EXTERNAL AND INTERNAL STRATEGIC CHALLENGES FOR BHUTAN
By Lt Gen Ike Singha
Known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan is sandwiched between two giants, China and India which are home to one fourth of the human race. Comparatively, Bhutan, a peace loving, happy and contented nation has a scanty population of 7.5 lacs. With its geopolitical location, Bhutan is a natural buffer between the two regional powers. Bhutan does not have official diplomatic relations with China and has been following a neutral policy towards its northern neighbour while strengthening its friendly ties with India.
The seemingly calm and peaceful nation has a history of violent civil wars in a bid to retain its sovereignty. Ngawang Namgyal a monk descended from Tibet in early 17th century and united the nation, built a series of dzongs or forts for protection from invaders as also to house government offices and places of worship. In 17th and 18th centuries Bhutan was largely a theocratic state which countered outside influence and did not allow British India and Tibet to affect its sovereignty.
On the contrary, it attacked and captured Cooch Bihar and surrounding Duars area. After an estranged period wherein battles continued between the British and Bhutan, the Treaty of Sinchula was signed in 1865 and Bhutan agreed to return captured territories in Assam and Bengal Duars for an annual subsidy of 50,000 rupees. Bhutan also brokered peace between British India and Tibet.
In 1907 Bhutan became an absolute monarchy with Ugyen Wangchuck, who had consolidated power, becoming the first monarch (K1). The Treaty of Punakha was signed in 1910 wherein the British agreed not to interfere in the internal affairs of Bhutan but would look after Bhutan’s foreign policy. The same arrangement continued with India, post India’s independence till Bhutan joined the United Nations in 1971. Thereafter, Bhutan has shown some resistance to assert its independence but India continues to guide it on major foreign policy decisions.
Tibet was a natural buffer state between India and China, the two newly evolving powers in the 1950s. In 1959, when China annexed Tibet and the Dalai Lama took refuge in India; it was a big shock for India. It lost the a buffer region. Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan then became the front line states but within three years, China attacked an ill prepared India. In the 1967 Chinese excursion at Chola, India inflicted heavy casualties on Chinese troops. Chinese troops were forced to withdraw to the other side of the watershed.
In 1973 after the internal disturbances between the Sikkimese and Nepalese origin citizens, Sikkim joined India as its 22nd state. China felt it was a quid pro quo to its action in Tibet but was not able to directly challenge India which was considered a strong power after it had decisively defeated Pakistan by cutting it to size. China continued to suspect Indian intentions in Nepal and Bhutan. After it got a bloody nose in 1979 in Vietnam, China realised it had to enhance and consolidate its gross national power and was not in a position to challenge any other country for the next three decades.
Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom has a host of internal challenges to its national security. It has a very sluggish economy which has not been opened to globalisation. Like the rest of South Asia region, it has a young and educated population with very few jobs commensurate to the aspirations of these young people. It also has an ethnic issue of one fourth population of Nepali origin which had caused disturbances in 1980s and 90s. The tourism industry is not being fully harnessed as per its potential since; inspite of democracy having been ushered in by both K4 and K5, Bhutan remains a conservative society. The country is in a dilemma given the amount of momentum it needs to provide to become a modern society from the present conservative one.
China has nearly solved its territorial disputes with other 12 neighbours except for India and Bhutan. Bhutan has four disputed areas with China, in the Doklam Plateau in the west and the border then goes north along the ridges from Gamochen to Batangla, Sinchela and down to the Amo Chou. The disputed area in Doklam is 89 square kilometres whereas it is 180 in northern areas.
In the recent Doklam crisis, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king (K4) who at the age of 50 years, had abdicated in 2006 in favour of his son, King Jigme Keshar Namgyel Wangchuck; played a vital role in diffusing the crisis. K4 has been a visionary and during his 34 year rule had maintained a balance between India and China; and he understands the Chinese Grand strategy and mind extremely well.
Amongst the lessons for all the three countries involved in Doklam crisis, one that stands out clearly is that two nuclear and emerging economic powers with the two biggest markets of the world cannot afford to go to war on small tactical issues. Bhutan has a huge task to ensure a balance in power by maintaining its traditional ties with India and keeping the increasing Chinese influence in check. It has learnt its lessons from Nepal’s experience wherein Maoist movement threatened the very existence of the country as one entity.