Bhutan Flirt­ing with the Dragon

Bhutan may be a tiny coun­try, qui­etly placed be­tween In­dia and China, but is fast gain­ing the at­ten­tion of the USA.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - The writer is a free­lance con­trib­u­tor for var­i­ous lo­cal publi­ca­tions.

There is no such thing as a coun­try too small to be im­por­tant as far as geopol­i­tics go - at least not in

By Si­jal Fawad the glob­al­ized world of to­day. Even a land­locked coun­try as small as Bhutan with its mea­gre pop­u­la­tion of 730,000 and spread over an area slightly smaller than Switzer­land, has now gained promi­nence as the only coun­try to not

have diplo­matic ties with the US, bar­ring only North Korea and Iran, which are known for their less-than-ami­able re­la­tions with the su­per­power na­tion.

In­ter­est­ingly, the lack of diplo­matic re­la­tions be­tween Bhutan and the US is not be­cause of any po­lit­i­cal an­i­mos­ity be­tween the two. In fact, the two coun­tries never es­tab­lished any ‘for­mal’ re­la­tions with each other per se, with the US Depart­ment of State’s web­site stat­ing clearly, “…the two coun­tries main­tain warm, in­for­mal re­la­tions via the U.S. Em­bassy in New Delhi, In­dia, and Bhutan's Mis­sion to the United Na­tions in New York.”

As the state­ment clearly men­tions, In­dia ap­pears to be an im­por­tant key as far as main­tain­ing re­la­tions with the small land­locked coun­try is con­cerned. His­tor­i­cally, Bhutan has not had de­vel­oped for­mal diplo­matic re­la­tions with any coun­try, and largely served as the client state of In­dia. Treaties signed dur­ing the colo­nial era had be­stowed In­dia with mean­ing­ful say in the for­eign pol­icy of Bhutan. Con­se­quently, Bhutan does not even have a US em­bassy, with the US mis­sion in In­dia con­sid­ered the key point of con­tact be­tween the US and Bhutan. Ow­ing to pleas­ant re­la­tions be­tween the US and In­dia, many con­sid­ered this a work­able ar­range­ment, with In­dia pro­vid­ing the li­ai­son for the two coun­tries.

How­ever, in 2008, Bhutan shifted from be­ing a com­plete monar­chy to hav­ing a more demo­cratic con­sti­tu­tion and hold­ing the coun­try’s first ever elec­tions. Since this move, the process of emerg­ing from In­dia’s shadow be­gan, Bhutan has gained promi­nence in in­ter­na­tional cir­cles and the coun­try has also ex­panded her diplo­matic ties, promi­nently with a few Euro­pean na­tions.

Till now, it may seem like Bhutan has been a coun­try im­mune to in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal con­tentions, guarded by Delhi. This isn’t true and that’s where the case of Bhutan be­comes even more in­ter­est­ing. The coun­try has had a long-run­ning dis­pute with China. The lat­ter claims that a sig­nif­i­cant chunk of the Bhutanese ter­ri­tory – a whop­ping 10 per­cent of the coun­try’s to­tal area – is ac­tu­ally a part of China. Un­wanted in­cur­sions by Chi­nese troops has placed Bhutan’s bor­der with China in a vul­ner­a­ble spot, with In­dia pro­vid­ing ex­ten­sive mil­i­tary sup­port for pro­tect­ing it. Yet, only a cou­ple of years back, re­ports emerged about China build­ing roads on Bhutanese ter­ri­tory, bring­ing once again to the fore­front, the con­vo­luted Bhutan-China ties.

China’s in­ter­est in the seem­ingly pe­tite na­tion can be traced to the days of tense Sino-In­dian re­la­tions and the ge­o­graphic lo­ca­tion of moun­tain passes in the north-western part of Bhutan. These tall peaks can po­ten­tially pro­vide ac­cess to the Silig­uri Cor­ri­dor of In­dia, a thin strip of land that con­nects In­dia’s north­east­ern ‘Seven Sis­ters States’ with the rest of In­dia. The Silig­uri Cor­ri­dor is aptly called ‘chicken’s neck’ of In­dia, since China’s ac­cess to this nar­row piece of land, even tem­po­rar­ily, can put In­dia’s strate­gic in­ter­ests in jeop­ardy. Need­less to say, In­dia has upped mil­i­tary sup­port for Bhutan in light of these events.

