Narendra Modi to visit Bhutan: Inclusive gestures from New Delhi key to keeping Himalayan kingdom from China's embrace

  • In an uncertain and challenging strategic environment, where China is seeking more effectively to harness its capabilities, India will need a more concerted policy approach toward Bhutan.

  • Apart from deeprooted cultural and economic linkages, Bhutan’s strategic importance for India is underlined by the fact that it sits on the Siliguri corridor.

  • Bhutan’s strategic location is the primary reason behind China’s growing interest in establishing a working relationship with Bhutan.

India’s relations with Bhutan will continue to receive the highest level of strategic attention of the Narendra Modi government. It has been confirmed now that Prime Minister Modi will undertake a two-day visit to Bhutan in early August. Renewed focus on the neighbourhood took Modi to the Maldives in June, on his first foreign official visit since being reelected. Modi’s plan to visit Bhutan provides a glimpse of New Delhi’s reorientation of neighbourhood outreach at a time when China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is set to change strategic equations across the Asian continent.

Bhutanese prime minister, Lotay Tshering, had attended Modi’s swearing-in for his second term. Newly appointed external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, visited Bhutan in June in his first overseas trip. Besides other projects, top-level projects such as the Manghdechhu hydropower project and a multispeciality hospital are likely to feature prominently on the agenda during Modi’s trip to Bhutan. Modi may also inaugurate a satellite tracking centre which India has decided to build as part of its countermeasures to China’s advanced satellite tracking station in Tibet Autonomous Region.

 Narendra Modi to visit Bhutan: Inclusive gestures from New Delhi key to keeping Himalayan kingdom from Chinas embrace

Prime Minister of Bhutan Lotay Tshering. AFP

The year 2018 had marked 50 years of friendship between India and Bhutan. New Delhi is the closest diplomatic partner and the largest bilateral aid donor to landlocked Bhutan. Bhutan is also part of both BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal), two important regional and sub-regional cooperation groupings being promoted by the Modi government in the context of China’s geoeconomic and geopolitical interventions in India’s neighbourhood. With SAARC getting increasingly defunct due to ‘Pakistan problem’, the salience of BIMSTEC has risen for India to secure its strategic space in the South Asian region.

In December 2018, when Tshering arrived in New Delhi on his first official visit after becoming the prime minister, India extended financial support of Rs 4,500 crore for Bhutan’s 12th five-year plan. In its 2019-20 Union Budget, India has allocated Rs 2,802 crore for Bhutan.

Apart from deeprooted cultural and economic linkages, Bhutan’s strategic importance for India is underlined by the fact that it sits on the Siliguri corridor or the “Chicken Neck”, the only small passage between India and its remote northeastern states, and therefore is part of India’s defence against China’s adventurous policies. India has often struggled to ensure that China does not make any inroads into the country.

Bhutan and China do not have formal diplomatic relations and Bhutan is one of two countries in South Asia – India being the other – with whom China has long-standing border disputes. China and Bhutan have held a series of inconclusive talks over their contested border; two dozen talks have been held since 1984, providing a diplomatic platform for the two neighbours to discuss and sort out differences. However, no border negotiation between China and Bhutan can ignore India’s security interests.

It goes to the credit of the Modi government that India has stopped taking Bhutan for granted. Previous Indian governments had not shown much interest in this tiny Himalayan kingdom whose relations with India were allowed to erode primarily because of New Delhi’s paternalistic attitude and carrot-and-stick approach towards Thimphu, breeding resentment in Bhutan.

For instance, India was accused in 2013 of triggering a fuel crisis in Bhutan by cutting subsidies on kerosene and cooking gas. It is widely believed that India did this to punish the Bhutanese government for cosying up to Beijing. However, the subsidy cuts adversely affected over half the Bhutan population, while wiping out the warmth between the two countries at the time.

Almost immediately after assuming office, Modi chose Bhutan for his first foreign destination in June 2014 and his visit was dominated by economic themes including the need to develop rich natural resources and hydropower potential of Bhutan. However, Modi was also conscious of China’s persistent attempts at stepping up contacts with Bhutan in order to undercut New Delhi’s special bond with Thimphu.

His worst fears came true in June 2017 when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began to extend a road from Tibet to Doka La area towards Bhutan. China’s action led to protests from Bhutan. As India was treaty-bound to help address Bhutan’s security concerns as per the terms of a pact renewed in 2007 between the two countries, India decided to send its troops in the disputed area, preventing China’s attempts to seize physical control of the same.

The ensuing stalemate thwarted Chinese coercion, but it also contained the risks of conflict escalation. New Delhi’s decision to dispatch Indian troops into Doka La was dictated not by any territorial claim but by its determination to uphold the treaty with Bhutan. If India had not interfered, China would have extracted territorial concessions from Bhutan.

The standoff was the most serious confrontation between India and China since the 1962 war, igniting fears of another military clash between the two Himalayan countries. It continued for about 73 days during which China attempted to bully India with a misleading propaganda campaign. However, this attempt at muscle-flexing against India and Bhutan did not yield desired results for Beijing.

India stood its ground and refused to withdraw its troops unilaterally from the Doka La region unless China agreed to revert to status quo. India negotiated from a position of strength to maintain stability. Eventually, India’s security concerns outweighed China’s concerns over its sovereignty, which was strongly contested on legal grounds by Bhutan.

However, Beijing has not changed its position on the border tri-junction. There is a possibility of the PLA intruding into areas where the Indian Army is at a relatively disadvantageous position than at Doka La. India’s army chief, General Bipin Rawat, has already cautioned against complacency because Doka La-style standoffs may “increase in the future”. It is time to reiterate the significance of strengthening coordination of defence and foreign policies with Bhutan as well as improving India’s presence in the border areas.

India and Bhutan are the only two countries in the region that have opted out of China’s ambitious regional and global connectivity plan, the BRI. Bhutan, like India, skipped both the 2017 and 2019 BRI Forums at Beijing. However, the BRI seems to be catching the attention of Bhutan’s political elite. As protectionist sentiment has increased in many parts of the world, Chinese president Xi Jinping has emerged as the new champion of economic globalisation on international forums.

Abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s low-profile approach in international affairs, Xi has come to pursue a much more ambitious foreign policy, particularly aimed at the neighbouring countries. Bhutan cannot be expected to remain aloof from China’s charm offensive for too long. Beijing seems determined to intensify engagement with Thimphu, in an effort to wean it away from Indian influence. China’s Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou had visited Bhutan in July 2018, marking the highest-level Chinese diplomatic interaction with the Bhutanese government since the Doklam crisis. Kong discussed the BRI with the Bhutanese leaders.

Bhutan’s strategic location is the primary reason behind China’s growing interest in establishing a working relationship with Bhutan. Beijing’s relentless diplomatic push has almost coincided with increasing domestic demands for the Bhutanese government to reduce its dependence on India and diversity Bhutan’s international relations by actively engaging the other countries.

On the other hand, tourism and internet are twin factors bringing the people of both countries closer. Online Chinese-language courses are getting wider popularity as the number of Chinese tourists in Bhutan has been on the rise. So far, the political leadership has avoided establishing formal ties with Beijing, but it remains unclear as to how long it will ignore internal demands for this.

It is not uncommon for many smaller South Asian countries to make attempts to define their national identities as distinct from India’s all-encompassing civilizational identity. However, it has also been observed that these attempts often end up breeding anti-Indian mindset among a large section of their people. It is important therefore for New Delhi to continue to make concerted efforts to engage smaller neighbours and hold continuous dialogues and discussions for their progress and development.

In this connection, there is no denying the fact that hydropower cooperation between India and Bhutan has been economically very beneficial for Bhutan; hydropower accounts for about one-fifth of Bhutan’s total GDP, and around three-fourths of the power generated by Bhutan is exported to India. New Delhi has gone the extra mile to boost Bhutan’s exporting potential. In mid-2018, India allowed the use of its waterway to transport cargo from Bhutan to Bangladesh; cargo ship carrying 1,000 tonnes of stone aggregates from Bhutan reached Bangladesh through India via the Brahmaputra river.

However, none of this should be cause for complacency as the past can hardly provide reassurance. India’s apparent inability to generate sufficient employment opportunities for the Bhutanese people seems to have led Thimphu to think seriously in terms of economic diversification. Bhutan’s younger generation seems excited at the prospect of Chinese investment to grow the Bhutanese economy.

In an uncertain and challenging strategic environment, where China is seeking more effectively to harness its capabilities, India will need a more concerted policy approach toward Bhutan. The critical point here is that New Delhi needs to focus on the timely accomplishment of the bilateral projects with Bhutan which alone will enhance its acceptability among the Bhutanese people and help them avoid falling into China’s irreversible debt trap. India must demonstrate its regional leadership role in promoting connectivity through consistent and fair execution of projects. The northeastern state governments may also be given greater autonomy to directly engage with the Bhutanese government.

Updated Date: Jul 24, 2019 12:53:14 IST