­der of re­la­tion­ship with Bhutan. This ef­fort made no head­way, as was re­vealed in the Bhutanese com­plaint about China’s fail­ure to ob­serve the agreed process for bor­der set­tle­ment.

These events make it ev­i­dent that Bhutan has found its voice and is well able to de­fend its in­ter­ests. The un­prece­dented democrati­sa­tion of the coun­try, when the monarch vol­un­tar­ily ceded his au­thor­ity, can be seen to have given new strength to the coun­try’s in­stru­ments of gov­er­nance. Stand­ing up for its ter­ri­to­rial and other in­ter­ests, even in the face of its for­mi­da­ble north­ern neigh­bour, is a mea­sure of how far Bhutan has come.

Bhutan was well aware that the pro­longed In­dia-China bor­der talks were go­ing nowhere and felt it should make an in­de­pen­dent bid for a set­tle­ment

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