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    Greater China
     Jan 12, 2008
In Bhutan, China and India collide
By Mohan Balaji

As the world's newest democracy, the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan has won praise around the world. Its recent transformation - from a century of monarchy to a multi-party democracy - has all the trappings of cinema: an enlightened king steps aside for his dashing, Oxford-educated son who represents a future of peace and prosperity.

But all's not entirely well in Shangri-la. Bhutan, sandwiched between two Asian giants, China and India, is increasingly embroiled in other nations' realpolitik and has been recently



subjected to military incursions that are reverberating around the region. Despite the dazzle of democracy, the often-cited "gross national happiness" of bucolic Bhutan is truly at stake.

Delhi and Beijing are watching the kingdom intensely, and recent moves suggest that Bhutan may become either a strategic pawn or a malleable "buffer" zone between the two expanding powers.

This month, the Wall Street Journal wrote that King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the "Dragon King" who ascended the throne in 1972 at the age of 16, "deserves to go down in history as his country's George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson".

In 1998, Wangchuk voluntarily reduced his powers and declared that Bhutan would become a constitutional monarchy. He ordered legal experts to study constitutions of all the world's great democracies and the final version, which was mailed to every home in the country, begins with "We the people". In December 2006, he abdicated and a year later the first general elections were held in the country's 20 dzongkhag (districts). Elections for the lower house of Parliament commence next month, and in the foreseeable future the monarch will become a ceremonial head of state.

The outcome of the elections will impact India and China, both of which have strategic footholds in the landlocked Himalayan kingdom. Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with China, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom or France. This is possibly done so Bhutan is not seen as an enemy to China, these nations all being members of the United Nations Security Council.

Informal contact with the US is made through the American Embassy in New Delhi. As Bhutan is close to India's restive northeastern states, any sort of negative development in the Himalayan kingdom is considered critical to India's strategic interest.

India's relationship with Bhutan is based on the Perpetual Peace and Friendship agreement signed in 1949. The pact was tested when Bhutan, under Indian pressure, launched "Operation All Clear" to flush out Indian militants operating inside Bhutan on December 15, 2003. The Bhutanese army, aided by Indian forces, completed the operation in January 2004.

There is a fear of China in Bhutan. There are unresolved border disputes going back centuries and the issue was only addressed in Beijing in 1984. Bhutan has traditional trade relations with Tibet, but Bhutan closed its northern borders with China after an influx of Tibetan refugees in 1960. With that the age-old cross-border trade came to a halt and there have been no official trade or business relations with China ever since.

In 1998, Bhutan and China signed an Agreement to Maintain Peace and Tranquillity on the Bhutan-China border, marking the first and only Sino-Bhutanese peace agreement to this day.

In recent months, Bhutan's relations with it powerful neighbors have had a twist. Chinese forces are alleged to have intruded several times into Bhutanese territory at the tri-junction with India. Over the past six months, the Chinese have increasingly made inroads in the strategically important area. The incursions into Bhutan are precariously close to India's "chicken's neck" - the vulnerable Siliguri Corridor which links the northeast passage.

At the moment, Indian military strength is depleted in its eastern region as one of the divisions normally based in the hills of West Bengal is currently deployed in Kashmir. The other division, located distantly at Binaguri, would be ineffective if the Chinese sliced through Bhutan to sever the Siliguri "neck".

Although the ruling United Progressive Alliance government government in India has publicly dismissed these intrusions as "nothing serious", experts view these "aggressive" Chinese moves as a deliberate strategy to put pressure on India and strengthen China's claims on disputed areas along the "Line of Actual Control". The Indian army has been alarmed at the increasing Chinese forays into Bhutan, which are also close to the strategic Chumbi Valley - another vital junction between India, Bhutan and China.

Trouble is mounting on China's border with Bhutan. The intrusions of Chinese forces, analysts say, has more to do with India than Bhutan. The official statement of Indian army chief General Deepak Kapoor is that Chinese forays into Bhutan are a "matter between the two countries". But, in contradiction, the Indian army recently moved 6,000 troops to the Sino-Indian-Bhutanese junction from the troubled states of Jammu and Kashmir.

In November 2007, Chinese forces demolished several unmanned Indian forward posts near two military bunkers in the border region of Bhutan's Dolam Valley. This has drastically distorted the Sino-Bhutanese border at Sikkim and puts Chinese forces only a few kilometers from North Bengal's Siliguri Corridor. China has always laid claim to Dolam and there is rampant suspicion that it is now extending its claim. So far, India has treaded softly and has been tight-lipped for political and diplomatic reasons.

The Dolam Valley incident has exacerbated fear in Bhutan. The general feeling is the more Bhutan proximates itself with India the more it faces trouble from China. The newly elected government, from February, will be hard-pressed to remain equally distance from both the countries.

There is a strong feeling in Thimphu that Bhutan is becoming a buffer state. The outcome of the elections will likely determine the future of the relationship between India, China and Bhutan. It is believed that China's strategy is to drag India more and more into a Bhutanese gambit and benefit by pinning more Indian troops into border areas. Bhutan stands a great chance of becoming a tiny pawn in a big game between the two Asian giants.
Mohan Balaji is a print and broadcast journalist in India.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


India, Bhutan: No more unequal treaties (Jan 17, '07 

A shakeup for Bhutan  (Jan 5, '07) 

Bhutan a step ahead of Nepal (Apr 22, '05)


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