As a new government prepares to take office, Bhutan’s foreign policy decisions now will shape the country’s future in years to come, Richard Whitecross writes.
In the autumn of 2017, Bhutan was the centrepiece of a standoff between China and India. A dispute arose when China sought to occupy a small piece of land at Doklam on the Tibetan plateau.
Indian troops rushed into the area, causing a military confrontation between the two regional heavyweights and highlighting how the unresolved disputes over the China-Bhutan border are the source of ongoing political tensions that persist today.
After 73 days, both sides backed down. The incident appeared at the time to reflect well on the Bhutanese Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay, and his People’s Democratic Party majority government. Despite this, in September 2018, the prime minister and his party were knocked out in the first round of the 2018 National Assembly elections.
At present, Bhutan has formal diplomatic relations with 53 countries. Notably, China is not one of them.
The frosty relationship has a lot to do with Bhutan and China’s unresolved border issues, which successive Bhutanese governments have sought to address. The two countries have held 24 rounds of talks since the 1980s, however, the 2017 talks did not go ahead due to the Doklam incursion. In July 2018, Chinese vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou met with Tshering Tobgay in Thimphu in a two-day visit closely monitored by India.
India’s own position appears to be shifting. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited China in April then again in June 2018. These visits are the latest of a number of meetings between Modi and Xi Jinping. It may be that India is seeking to downplay its support for the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees in return for Chinese compromise over border issues.
In Bhutan, there was no explicit mention of foreign policy by the parties contesting the 2018 National Assembly elections. On 18 October, the left-leaning Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) party won 30 of the 47 National Assembly seats. At present, the incoming Bhutanese government has not indicated if or when the 25th round of border talks will be held.
Doklam remains a potential flashpoint. If political and military relations improve between China and India, Bhutan may be able to resume border talks.
Bhutan’s relationship with its intimidating neighbours goes beyond border disputes. While China’s Belt and Road development plans do not mention Bhutan, they do mention its near neighbour Nepal.
China’s relationship with Nepal has caused India concern in the past. Road and rail links between China and Nepal would serve to open up the economy, and potentially speed up troop mobilisation in the event of a crisis. Across the Himalayas military development, most notably roads, have been central to the economic exploitation of new areas. As observers noted, Bhutanese voters appear to be increasingly favouring opening up trade links with China.
Bhutan has sought to conserve its natural environment in Article 5 of the 2008 Constitution. However, foreign pressure for access to its natural resources may be difficult for such a small state to resist. This should be a wider concern. Bhutan, as part of the wider Himalayas, is a major source of water for South and Southeast Asia. The effects of climate change are being felt in Bhutan through the threat of flooding from melting glacial lakes.
Although the risk of future armed conflict remains, the unresolved border disputes should not distract from the wider need for co-operation between Bhutan and its neighbours. There needs to be political will for cooperation.
It has been reported that because of the Doklam incident, China withheld important data on water flows from India – data which should have been shared under a bilateral agreement between the two countries to enable the Indian authorities to prepare for floods.
The incoming DNT government will need to establish its own relationship with India and with China. The mixed signals coming from both its larger neighbours will either create space for the new government to pursue its own agenda to address the border issues, or delay the next round of talks.
Bhutan’s undefined borders only add to regional uncertainty. Beyond the complex dynamics of its relations with the two superpowers, there are wider environmental concerns that the new Bhutanese government, and its neighbours, will need to address.