By Saurabh Sharma
A month after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his maiden visit to Bhutan after assuming office, he still remains the talk of the town. His huge cutouts and banners linger on the streets of Thimphu.
There is an unequivocal consensus among all quarters in the kingdom that visit was an astounding success. But beneath this, limping yet significant voices are emerging that question Bhutan’s propensity to India while ignoring others, especially China.
Soon after Modi returned to India on June 16, the enthralled Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay left no stone unturned in dispelling New Delhi’s biggest fear. Talking to Indian media about the possibility of his government permitting China to open an embassy in Thimpu, Tobgay said, “There is no question [of this],” indicating that Bhutan has no intention of having any independent bilateral relations with China. This statement is likely to do more harm to Bhutan than good.
Bhutan is sandwiched between two power centers. The very geographical position and sheer size mandate it to tread cautiously. There is no doubt that Bhutan is aligned with India, which is its closest ally and neighbor. The relationship was described by Modi as a blending of water into milk. But it can take no risk of irking China too.
Bhutan shares a long boundary with China. And there are border disputes between the two countries. So far 21 rounds of negotiations have been held between the two nations without a conclusive outcome. Diplomatic norms demand cordial relations and commitment when two nations sit for border negotiations. Most certainly, Bhutan has lost that upper hand by completely placing its faith in India. One statement by its prime minister has taken away the political maneuvering that Bhutan could otherwise have exercised.
Political establishments in the kingdom have so far remained averse of diplomatic relations with China. Some shift was seen in previous government led by Jigme Yoser Thinley. However, he had to pay for this move and lost elections held last year. Yet there is a new generation of Bhutanese who want to come out from the shadow of India. They expect their government to be more sovereign and independent in its foreign policy.
Entrepreneurs and rising business class in Bhutan are also calling for closer relations with China. A young exporter who wished to remain unidentified claims that his country is likely to benefit more from economic ties with China.
“Chinese are professional, disciplined and more business-oriented. There is no difference in what they commit and deliver. With Indians it is hard to do business,” he said. Another entrepreneur who is planning to start a tourism company asserts that his primary target would be Chinese tourists.
The general public perception is that the diplomatic relationship with China and other countries is important for Bhutan to grow economically. But they have to sacrifice it on the behest of their traditional ally, India.
In the hydropower projects, the country is not allowed to have foreign direct investment except India. Meanwhile, these projects are frequently becoming the dumping ground for faulty heavy machinery from Indian manufacturers.
The opportunities for the tiny country to grow economically are immense. By just focusing on India, it is losing that chance. In fact, there is a call for moving forward from making choices purely focused on India and China. Under Thinley, Bhutan tried to build relations with nearly 40 countries. It even agreed to set up a diplomatic mission with Japan.
These moves, however, were rolled back under the new government. The reason cited was that diplomacy needs money and Bhutan is not in a position to afford it, although another angle is that India has an unstated understanding with Bhutan on just how independent its foreign policy should be.
For its peaceful coexistence and economic prosperity, it is time for Bhutan to rewrite its foreign policy. It needs a strategy that is not influenced by the power in New Delhi, but one framed by its own rationale and reasoning.
(The author is a reporter with The Times of India based out of the bureau in Rajasthan, the largest state in India. firstname.lastname@example.org)