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