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.
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.