Bhutan may be in the middle of a power play between regional rivals – long-time protector India and China.
By Bertil Lintiner*
China has begun courting the only neighboring country with which it does not yet have diplomatic relations – Bhutan. Throughout modern history, the Himalayan kingdom has depended heavily on India, which is following events closely.
Bhutan, a 38,394 square kilometer country with 750,000 inhabitants, is in the unenviable position of being squeezed between the two most populous countries on earth that are also regional rivals. China is keen to establish diplomatic relations with Bhutan, although authorities in Thimphu recognize that such a move could not be done without at least tacit approval of India.
In August, Bhutan’s Foreign Minister Damcho Dorji visited Beijing, and the discreet diplomatic dance follows years of quiet contact. In the early 1980s, foreign ministers of China and Bhutan held talks at the UN headquarters in New York – officially about the border issue. China claims a few hundred square kilometers of Bhutanese territory. In 2012, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and his Bhutanese counterpart Jigme Thinley met on the sidelines of a UN conference in Brazil and expressed willingness to establish formal diplomatic relations. In Beijing, Dorji discussed the still unsettled border and met with China’s deputy foreign minister, foreign minister and vice-president.
Attempting to gain influence in Bhutan, China has deployed its usual “soft diplomacy.” In recent years, circus artists, acrobats and footballers have traveled to Bhutan, and a limited number of Bhutanese students received scholarships to study in China. Tourism has expanded: 19 Chinese tourists traveled to Bhutan a decade ago, and last year, the figure was 9,399, or 19 percent of the total.
The August meeting – the 24th in a series of border talks that also covered trade and diplomatic recognition – was a step forward for China. According to an August 15 statement issued by the Chinese foreign ministry: “Although Bhutan and China have not established diplomatic relations yet, it will not hold back the mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries. The Bhutanese side is willing to continue to deepen exchanges in such fields as tourism, religion, culture and agriculture and further lift the cooperation level with China.”
India watches the developments with concern. In July 2014, Bhutan became the first foreign stop for Narendra Modi, two months after he became India’s prime minister. Later that year, India’s President Pranab Mukherjee visited Bhutan, underscoring the value New Delhi’s places on its relations with the small but strategically located kingdom in the Himalayas. High on the agenda was China’s attempts to gain a permanent presence in Bhutan.
Bhutan would find it difficult to act independently when it comes to its foreign relations. Imports from India account for 75 percent of the total, and 85 percent of all exports goes to India. The largest export consists of hydropower from plants on rivers flowing down the Himalayas, and India is the sole importer. The Bhutanese currency, the ngultrum, is tied to the Indian rupee, with which it is on par. Strategically, Bhutan’s border with China follows the crest of the Himalayas, which separates the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan plateau. Between Bhutan and Bangladesh lies a narrow strip of land connecting India’s volatile northeastern region with the rest of the country.
Bhutan’s special relationship with India goes back to an 1865 friendship treaty between Bhutanese rulers and the colonial masters of British India. In 1910, Bhutan and British India signed a treaty whereby the British Raj recognized Bhutan’s internal sovereignty while maintaining control over its foreign relations. Bhutan and independent India signed a similar treaty in 1949. Bhutan’s way out of its de facto status as a protectorate of its southern neighbor began in 1963 with a new constitution that changed the monarch’s title from the Indian maharaja to the more indigenous druk gyalpo, underscoring that Bhutan was not among the former princely states of pre-colonial India but an independent kingdom. In 1971, Bhutan, supported by India, became a member of the United Nations.
Nevertheless, under the terms of the 1949 treaty, Bhutan agreed “to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations.”
That was the case until 2007 when a revised treaty was signed, stating: “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. Neither government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interests of the other.”
That treaty was concluded after two major crises in relations between India and Bhutan. The first was the flight of more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese from Bhutan in the early 1990s. Claiming discrimination, they crossed the border into India, which did not want them. They were compelled to continue to Nepal, a country that does not share a common border with Bhutan. India did not want to jeopardize relations with Bhutan, especially since some of the ethnic Nepalese had been involved in activities deemed hostile to the Bhutanese monarchy. Most of the refugees have since then been resettled in third countries including the United States.
Second, land left behind by the refugees was taken over by militants from the United Liberation Front of Assam, ULFA, and allied separatist forces from northeastern India. Camps were established in remote jungle areas and raids launched into India from these cross-border sanctuaries into Bhutan. In December 2003 the Bhutanese army drove the militants out. Indian troops were deployed on their side of the border and helicopters assisted the Bhutanese troops, largely Indian-trained. Since then, ULFA was also driven out of another Indian neighbor, Bangladesh. ULFA military camps are now limited to northwestern Myanmar, while its commander, Paresh Barua, resides mostly in China’s Yunnan Province.
Given a long history of close relations, Indians only recently saw China as a possible player in Bhutanese affairs though Bhutan has long avoided offending the Chinese. Following a failed 1959 uprising against the Chinese in Tibet, thousands of Tibetan refugees poured into Bhutan. The Bhutanese, who practice a form of Buddhism similar to the Tibetan version, allowed the refugees to stay. Unlike the Tibetan refugees in India, those in Bhutan were not allowed to engage in political activity. In 1981, they were told to accept Bhutanese citizenship, or leave the country. Most left for India. Bhutan remains today one of few Buddhist nations in the world which the Dalai Lama has not visited.
China was not slow to reciprocate. The first exchange between Bhutan and China occurred as early as 1974, when a Chinese delegation attended the coronation of the former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk – described by China’s official news agency Xinhua as “a new page in the friendly contacts between the two countries.” That “page” now includes regular top-level interactions on the top level as well as people-to-people contacts.
Tiny Bhutan risks being caught in the middle of a regional power play that it might not be able to handle. China’s charm offensive with Bhutan may also deepen the mutual suspicion with which Asia’s two giants view each other. That does not augur well for a part of the world already under siege by a new Cold War, with an increasingly assertive China on one side and a host of other countries, among them India, on the other.
*Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar, including Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 (published in 1994, 1999 and 2003), Land of Jade: A Journey from India through Northern Burma to China, and The Kachin: Lords of Burma’s Northern Frontier. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.