By Dr Krishnendra Meena
The Doka La standoff between India and China during the months June-August 2017, brought to the fore the geopolitical importance of the small nation of Bhutan. The standoff underlined its strategic value to China, its northern neighbor and India, its neighbor to the south, east and west and very close strategic partner. For China, it must be underlined that the small kingdom of Bhutan has relevance for its strong and cultural linkages with the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which has over the years gained international attention for its demand of freedom from the People’s Republic of China. Another reason for China to keep Bhutan in good spirits is that China shares a very lengthy border with India (more than 3000 kms.) and many of its stretches are disputed. China’s boundaries with Bhutan are also disputed. India, on other hand also has very strong cultural linkages with the mountain kingdom and has been involved with development of infrastructure and economic aid to Bhutan. India with its treaties and agreements with Bhutan also guarantees security to the small nation.
The small hill nation, Bhutan, is strategically important to both India and China and has formed a historical buffer between the two Asian giants. India has an agreement of friendship with Bhutan since the British times, under a treaty signed in 1910 at Punakha. In 1949, independent India signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Bhutan in Darjeeling. The treaty is considered to be an extension of the Anglo-Bhutanese Treaty. In recent times, the 2007 Treaty expanded the ambit of relations between two countries. It is very important to note that Bhutan has historically been a peaceful country and its security concerns have been handled in large part by India.
On the other hand, China with its economic growth and financial power has been wooing every South Asian country, effectively challenging India’s dominance in the region. For example, China’s road and rail network has now reached the Nepalese border and China is already building transport infrastructure in Nepal through a number of projects. India, weary of these Chinese attempts to enter the region, needs to keep its neighbouring countries in its fold. Such a situation, if it were to occur in the case of Bhutan, would be a strategic nightmare. So, the standoff at Doklam was understood in the Indian intelligentsia as part of a larger Chinese design to enter the region and also at the same time threatening the proverbial ‘Chicken’s Neck’. Many observers of the region argue that Indian influence in Nepal is gradually waning and that has benefitted China. New Delhi has to build on the already existing bonhomie between India and Bhutan to avoid such a situation with the hermit kingdom.
The Bhutanese perspective on being located between two Asian giants gains important relevance here as Thimphu has been carefully cultivating its image as a nation, which has been peaceful and has never seen conflict. In recent times, an important contribution from Bhutan is the compilation of the UN World Happiness Report under the leadership of the Bhutanese Prime Minister, Mr. Jigmey Thinley. Bhutan also attracts a lot of tourism due to its pristine environment and the ethos of ecological tourism it espouses. This image may certainly take a hit and may also reflect badly upon the Bhutanese, if they were to openly claim their strategic allegiance to India or China. But the ancient linkages with the people of India’s north-east and the connections with Tibetan Buddhism keep it in India’s fold.
For the Chinese, it is an unfavourable situation for both its motives of business and strategy. The Doklam standoff was precisely because of Chinese perceptions of South Asia as well as the Bhutanese leanings towards India and Tibet. Beijing has not still resolved the border and territorial disputes with Bhutan just as it has not with India. Furthermore, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative or the One Belt One Road is hampered if such smaller nations do not accede to the idea. Though, India has gradually been warming upto the idea of the OBOR, barring its reservations on the issue of Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor as the recent statements from the Ministry of External Affairs suggest. In such complicated scenarios, for New Delhi it is imperative to maintain the deep ties with its neighbours like Bhutan and at the same time assert its influence in South Asia, which is under pressure from the Chinese overtures to the traditionally and culturally close community of South Asia. Most the South Asian countries are perceived to be extensions of the Indian cultural lineage with a long history. Bhutan being an immediate neighbor with a long boundary with China is perhaps strategically more important than normally understood to be in the Indian security and political strategy circles. The reason may be because of Bhutan’s low profile in the international system and its calm demeanor which was reflected during the Doka La standoff.
But Bhutan, a small nation, is in an unenviable position sitting amidst two competing giants, neither of which it can afford to annoy.