Bhutan in a China Teacup

News of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao meeting with his Bhutanese counterpart Jigme Yoser Thinley, on the sidelines of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development at Rio de Janeiro last month, grabbed considerable attention in India. The Chinese state-owned Global Times announced that the Bhutanese leader had expressed willingness to establish diplomatic ties with China.

While the news was later denied by the Bhutanese, there are a number of issues that the incident raises about India’s relations with its smaller neighbours and specifically with Bhutan and China. It would appear that neither New Delhi nor ordinary Indians pay much attention to their smaller neighbours unless the Chinese get involved.

Why are Bhutan’s relations with China of such importance to India? The tiny Himalayan constitutionally monarchy happens to be the only other country besides India that China has a land boundary dispute with. While Bhutan and China began direct negotiations on the boundary dispute in 1984, they are yet to establish full diplomatic relations, thwarted so far by Indian pressure on the Himalayan nation.

Despite Thimpu’s recent denial that it was seeking diplomatic relations with Beijing, it has been evident for some time now that Bhutanese authorities including both the monarchy and elected representatives are interested in precisely this – Bhutan for example, has had a one-China policy and Chinese representatives were invited to the coronations of both the former and current kings.

While the economic reasons are self-evident, the desire to maintain a little more distance from New Delhi is also attractive politically for Bhutan. Despite being a small nation, Bhutan is not short of ambitions for a more active role internationally. And such a role demands greater freedom of action in the foreign policy domain including the assertion of its sovereignty vis-à-vis India and the mending of fences with the Chinese.

India and Bhutan have long shared a ‘special’ relationship signified by their treaty of friendship first signed in 1949 and later revised in 2007. The revised treaty, it might be noted, was occasioned by the impending turn to parliamentary democracy in Bhutan and places the two countries on a substantially more equal footing with both sides agreeing to “cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests” instead of Bhutan being “guided” by India “in regard to its external relations.”

Indeed, as parliamentary democracy takes roots in Bhutan, questions will be increasingly asked about Thimpu maintaining such ‘special’ ties with India, and about Indian military presence in the country. The trend will be towards greater balance and neutrality. Thus, the Bhutanese opening up to China is to be expected, even if Thimpu will probably be careful not to play the card as disastrously as Kathmandu has.

Meanwhile, the boundary dispute with China is a major national concern for Bhutan. It has apparently already lost a substantial chunk of the area under dispute including the Kula Kangri peak, to slow encroachment by the Chinese. However, the Chinese record on boundary settlements so far, shows a substantial willingness to make territorial concessions to smaller neighbours and Bhutan’s association with India in the dispute has probably disadvantaged the smaller nation.

Thimpu for its part seems willing to accept the Chinese offer of conceding Bhutanese claims in its north in return for letting China have disputed areas in the Chumbi Valley in the west. However, such a concession in the Chumbi has huge security implications for India. Any widening of the Chumbi salient in China’s favour threatens the narrow Siliguri corridor, not very far away, that connects India to its northeast.

There are limits however, to how much pressure India can bring to bear on Bhutan especially in the era of parliamentary democracy in Bhutan.  And given its rather poor record of relations with democratic governments in the neighbourhood, India can ill-afford to alienate another neighbour. New Delhi will therefore, need to tread very carefully here.

Meanwhile, owing to Bhutan’s close historical ties to Tibet and its identity as a Buddhist nation, it will continue to be concerned and wary about Chinese actions in general and in Tibet and on the religious front, in particular. To these must be added, its desire to preserve its unique model of development. It would appear therefore, that even as Bhutan seeks greater freedom of manoeuver in its ties with India, there remain plenty of reasons that should allow the two countries to continue coordinating their foreign policies.

Originally published as Jabin T Jacob, “India frets as Bhutan falls in China Teacup,” DNA (Mumbai), 6 July 2012, p. 14.

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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