Diplomatic ties with China are not in Bhutan's national interest

The underlying reason for Bhutan to keep China at an arm’s length is not India’s strategic influence; rather it emanates from a firm belief that opening diplomatic ties with China is against its national interest, writes Thinley for South Asia Monitor

Thinley May 15, 2021
Bhutan-China and Bhutan-India

Over the last decades, China has increased its foreign policy engagements with South Asian countries that have traditionally been under India's influence. Bhutan is the only country that shares a border with China, but has no diplomatic relations with the Communist nation. There is no denying that China has shown interest in having proper bilateral relations with Bhutan. 

China’s interest in this regard grew after a threat of military invasion failed. The recent growth in the number of Chinese tourists and increasing offer of scholarships to Bhutanese students can be seen from a public diplomacy perspective as efforts to improve China's image in Bhutan. 

Similarly, in Bhutan, many academics and people share the view that the time has arrived to open diplomatic ties with China. However, Bhutan did not express explicit interest to start negotiations with China regarding diplomatic relations. Implicitly, some may point out, the first democratic government in the Himalayan kingdom under Jigme Yoser Thinley hinted at opening bilateral relations with China after he met Chinese Premier Wen Jinbo on the sidelines of the UN Rio 20 conference on sustainable development in 2012. 

The question is why Bhutan does not want to open bilateral relations with China. Is it because it is against India’s security interest or detrimental to Bhutan’s national interest? 

Bhutan-China boundary issues

Even though Bhutan's security threat stems from its failure to delimit boundaries with China, having formal diplomatic relations with the world’s most populous nation cannot offer a straightforward solution. The issue of demarcation of the boundary between Bhutan and China hasn’t been resolved, despite 24 rounds of talks. Failure to demarcate the border with China poses a serious security threat for Bhutan, as it was also dragged into the tussle of geopolitical supremacy between China and India.

China's history of boundary demarcation shows that boundary delimitation was given in favor of small states. But that was not the case with Bhutan. China reasoned that as it shares borders with many countries, conceding the small strip of land (Doklam) would indicate moral defeat that others would take advantage of. 

However, the boundary delimitation between Bhutan and China has remained unresolved, primarily owing to the strategic importance of Doklam. Getting control of Doklam gives China a tactical and strategic advantage over India in a potential conflict between the two countries. Therefore, China wants direct boundary talks with Bhutan, rather than mediated by India.

The 1949 India-Bhutan treaty required the kingdom to consult New Delhi on the issue of foreign policy. China was certain that India's 'guidance' would stand in the way of settling boundary demarcation with Bhutan. China was hopeful that it can persuade Bhutan by giving it a lucrative package deal, proposing an exchange of Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys with Doklam. Owing to the strategic intricacies of Doklam, there is no clear-cut solution for Bhutan and China to delimit their boundary unless the former agrees to the package deal.  

India’s outlook

Scholars agree that China wants to be a regional hegemon in Asia, with the ultimate aim of giving competition to the US in the global arena. India does not want that to happen, and will certainly exploit every means to prevent it. This makes China and India natural competitors in Asia. India believes that the primary reason for China increasing its engagement and investments in South Asia is enmeshed in Beijing's grand strategic thinking. India perceives China’s engagements in South Asia as a direct threat to its security and fears Chinese encirclement. 

So traditional security anxiety has prompted India to rethink its neighborhood foreign policy both bilaterally, and through a coalition. Bilaterally, India, rather than ceding to the influence of China in South Asia, will revitalize and step up with more resources and ambition in the neighborhood in countering Chinese dominance. The policy prescribes that even though failing to always influence its neighboring countries, India will at least prefer friendly governments to be in power.

India’s active participation in Quad dialogues signals that it can move away from Jawaharlal Nehru's foreign policy of nonalignment by forging tactical interest-based coalitions. The rise of the Indo-Pacific as an arena of power rivalry is construed by China through the prism of a balancing factor against it. Moreover, some geopolitical thinkers consider the Quad and Indo-Pacific dynamics as a grand strategy to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

The norms of Westphalian sovereignty are violated through invitation and coercive intervention. US international relations expert Stephen D. Krasner has argued that sovereignty is organized hypocrisy where the asymmetries of power make the powerful countries intervene in the domestic politics of the weaker states. The powerful countries constantly intervene when their interest is at stake, and try to change the domestic institutional arrangements of the target state to fit in their interest.

In 2013, India meddled in Bhutan’s domestic affairs by discontinuing fuel subsidy to sway the outcome of the Bhutanese National Assembly election. India gave a clear signal that will not tolerate Bhutan warming up to China. The sentiments of the people of Bhutan were hurt, and they deplore any intervention in their internal affair by India. 

Bhutan’s predicament

China is cognizant of the strategic importance of Bhutan. Consequently, China went to great lengths employing a stick and carrot strategy to bring it under its influence. For Bhutan, cooperation with both China and India is impossible on two grounds. First, Bhutan is economically weak and dependent, which will increase the vulnerability of intervention in domestic politics; and second, China and India are natural competitors for regional hegemony. The sense of rivalry always increases competition and intervention in domestic politics of the target state making the region more volatile.

Therefore, an external factor, that is India-China dynamics, determines whether Bhutan can open diplomatic ties with China. India will certainly explore every means to prevent Bhutan from having formal diplomatic relations with China, as it is against New Delhi’s national interest. However, the underlying reason for Bhutan to keep China at an arm’s length is not so much India’s strategic influence; rather it emanates from a firm belief that having diplomatic ties with China is against Thimphu's national interest itself. 

(The writer, a Bhutanese researcher in regional foreign policy, security studies and Buddhism, is an international relations graduate from South Asian University. Views are personal. He can be contacted at ythinley16@gmail.com)

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