Learn­ing Di­plo­macy

Will Bhutan suc­ceed in strik­ing a bal­ance be­tween main­tain­ing its re­la­tion­ship with In­dia and fos­ter­ing new part­ner­ships with China?

Southasia - - Bhutan - By S. M. Hali Group Cap­tain (R) Sul­tan M. Hali, now a prac­tic­ing jour­nal­ist, writes for print me­dia, pro­duces doc­u­men­taries and hosts a TV talk show. He is cur­rently based in Is­lam­abad.

Of all the neigh­bors of In­dia, the Hi­malayan King­dom of Bhutan is the only coun­try, which does not main­tain re­la­tions with the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China (PRC). In re­cent days, how­ever, there has been a move to es­tab­lish diplo­matic ties with the PRC for the first time in its his­tory. For years Si­noBhutanese re­la­tions were strained; the causes be­ing Ti­bet and bor­der is­sues, which have plagued Bhutan and the PRC, who share a con­tigu­ous but un-de­mar­cated and not of­fi­cially rec­og­nized 470 kilo­me­ters bor­der. Fol­low­ing the 1959 Ti­betan Re­bel­lion, about 6,000 Ti­betans fled to Bhutan and were granted asy­lum, much to the cha­grin of the PRC.

In the early six­ties, fear­ing ad­ven­tur­ism by the PRC, which had laid claims on some Bhutanese ter­ri­tory, Bhutan im­posed a cross-bor­der trade em­bargo, closed its bor­ders with PRC and es­tab­lished ex­ten­sive mil­i­tary ties with In­dia. Af­ter In­dia’s de­feat at the hands of PRC in 1962, Bhutan felt ex­posed thus while re­tain­ing its ties with In­dia, it of­fi­cially es­tab­lished a pol­icy of neu­tral­ity. How­ever, un­til the 1970s, In­dia con­tin­ued to rep­re­sent Bhutan’s con­cerns while ad­dress­ing Sino-In­dian bor­der con­flicts in talks with the PRC. Fol­low­ing the con­fir­ma­tion of its mem­ber­ship in the United Na­tions, a con­fi­dent Bhutan be­gan to pro­fess a more in­de­pen­dent for­eign pol­icy, vot­ing in fa­vor of PRC fill­ing the seat il­le­gally oc­cu­pied by Tai­wan (Repub­lic of China) and openly sup­port­ing the “One China” pol­icy. Dur­ing the 1974 corona­tion cer­e­mony of Jigme Singye Wangchuk as Bhutan’s monarch, in a sym­bolic over­ture, Bhutan in­vited the Chi­nese Am­bas­sador to In­dia to at­tend the pro­ceed­ings. More con­tact fol­lowed in New York in 1983; the Chi­nese For­eign Min­is­ter Wu Xue­qian and Bhu- tanese For­eign Min­is­ter Dawa Tsering car­ried out par­leys on es­tab­lish­ing bi­lat­eral re­la­tions. Since 1984, China and Bhutan be­gan an­nual, di­rect talks over the bor­der dis­pute.

In 1998, the two coun­tries signed a bi­lat­eral agree­ment based on the Five Prin­ci­ples of Peace­ful Co-ex­is­tence for main­tain­ing peace on the bor­der. The bud­ding re­la­tion­ship was strained with PRC’s con­struc­tion of roads within Bhutanese-claimed lands, which was in vi­o­la­tion of the 1998 agree­ment. In 2002, ne­go­ti­a­tions re­sulted in an in­terim agree­ment af­ter China pre­sented claims of ev­i­dence re­gard­ing own­er­ship of dis­puted tracts of land.

Bhutan and In­dia’s re­la­tion­ship is based on the 1949 Treaty of Friend­ship, up­dated in Fe­bru­ary 2007 dur­ing King Jigme Kh­e­sar Nam­gyel Wangchuk’s visit to In­dia. In 1949, the government had agreed “to be guided by the ad­vice of the Government of In­dia in re­gard to its ex­ter­nal re­la­tions.” The re­vised ver­sion states, “the Government of the King­dom of Bhutan and the Government of the Repub­lic of In­dia shall co­op­er­ate closely with each other on is­sues re­lat­ing to their na­tional in­ter­ests.” In­dia ex­pects Bhutan to con­sult with In­dia on the mat­ter of hold­ing bi­lat­eral bor­der talks with China con­sid­er­ing that they are linked to In­dia’s na­tional in­ter­ests in the East­ern Hima-

layan re­gion. Ear­lier, Bhutanese Prime Min­is­ter Jigmi Thin­ley ac­knowl­edged hav­ing a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with In­dia. How­ever, ground re­al­i­ties are that In­dia is wary of the PRC and de­spite the de­vel­op­ing Sino-In­dian trade re­la­tions, it is ap­pre­hen­sive that build­ing ties with China can ad­versely af­fect Bhutan-In­dia re­la­tions.

