When Narendra Modi decided to make Bhutan the first country to go to on a bilateral visit after assuming office as prime minister of the country, several eyebrows were raised and questions asked about the wisdom of his choice. After all, the critics argued, Bhutan is a small country with which India has had traditionally friendly, close and warm relations.
No wrinkles in bilateral ties had appeared in recent times. In fact, to the contrary, several high-level visits had taken place in the preceding months. For instance, the King of Bhutan His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck visited India in January 2013 as the chief guest for India’s sixty-fourth Republic Day celebrations.
Soon thereafter, the King and Queen paid an official visit to India during 6-10 January 2014. After being elected Bhutan’s prime minister, Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay undertook his first official visit to India in August-September 2013. Tobgay along with a six-member delegation which included the Foreign Minister, again visited India during 25-28 May 2014 for the swearing-in ceremony of the Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi.
Modi’s far-sightedness and vision to choose Bhutan as the first country for a foreign visit became starkly evident when the Doklam standoff erupted suddenly in June 2017 and continued for 73 days with a relentless barrage of threats, insults and warnings from China. It was a matter of great satisfaction that Bhutan stood steadfast shoulder to shoulder with India through these difficult times.
To begin with, Bhutan issued a protest to China on 20 June through the Chinese embassy in New Delhi – since Bhutan does not maintain diplomatic relations with China – about the construction of a road on the Doklam plateau, which is disputed between China and Bhutan. Bhutan issued a press release on 29 June underscoring that construction of the road was in direct violation of agreements of 1988 and 1998, and urged China to return to the position of 16 June 2017.
Bhutan took a firm and principled stand notwithstanding the menacing utterances emerging from across the border. China used a deceitful technique when one of its senior diplomats in Beijing told a visiting Indian media delegation on 8 August that Bhutan had acknowledged that Doklam belongs to China.
Beijing may have presumed that Bhutan would find itself under such intense political pressure that it would not be able to refute this statement. Bhutan, however, more than measured up to the challenge and within a day categorically rejected this claim by China and proclaimed that Bhutan considers Doklam to be a part of its territory.
The Doklam impasse not only saw India emerge as a stronger and taller regional power; it also witnessed a more confident and resolute relationship emerge between India and Bhutan. Bhutan had reason to feel nervous and apprehensive as the standoff could have degenerated into a military confrontation.
This prospect notwithstanding, it did not waver in its resolve to stand firm against the ferocious verbal assaults coming in from across the northern border.
An unintended and unanticipated spin-off of the episode was that it raised India’s prestige and clout among its neighbours in South Asia and Southeast Asia as well as in rest of the world.
The impression among some Bhutanese people, particularly the youth, today is that India comes in the way of Bhutan playing its role as an independent state, especially in the foreign policy arena. They feel that India has prevented them from normalising diplomatic ties and negotiating a border settlement with China.
India, on its part, fears that a boundary deal will impact not only Indian security but also its negotiating position with China on the boundary issue. The next election in Bhutan in October 2018 could well be fought on pro- and anti-India slogans.
Bhutan’s stand vis-à-vis China needs to be understood in the context of its wariness and distrust of China right from the time it annexed Tibet in 1950 and forced His Holiness Dalai Lama to flee to India in 1959.
The torture and cultural cleansing of the Tibetan Buddhist community in China does not inspire confidence in a fruitful and mutually rewarding relationship between Bhutan and China.
In Tibet, the Potala Palace has been reduced to a tourist attraction. The fourteenth Dalai Lama cannot visit Tibet and is regularly vilified in the domestic press. Monasteries are severely constrained. Over the last few years, more than a hundred Tibetans have immolated themselves. Although this has drawn scant criticism internationally, such actions have their impact in Bhutan where the monastic order is an important and revered institution.
It is reported that China has already seized over 8,000 sq km of area from Bhutan since 2010 through a process of salami slicing, as a result of which Bhutan’s total area has been reduced to 38,390 sq km from 46,500 sq km.
In 1958, then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Bhutan and reiterated India’s support for Bhutan’s independence. He later declared in Parliament that any aggression against Bhutan would be seen as aggression against India. Modi, like Nehru, has reportedly promised India’s continued security guarantee to Bhutan against any possible expansionist incursions.
The challenge to Bhutan from China is not only military, though. More pertinent is whether Bhutan will be able to exercise its freedom, independence and sovereignty in a more meaningful manner by having closer links with China or India. On the face of it, the answer appears to be obvious, but policymakers in India need to ensure that the India-Bhutan connect gets stronger by the day.
The Way Forward
Most analysts believe that India conducted its diplomacy ”brilliantly” during the Doklam standoff. Some others however seem to contend that the main objective of the venture for China was to drive a wedge between India and Bhutan. China has been successful in doing this because it has strengthened the small but vocal community of young people in Bhutan who harbour anti-India sentiments.
The Doklam crisis can be taken as a wake-up call and be used as an opportunity rather than as a continuing threat. Bhutanese people are extremely proud and don’t wish to compromise on their independence and sovereignty. Some of them have a feeling that they are being taken for granted by India.
All these concerns and anxieties need to be recognised, respected and addressed appropriately.
The King holds a crucial position in the scheme of things in Bhutan. Although the country has taken significant strides towards democracy, some of the most critical aspects of governance like foreign policy and defence fall under the control of the King. The King is very favourably disposed towards India.
Indian policymakers need to take full advantage of this reality. The King is also held in the highest esteem by the people of the country and treated like a demigod. No democratically elected government can afford to go against his wishes. One mistake that former prime minister Thinley seems to have committed is to have taken the King for granted and not kept him informed about his various initiatives, particularly in terms of cozying up to China. He had to pay a price for that through his defeat in the 2013 elections.
The King did the forty-fifth National Defence College course in India in 2005. Speaking on the fiftieth anniversary of the college in 2010, he described India as “a world leader” not just because of its economic and military might but also due to its distinctive national character and commitment to democracy.
The last visit of the King to India was in October 2014. Much more active and closer contact with the King needs to be maintained. Steps should be taken to invite him for some national, regional or cultural event every year. The King can be our best bet for close and strong relations between the two countries.
Another area in which India needs to give more attention is inviting a larger number of Bhutanese youth to study in India at all levels, starting from high school to university to professional and technical courses. China and Western countries are stealing a march over India in this sector. Special financial packages to enable Bhutan’s young people to study in India’s best institutions need to be put in place.
Media, particularly social media, is another powerful instrument which needs to be harnessed to reach out to Bhutanese decision and policymakers as well as common people to give them the confidence that India will always stand by them for their economic and cultural development, according to their wishes and aspirations. India’s security concerns and sensitivities should be kept in mind and respected. Bhutanese people are proud that they have never been colonised or subjugated.
India should not give them the impression that it is behaving like a Big Brother. Their sensitivities should always be fully respected.
India should further cement its ties with Bhutan by paying more attention to it so that China is not able to drive a wedge between the two.