It’s this pos­si­bil­ity of China’s ris­ing dom­i­nance in Asia and grad­u­ally across the globe that may cause Washington to lose sleep as the lat­ter has been at work to in­crease its diplo­matic pres­ence in the South Asian re­gion. De­vel­op­ing and nur­tur­ing ties with this land­locked coun­try has far-reach­ing po­lit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance as means of show­ing China that the US will de­fend its dom­i­nant stance in South Asia.

Hence, the im­por­tance of strength­en­ing US-Bhutan ties can be easily linked to lat­ter’s in­ter­est­ing ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion right in be­tween In­dia and China, pal­ing all ar­gu­ments press­ing for US for­eign pol­icy to con­cen­trate more on larger na­tions rather than smaller ones like Bhutan. In case China man­ages to gain dom­i­nance over this small na­tion, it could sig­nal to the US that other South Asian states will not be that hard to reach. Con­sid­er­ing that South Asia, a re­gion wrought with com­plex po­lit­i­cal sce­nar­ios, has been high on the US diplo­matic agenda in or­der to counter China’s grow­ing promi­nence in Asia, it seems like the time is right to take an ac­tive in­ter­est in nur­tur­ing US-Bhutan ties.

Since there has been neg­li­gi­ble pres­ence of any diplo­matic for­eign re­la­tions to be­gin with, there is a lot of scope for the US to as­sert its in­volve­ment with the Bhutanese. The most press­ing con­cern would be high­light­ing the need for pro­tec­tion of Bhutan’s dis­puted north­ern ter­ri­tory from Chi­nese in­fil­tra­tion in in­ter­na­tional cir­cles. The US can use its strong in­flu­ence over the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to press for this is­sue even more. The sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance of such a stance will be far greater than what may meet an or­di­nary eye, in terms of help­ing Washington stress its ac­tive in­volve­ment in Asian and South Asian geopol­i­tics, even if on a small scale. Fur­ther­more, mil­i­tary sup­port and the US’s prow­ess over the same can also be use­ful for pro­tect­ing Bhutan’s bor­der shared with China.

In ad­di­tion, in­stead of the US mis­sion in New Delhi act­ing as the de facto US em­bassy for the peo­ple of Bhutan, cre­at­ing a Bhutan-spe­cific US em­bassy within the coun­try will also be a ma­jor step for­ward in sup­port­ing ties with the sec­ond-small­est na­tion of the South Asian bloc.

En­cour­ag­ingly, diplo­matic vis­its be­tween key of­fi­cials of the two coun­tries have al­ready gained mo­men­tum. Ear­lier this year, US diplo­mat John Kerry be­came the first Amer­i­can Sec­re­tary of State to meet with a Bhutanese prime min­is­ter, show­ing sol­i­dar­ity and sup­port to the “Land of the Thun­der Dragon.” In April this year, the am­bas­sador of the United States to In­dia, Richard R Verma, vis­ited the Bhutanese Prime Min­is­ter, Tsh­er­ing Tob­gay, to dis­cuss po­ten­tial ar­eas of co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the two. Such vis­its will be a pleas­ant re­minder to Bhutan that she has more than one friendly pow­er­house coun­try in its diplo­matic cir­cle (other than In­dia).

Fur­ther, min­i­mal in­fras­truc­tural de­vel­op­ment in Bhutan till now leaves a lot of room for the US to in­ter­vene with the eco­nomic con­di­tions in the coun­try. Sec­tors such as ed­u­ca­tion, hu­man re­source de­vel­op­ment, hy­dropower, re­new­able energy sources and tourism are ar­eas where US sup­port can help ex­pand the land­locked coun­try eco­nom­i­cally. To date, Bhutan has trea­sured its cul­tural her­itage and en­vi­ron­ment and it will fur­ther ben­e­fit from US co­op­er­a­tion in pro­tect­ing and sup­port­ing it.

To the US’s re­lief, Bhutan has al­ways im­plied its sup­port with the US through am­i­ca­bil­ity and an ac­cep­tance of the friendly hand­shake from Washington. She may also be look­ing for­ward to fur­ther sup­port as far as pro­tect­ing the China-Bhutan bor­der and nearly 10% of her north­ern ter­ri­tory is con­cerned. It’s up to the US to make the most of this op­por­tu­nity pre­sented through a small na­tion and to not un­der­play her sig­nif­i­cance due to sheer size.

Till now, it may seem like Bhutan has been a coun­try im­mune to in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal con­tentions, guarded by Delhi.

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