Re­cently, In­dia’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, Shivshankar Menon, held a brain­storm­ing ses­sion with em­i­nent an­a­lysts to take cog­nizance of the de­vel­op­ments and work out In­dia’s strat­egy on Bhutan.

Its can­di­da­ture for a non-per­ma­nent seat in the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil in 2013 has mo­ti­vated the June 2012 meet­ing be­tween Bhutanese Prime Min­is­ter Jigme Thin­ley and Chi­nese Pre­mier Wen Ji­abao on the side­lines of the Rio+20 Sum­mit. Hand­i­capped by its lim­ited diplo­matic re­la­tions with other coun­tries, Bhutan has to reach out to make new friends; it has in­vited en­voys of all for­eign mis­sions in Delhi to its cap­i­tal, Thimphu. In New York, Bhutan spon­sored a widely at­tended event on its USP – “gross na­tional hap­pi­ness.” In­dia is sup­port­ing and lob­by­ing for the Bhutanese can­di­da­ture since Bhutan needs all the sup­port it can muster, com­pet­ing for the Asian seat with the more in­flu­en­tial and op­u­lent South Korea.

In­dian con­cerns stem from the pos­si­bil­ity of a Bhutan-China set­tle­ment on the boundary is­sue, which may in­volve the bor­der stretch­ing from Dhok­lam in the west to the graz­ing grounds in the north. Alarm bells are raised in In­dia be­cause China wants those graz­ing grounds, clos­est to the strate­gic Chumbi val­ley tri-junc­tion, which is of great im­por­tance to In­dia, be­ing in prox­im­ity to the vul­ner­a­ble “chicken’s neck” near Silig­uri Cor­ri­dor, link­ing the north­east pas­sage and can be sev­ered by the PRC.

In or­der to al­low for ad­just­ments to the lat­est de­vel­op­ments, In­dian eco­nomic as­sis­tance pro­grams to Bhutan are be­ing sped up. Bhutan has ben­e­fit­ted by be­com­ing a hy­dropower ex­porter to In­dia, al­beit with In­dian as­sis­tance; aim­ing to ex­port 10000 MW of power to In­dia by 2020.

Mean­while, China’s pres­ence is in­creas­ing in­side Bhutan. Ac­cord­ing to re­ports, the PRC plans to ex­tend its rail­way net­work from Lhasa to Zangmu, as well as Shi­gatse and, per­haps, to Yadong, at the open­ing of the Chumbi Val­ley. Many Chi­nese busi­ness­men have shown a keen in­ter­est in tour­ing and in­vest­ing in Bhutan. Chi­nese eco­nomic sup­port may be lu­cra­tive for Bhutan but In­dia’s 63 year in­flu­ence con­tin­ues to have large eco­nomic and se­cu­rity stakes in Bhutan and el­e­vates In­dia as a close part­ner and neigh­bor.

Bhutan is at a cross­roads; though In­dia would like to main­tain the same vigor of co­op­er­a­tion and trust with Bhutan, much will de­pend upon how Bhutan de­cides to main­tain and con­duct its re­la­tion­ship with the out­side world. Bhutan must act smartly, and shouldn’t com­pli­cate its bear­ings ei­ther with China or In­dia. China may gen­uinely be a mat­ter of eco­nomic at­trac­tion, but Bhutan is still deeply in­grained po­lit­i­cally with In­dia. The in­sti­tu­tional Indo-Bhutanese co­op­er­a­tion is still vi­tal for Bhutan’s fu­ture but it will have to tread care­fully and learn to run with the hare and hunt with hounds and avoid be­com­ing a pawn or buf­fer be­tween its two pow­er­ful neigh­bors. Other South Asian states will be watch­ing the progress with in­ter­est while the Sino-In­dian tug of war for in­flu­ence in the re­gion per­sists.

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