The Sino-Indian border row over Doklam has turned the usually calm Himalayan region into a new battlefront between the two powers. However, the role of Bhutan, the third important player in this latest dispute, has often been overlooked even though the picture wouldn’t be complete without taking the country into account.
Bhutan is the only nation among China’s 14 neighbouring sovereign states that has yet to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing. In fact, the two sides have long been seeking to mend ties but their hands are tied in the current geopolitical landscape.
Many may not know that India took over Britain’s rights over Bhutan and signed the Treaty of Friendship with Bhutan in 1949, under which India would “guide” Bhutan’s foreign policy. This provision was removed after a revision in 2007 but both sides still agreed that neither shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.
In the current dispute, New Delhi claimed that its troops entered Bhutan’s territory “in coordination” with the latter’s authorities, but what exactly do the Bhutanese think about this? Information from both public and non-public sources suggests that talks between China and Bhutan over their border dispute have been smooth and peaceful. If the Indian authorities disregard Bhutan’s sovereignty by forcing Thimphu to stir up controversy in what is an undisputed area, while India sends its troops across the Chinese border, it would be an unthinkable act in the 21st century.
International observers have, however, been blinded by the “China threat” theory and tended to ignore the oppression of Bhutan. Many in the Indian media and officials have been propagating a misleading message that Bhutan is a “protectorate” of India. Bhutan has never been a “protectorate”. In fact, Bhutan and India do not even have a security pact and India has no right to “represent” Bhutan.
India signed the Treaty of Friendship with Bhutan in 1949 after declaring independence from British rule, and inherited Britain’s sway over Bhutan. This became the cornerstone of India-Bhutan relations, with India even today still trying to define the two nations’ security interests.
Citing the guidance provision, New Delhi attempted to represent Bhutan to negotiate with China over the Bhutan-China border disputes as early as the 1960s. The moves were blocked by the Chinese government on the grounds that Bhutan should speak for itself and take part in the talks as an independent kingdom.
In a recent commentary, Wangcha Sangey, a former chairman of Bhutan Times, asserted the integrity of Bhutan’s sovereignty and its military, and charged that India was using Bhutan to reach its goals. As Sangey wrote: “India … is pushing Bhutan to claim as much as possible the part of Doklam plateau in the Sino-Bhutan border talks.”
New Delhi’s delegation joined the table from the first to fifth round of the China-Bhutan border talks that started in the 1980s. The two sides have since organised 24 meetings, with fruitful results over border settlement. In 1989, the two even signed an agreement on maintaining peace and stability along their 470km contiguous border. Relations are friendly, and it’s only a matter of time before the two establish official diplomatic relations, once all issues are settled.
For now, the border talks are an important communication channel between the two. As a gesture of goodwill, the Bhutanese mission was even offered an opportunity to visit Tibet for pilgrimage to the holy sites of Tibetan Buddhism. Bhutan has also set up honorary consulates in Macau and Hong Kong.
India’s control over Bhutan can be seen in three aspects: the economy, military and diplomacy.
On the economic front, India has control over Bhutan’s most important income source, which is not tourism as the outside world would image, but exports in hydroelectric power. The exports, a huge portion of which are sent to India, represent about a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. Aware of the overreliance on a single income source, Tshering Tobgay, Bhutan’s prime minister, has sketched a vision of diversifying the economy – whether India will allow that is another matter.
Despite the control, the Bhutanese people will never give up striving for a presence in the international arena
On the military front, Bhutan’s armed forces are only about 10,000-strong (even fewer than the Hong Kong police force) and they receive Indian military training.
On the diplomatic front, as mentioned earlier, India continues to strangle efforts by the Chinese and Bhutanese authorities to form official diplomatic relations. Bhutan does not even maintain formal diplomatic relations with the rest of the UN Security Council’s permanent members.
Despite the control, the Bhutanese people will never give up striving for a presence in the international arena.
Former premier Jigme Yoser Thinley had worked to forge ties with China, even holding a brief meeting with then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao when attending the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil in 2012. India was upset when media reports of the meeting reached New Delhi. The Indian government stopped subsidising household gas and diesel in Bhutan right before the 2013 Bhutanese general election to express discontent over Thinley’s “pro-China” stance.
Thinley’s party subsequently lost the election, and he stepped down amid a pragmatic Bhutanese society. This further exposes India’s wanton interference in Bhutan’s internal affairs.
A sovereign and independent Bhutan can serve as a buffer zone between China and India. Both the leaders of China and India should acknowledge that a stable and sovereign Bhutan serves the national interests of both. The international community should no longer keep its silence over India’s violation of Bhutan’s sovereignty.
Marco Hoksum Hung is vice-president of HK Innovision and chairman of its public affairs committee. He is also a freelance writer