South Asian theatre

By Anil Giri

Oftentimes, a country’s geo-strategic location can become its boon or bane. Particularly in South Asia, the geo-strategic situation of Nepal and Bhutan is given due importance by regional powers like India and China and even international western powers. Attempts are made to flex muscle when security concerns, foreign policy issues and strategic architectures start to wobble, causing these nations to feel insecure about their interests.

For both India and China, the two Asian giants poised to be the global powers Nepal and Bhutan share remarkable boundary links. While Nepal has had an almost trouble-free boundary relation with China, Bhutan is engaged in a protracted border dispute (470 km) with China and diplomatic efforts are underway to mitigate this ‘irritation’ by both sides. No time bound solution has been offered but the countries have held a series of talks to end the row, particularly when Jigmi Y Thinley was at the helm in Thimphu.

Nepal has had recurrent (if not major) boundary disputes with India but Bhutan has long enjoyed trouble-free boundary and bilateral relations.India is also the dominant foreign power in Thimphu and a major donor, investing billions for the development of untapped hydropower and extending great economic assistance on its economy and infrastructure. India considers Bhutan an all-weather friend and a trusted ally. In 2007, India ‘allowed’ Thimphu more freedom in its foreign policy and for the purchase of non-lethal military matter.

In South Asia—or let’s say across the Himalayan plateau—Nepal, Bhutan, Ladakh, Sikkim, and Arunchal Pradesh (the latter three are parts of India) hold critical positions for both China and India and in Chinese geo-politics, are regarded as the ‘five fingers’. These five regions have direct links with India and some parts of Tibet, which has often led to diplomatic tension between India and China, leading some Indian strategic analysts to term Tibet the ‘palm’ to these five fingers.

Since Sikkim merged with India in 1975, the region has been relatively calm. The tide of high and low relations between India and China is now centered on four remaining regions. Although India and China share many differences in bilateral and multilateral forums, as fast evolving nations, they have been busy establishing mutual understanding, especially since the Indo-China war in 1962. The dynamics of bilateral relations between these two Asian giants have been summed in the four Cs— containment, cooperation, conflict and competition.

While both have been trying to build their respective inroads into South Asia, Nepal and Bhutan are considered the centre of gravity here. Recent headlines have placed Bhutan on centre-stage, given the timing of India’s withdrawal of its subsidies on kerosene and cooking gas, resulting in a doubling of the prices of these essential commodities. Arguably, this unexpected Indian move helped the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) gain a majority in the parliamentary electins, as former PM Thinley, who leads the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), was held accountable for the Indian action. His government was perceived to have a China tilt. During the run-up to elections, PDP candidates accused the DPT of weakening diplomatic ties with India.

Needless to say, there continues to be much speculation that the growing intimacy between ex-PM Thinley and Beijing had resulted in India cutting down the subsidy, a calculated move imposed ahead of the election. India’s explanation that the withdrawal had purely economic reasons has not been universally acknowledged, not least because the subsidy for Bhutan stood at Rs 2 billion—a small sum in a larger geopolitical game.

Clearly, Thinley’s meeting with the outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of UN Rio Conference in June 2012, his statement after the meeting that Bhutan would open its doors to diplomatic ties with other countries and its decision to import 20 luxury buses from Beijing to herald a new era of relations seems to have irked India. Even before Thinley’s meeting, India had expressed its displeasure over Beijing’s growing clout and the increasing pro-Chinese lobby in Thimphu.

However, after the election results, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Indian Ambassador to Bhutan V P Haran, in a damage control exercise, have assured the new Bhutanese leadership that ‘’subsidy issues will be resolved soon” and that India would “render support to Bhutan’s 11th national plan.”

Now, it is up to the new leadership to decide whether it wants to open up to market forces, tourism and other advantages from the rest of the globe. A large number of young Bhutanese who have pursued higher education in western universities are of the view that Bhutan should not remain diplomatically tangled between India and China but instead, should gradually open up to all nations. That other than China and India, given its geo-strategic location, other world powers are certain to take an interest in Bhutan. By the end of 2014, Japan will most probably establish a mission in Thimphu.

Even in New Delhi, strategic analysts have rebuffed the sulking over Bhutan’s overtures to China and suggested that India not repeat its mistakes. Nepalis still recall India’s fury over king Birendra’s decision to import weapons from China in 1989-1990, which led to a virtual blockade on the third-country imports and essential supplies from India. After the restoration of democracy, India lifted the ban and resumed the supply. Given India’s regional might, it does not look good for it to engage in such displays of displeasure.

The unfolding relations between Thimphu and Beijing are also a litmus test for the new Chinese leadership in shaping its foreign policy priorities—especially in deciding where and how it wants to extend its ties in South Asia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *