LONDON – Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked Sunday on a two-day visit to Bhutan, his first destination abroad after assuming office, underscoring the importance India attaches to its ties with Bhutan, whose prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, was among the leaders from the neighboring countries to attend the new government’s swearing-in on May 26.
It is an indication of the ham-handed manner in which Indian foreign policy is managed that even India’s relations with Bhutan have seemed troubled in the last few years.
The withdrawal of subsidies to Bhutan on petroleum products in the midst of its 2013 elections was merely a manifestation of how poorly conceived and executed India policies have become, as if completely disconnected from any strategic thinking.
Of course, after the elections there was widespread hype in the Indian media that with the coming to power in Thimphu of the former opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which had emphasized strong ties with India, all would be well once again.
Trouble with India-Bhutan ties is only beginning to emerge, and this process will be accelerated by the onset of real democracy and competitive politics in the Himalayan Kingdom. India will need to play its cards with great finesse if it wants to maintain its special relationship with Bhutan.
The king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesa Namgyel Wangchuk, was the chief guest at the 2013 Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi eight years after his father graced the occasion.
As it turned out, however, he was not the first choice of the Indian government. New Delhi wanted the sultan of Oman to be the chief guest, but such are the mysterious ways of the great Indian bureaucracy that even a routine invitation to the head of a state was goofed up.
Even though this was clearly a major debacle, New Delhi quickly tried to salvage this situation by turning to its old friend in Bhutan for damage control who agreed to act as a replacement.
Although the Bhutanese king was received with due pomp and ceremony in New Delhi, the cavalier attitude of India toward its smaller neighbors did not go unnoticed.
Bhutan remains the only resolutely pro-India country in South Asia today. At a time when India is rapidly ceding strategic space to China in its vicinity, it should be cultivating its immediate neighbors with greater sensitivity. As it is, Bhutan has signaled that it does not want to remain the only country in India’s neighborhood without official ties with Beijing.
The previous Bhutanese prime minister, Jigme Thinley, made overtures to Beijing, meeting his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development at Rio de Janeiro last year in an attempt to lobby for Bhutan’s candidacy for the nonpermanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.
He also is said to have raised the issue of establishing diplomatic ties between the two nations, although Thimphu denied this later.
China’s economic engagement with Bhutan is also likely to grow in the future especially as China’s infrastructure development leads to greater connectivities between the two states.
What might be most troubling for India is the prospect of a boundary settlement between China and Bhutan. Besides India, Bhutan is the only county with a land border dispute with China today; the 470-km long border between the two nations remains contentious. China’s slow encroachment into Bhutanese territory is also making Bhutan eager for an early boundary settlement.
If such a settlement allows China access to disputed areas in the Chumbi Valley, a tri-junction abutting Bhutan, Tibet and Sikkim, Indian security interests will suffer significantly as the Siliguri corridor connecting India to its northeast will come under direct Chinese threat.
In response, India has stepped up its economic profile in Bhutan. India views Bhutan as a major source of hydropower in coming years and is seeking greater access for its energy companies.
India is hoping to import 10,000 megawatts of hydropower from Bhutan by 2020 and is ramping up its economic aid to Thimphu. But the issue is larger than economic assistance and military security.
If New Delhi continues to treat its smaller neighbors as second-class states who are only to be courted if the Chinese end up expanding their footprints, then sooner or later these smaller states will start treating India as a second-rate power for lagging much behind China in their foreign policy priorities.
The “special” relationship that New Delhi and Thimphu share will only hold water if both sides are equally interested in sustaining the relationship.
Much like other smaller states in India’s neighborhood, Bhutan would also like greater autonomy in its foreign and security policies. And with democracy taking root in the country, India will be soon seen as a nosy external party interfering in Bhutan’s internal affairs. China will then emerge as an effective balancer against India’s overweening presence.
India cannot and should not hinder the enhancement of Sino-Bhutanese ties. Bhutan, the hermit kingdom of South Asia, is opening up to the world. Not only China but other powers too are seeking to engage Thimphu. A fully integrated Bhutan into the world community can only be a good thing for India.
China’s rising profile in South Asia is no news. What is significant is the diminishing role of India and the rapidity with which New Delhi has ceded strategic space to Beijing in its immediate vicinity.
This quiet assertion by China has allowed various smaller countries of South Asia to play China off against India. Most states in the region now use the China card to balance against the predominance of India. Forced to exist between their two giant neighbors, the smaller states have responded with a careful balancing act.
It would indeed be a huge failure of Indian diplomacy if, because of New Delhi’s inept handling, Bhutan too decides to follow the same path.
Modi’s focus on Bhutan is a great beginning, but care should be maintained that Bhutan does not get relegated to the margins once other foreign policy priorities crowd the Indian foreign policy agenda.
Harsh V. Pant teaches defense studies at King’s College London.
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