The Little Dragon
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