A mountain kingdom with a small-scale economy, gross national happiness as a development index and a pithy media bearing. And yet Bhutan was able to make its presence felt amid the confrontations of military goliaths.
The scene is the Doklam stand-off and the goliaths obviously are India and China. A tense confrontation in Doklam was a reminder for both the nations of the developments of the 1962 war. And while our Chinese counterparts would’ve been astonished by the Indian government’s strapping stance, Bhutan’s unique role in the tri-nation status quo cannot be ignored.
While India and Bhutan were engaged in hectic diplomatic parleys since the standoff began mid-June, Thimphu came under immense diplomatic pressure from China with senior diplomats and their families travelling to Thimphu from Delhi. China even went on to claim that Bhutan has accepted Doklam as part of the bigger neighbour only to be refuted by Thimphu.
Bhutan’s support can be adjudged as deliberate since the King of Bhutan visited Delhi last week to meet the Indian president and senior cabinet ministers. President Ram Nath Kovind expressed his deep appreciation for Bhutan’s support in resolving the recent stand-off with China at Doklam. Kovind, who met Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the queen and the prince at Rashtrapati Bhavan, said the security concerns of India and Bhutan are ‘indivisible and mutual’.
These statements can be regarded as diplomatic attempts to assuage Bhutan’s pride and diplomatic stance. Not to be left behind, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying reacting to Bhutan King’s visit to India told a media briefing that both India and Bhutan are China’s close neighbours. “We are committed to developing friendly relations with these two countries and also we would like to see India and Bhutan developing normal relations,” she said.
Now the Doklam stand-off was a pivotal point in giving the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China a perspective on the future of border skirmishes with India. That said, India’s proclivity to ‘protect’ and guard Bhutan’s sovereignty without its request might induce a different reaction. Bhutan’s role in an Indo-China war is a pivotal one. For India, this means maintaining a favorable stance to avoid a repeat of 1962. The Modi government is deft with its international relations – but trade and energy mustn’t let them sway attention from its mountain neighbor.
With Beijing apparently looking to wean Bhutan away from India’s sphere of influence, any move which Thimpu makes on the issue of the disputed Bhutan-China-India tri-junction is of immense significance to India. Furthermore, Bhutan’s cultural inclinations and similarities to that of India play a significant role in maintaining good relations. That said, international relations is a ball game of ‘quid pro quo’ rules.
Consequently India can play the role of a protectorate without either taking Bhutan for granted or imposing geographical complementarities. Misconceptions around India’s foreign policy could let resentments grow pulling Bhutan away from India’s interests in the region.
And while the visit by the Royal couple to Delhi can be seen as a ‘tacit endorsement’ of India’s actions during the Doklam crisis, the Indian government cannot let lax or paternally imposing relations wean Bhutan away from India’s tactical and sovereign plays.