The Chinese shadow over India-Bhutan relations
By Rupak Bhattacharjee
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bhutan on June 15-16 to further strengthen the existing friendly relations between the two neighbours. Emphasising the “special and unique” relationship between India and Bhutan, a day before his maiden foreign trip, Modi said, “….. Bhutan as the destination of my first visit abroad as the prime minister is a natural choice. Relations with Bhutan will be a key foreign policy priority of my government”.
Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh who accompanied the prime minister during the visit also underscored the importance India attaches to relations with Bhutan and other South Asian neighbours.
Modi’s Bhutan visit assumes significance against the backdrop of China’s growing efforts to woo the small nation and forge full diplomatic ties with it. Bhutan shares a 470 km long border with China. Traditionally, the Himalayan kingdom acted as a buffer state between the two Asian giants.
Bhutan is strategically important for both India and China. The Chumbi Valley is situated at the trijunction of Bhutan, India and China and is 500 km away from the “Chicken’s neck” in North Bengal, which connects the northeast with rest of the country. A former ambassador observes, “Bhutan may be a small country but it is strategically very important…..China is on the other side.”
Bhutan had been hobnobbing with China under the previous premier Jigmey Thinley raising serious concerns in the security and foreign policy establishment of India. New Delhi’s decision to discontinue subsidy on LPG and kerosene it supplied to the country was seen by many as a token demonstration of New Delhi’s displeasure with Bhutan’s outreach to China.
The decision was revoked soon after Tshering Tobgay’s People’s Democratic Party was voted to power in the second parliamentary elections held on July 13, 2013. Following his assumption of office, Tobgay said, “Good relations with India is the cornerstone of our foreign policy”. The present prime minister is considered to be more accommodative as far as India’s security and economic interests are concerned.
Some foreign policy analysts maintain that the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government took India’s close ties with the neighbours for granted allowing China, which shares borders with four of India’s neighbours, to make inroads into South Asia. For the past few years, China has been consistently trying to increase its presence and influence in Bhutan as a part of its “string of pearls” policy to encircle India.
China considers nearly 4,500 sq km of land on the northern and western regions of Bhutan as disputed and has been pressurising Thimphu to cede some of its territory in the strategic Chumbi Valley — located in the north-western part of the country. India’s security establishment is closely watching the increasing interest and activities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Bhutan.
The PLA has been repeatedly making incursions along the Sino-Bhutan borders. In June 2013, troops of PLA intruded into Bhutan through the Sektang region in the east and Pang La region in the north and subsequently built three posts inside Bhutan. In the opinion of Indian security experts, this tactic is similar to the one PLA adopts with India with whom China is yet to resolve the long-standing boundary dispute.
Like India, Bhutan’s border talks with China are dragging on for too long. Modi’s visit took place just ahead of the 22nd round of bilateral dialogue between Bhutan and China scheduled to be held in July or August this year.
Such talks that started in 1986, are aimed at resolving the border disputes between the two nations. The 21st round of talks was held in August last year. New Delhi is concerned over the developments on the Bhutan-China front. The Indian prime minister’s visit is to be seen in the light of ongoing border talks.
In its bid to win over the tiny Himalayan nation, Beijing has reportedly offered a package deal to Thimphu according to which the border dispute would be settled once for all if the Bhutanese leadership agrees to establish full diplomatic relations with China. In April 2012, Zhou Gang, former Chinese ambassador to India, was sent to Bhutan as a special envoy to convey this message.
Beijing finds it difficult to stomach the fact that Bhutan currently maintains diplomatic relations with 52 countries, including Japan, its adversary, while China does not figure in Thimphu’s foreign policy priorities despite being an immediate neighbour. India shares more than 600 km borders with Bhutan and anxiously watches the developments between Thimphu and Beijing. Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tobgay said, “We engage with China because we share borders……We do not have diplomatic relationship with China”.
In protecting its sovereignty and security, Bhutan is heavily dependent on India. As per the provisions of the Treaty of Friendship which both the nations inked in 1949, India “guides” Bhutan’s foreign policy and the two neighbours consult each other on foreign policy. Following China’s annexation of Tibet in 1959, Bhutan had thrown its full weight behind India.
In 1958, the then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Bhutan and after his return, announced in the parliament that “any aggression against Bhutan would be seen as an aggression against India”. During Modi’s visit, India reportedly reassured Bhutan that its independence and territorial integrity would be respected and safeguarded against possible expansionist designs of the northern neighbour. The Indian Army has long been engaged in the training of the Royal Bhutanese Army. The country does not have an air force and relies on India for support.
A section of Western media believes that the new “Hindu nationalist” premier’s visit was designed to assert India’s pre-eminent position in South Asia. India under Modi is trying to regain its influence in the region where China has stepped up efforts to expand its clout.
China is fast emerging as a key development partner in smaller countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh by offering financial and technical assistance for several infrastructural projects. New Delhi has been competing with Beijing to come up as the dominant foreign investor and donor of infrastructural loans in South Asia.
(Rupak Bhattacharjee has worked as Senior Research Fellow at Kolkata’s Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies and New Delhi’s Institute for Conflict Management. He can be contacted at email@example.com)
This article first appeared on South Asia Monitor