Bhutan’s balancing act between China and India

Bhutan’s balancing act between China and India

Nian Peng,
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Photo : South Asian Monitor

In October 2018, the center-left Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) won the general elections of Bhutan by taking 30 of 47 national assembly seats, while the governing party — the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was eliminated in the first round of voting. It means that the DNT will now establish the new cabinet and continue to move forward the reform in the Himalayan kingdom. Due to the very different political position from the previous PDP government, many analysts believed that the new government would reduce dependence on India while strengthening cooperation with China, thereby leading to a rising competition between China and India in Bhutan.

As a country that is sandwiched between China and India, Bhutan has always been faced with the difficult task of managing its relations with its two big neighbors. Due to the physical proximity and strong economic and political connections with India, Bhutan has long been perceived as a “client state” of India. In practice, under the peace treaty signed by both sides in 1949, India is responsible for the diplomacy and national defense of Bhutan. India has also exerted a dominant influence in the small country by supporting the governing party, the PDP, and controlling the economic lifelines, the oil and gas supply in particular.

However, Bhutan has been reluctant to take orders from New Delhi since the introduction of democracy in 2008 because of the deep concerns over its heavy reliance on India as well as the serious economic and political consequences of it. For instance, India had interfered the national elections of Bhutan in 2013 by cutting off the supply of cooking gas, which led to the pro-India PDP taking power. During the military stand-off over the Doklam plateau between China and India in 2017, Bhutan was caught into the power game between the two giants.

It is within this context that Bhutan has pursued for a diversified foreign policy rather than relying entirely on India, in which China is a major partner. As a Buddhist country, Bhutan has a very close cultural connections with China’s Tibet, one of the centers of the Tibetan Buddhism in the world. Moreover, the unofficial border trade between Bhutan and Tibet is important to the daily life of the residents in the border region. In addition, Bhutan is also keen on receiving Chinese economic assistance which could help Bhutan reduce its economic dependence on India. For these reasons, the civilian government in Bhutan has begun to engage with China ever since 2012 when Jigme Thinley, the Prime Minister of Bhutan, met with then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Brazil, the first high-level contact between the two countries in the past decades. During this meeting, Jigme Thinley expressed the desire to establish diplomatic relations with China, which was echoed by Wen Jiabao.

Although Bhutan has not yet built diplomatic relations with China, it has not taken a hostile attitude towards China. Conversely, Bhutan supported China’s efforts of resuming her legal seat in the United Nations and adhere to the One China principle, including the Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang issues. China, of course, fully realized Bhutan’s good intention to maintain friendly relations with it. What’s more, Bhutan’s resentment towards India as well as its request of “strategic autonomy” has also been observed by Beijing, thus offering a good opportunity for China to approach Bhutan. Given this, China has pursued official engagement with Bhutan, so as to establish diplomatic relations with the country and settle the border disputes.

In August 2012, Vice Foreign Minister of China Fu Ying attended the China-Bhutan boundary negotiation in Thimphu, the first senior Chinese official to have visited Bhutan in the past decades. Since then, increasing official communication between China and Bhutan has been witnessed, mainly conducted by State Councilor Yang Jiechi, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying and Liu Zhenmin. It is worth noting that China has conducted frequent high-level visits to Bhutan after the stand-off over Doklam between China and India in June 2017. In July 2018, Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou toured Bhutan to push forward the boundary negotiation as well as economic cooperation with Bhutan, followed by Chinese ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui’s Bhutan trip.

Nonetheless, the growing engagement between China and Bhutan is not a threat to India since it has never hurt India’s core interests in Bhutan. In order words, China would not conduct a “zero-sum game” with India in Bhutan. On the contrary, Beijing has fully realized India’s privilege in Bhutan, and thus avoid challenging New Delhi. Actually, the main purpose of China’s Bhutan policy is to solve the border issue rather than chase India out of this country.

Thimphu does not dare to swing to Beijing at the cost of undermining Bhutan-India relations due to its awareness of the indispensable role of India in Bhutan’s diplomacy, defense, and economy. In fact, the balancing act that Bhutan has manipulated is a risky tactic which aims at declining its over-dependence on India very carefully while avoiding provoking it. In the meantime, maintaining cordial relations with India has always been the top priority of Bhutan’s diplomacy, no matter who is in power.

In that case, India would not hamper Thimphu’s efforts of approaching China if its economic and strategic assets can be protected. As S.D. Muni, who is professor emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, has said: “There is no reason to believe India would not accept Bhutan’s establishment of diplomatic relations with China in future if its core interests of preserving security, peace and a positive business climate are not disturbed.”

Moreover, India’s concerns over growing China-Bhutan relations would be reduced due to the significant improvement in Sino-India relations. In practice, China and India has worked together to cool down the territory disputes and enhanced trade and investment cooperation after the Wuhan meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April 2018.

Finally, China has also proposed the “2+1” cooperation model which refers to the trilateral cooperation among China, India and other South Asian countries, intending to alleviate competition between China and India in South Asia and advance the win-win cooperation in the region. Although India seems to be skeptical of this plan, it could provide an alternative way for the multilateral cooperation between regional countries in the areas of economic and social development.

To conclude, Bhutan would have more room for balancing maneuvers as the Sino-India relationship is getting warmer. India would not hinder Bhutan’s balancing act unless it hurts India’s core interests. China, of course, is willing to pursue closer relations with Bhutan, the only country in South Asia which has no diplomatic ties with China. So now it’s the best time for China, Bhutan and India to start trilateral cooperation in the areas of economy and governance, such as tackling increasing rural poverty, external debt and corruption. Such cooperation would not only advance the influence of both China and India in Bhutan but also consolidate the friendship between the three countries.

Nian Peng is an Assistant Research Fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies based in Haikou, Hainan, China.

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