India’s Evolving Relations with Bhutan in the Face of New Challenges
In recent times, the diplomatic landscape in South Asia has witnessed a significant transformation, with Bhutan taking bold steps towards strengthening its ties with China. The evolving relationship between Bhutan and China has raised important questions about how India, Bhutan’s long-standing ally, will navigate the changing dynamics in the region. This article delves into the key developments and implications of this emerging challenge, exploring the potential impact on India’s strategic interests.
Bhutan-China Diplomatic Relations
The visit of Tandi Dorji, Bhutan’s Foreign Minister, to China marked a historic milestone in the Bhutan-China relationship. During this visit, both countries made significant progress towards resolving their long-standing territorial dispute. The signing of a “cooperation agreement” for delimiting and demarcating the disputed boundaries underscores the seriousness of their intentions. This development is significant as it may bring an end to a decades-old conflict, altering the geopolitical landscape in the region.
Bhutan’s Historical Ties with India
Bhutan’s historical reservations about engaging in great power politics and concerns stemming from China’s annexation of Tibet in the 1950s led to Bhutan cutting off diplomatic ties with its northern neighbor. Instead, Bhutan developed a special relationship with India, largely owing to its perception of China as a potential threat. Over the years, bilateral talks between Bhutan and China narrowed the disputed areas, including the Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys in the north and various sectors in the west.
China’s Strategic Interests in Bhutan
China views its diplomatic relations with Bhutan as crucial for its status as an Asian power and a means to improve its position vis-a-vis India. To this end, China has employed both carrots and sticks to compel Bhutan to negotiate. However, China’s recent border intrusions in the Eastern sector of the Sakteng region and promotion of settlements in disputed areas reveal its growing assertiveness. Bhutan’s expedited negotiations are a response to this growing concern and the need to deter China’s territorial ambitions.
Economic Motivations for Bhutan
Apart from the geopolitical factors, Bhutan’s domestic economy has played a pivotal role in pushing it towards normalizing diplomatic relations with China. With structural issues and a lack of opportunities triggering a youth exodus, Bhutan sees China as an essential partner in its path to recovery and reform. The significant increase in China’s exports to Bhutan in recent years, from approximately $2 billion in 2020 to $15 billion in 2022, demonstrates the growing economic interdependence between the two nations.
India’s Role and Special Relationship with Bhutan
India has traditionally played a central role in Bhutan’s development. India imports a substantial portion of Bhutan’s total exports, and their trade volume has steadily increased. India’s assistance in hydropower projects and its support for Bhutan’s economic development have further solidified this relationship. Moreover, both countries share close security cooperation, with the Indian Military Training Team training Bhutanese soldiers and legal obligations to respect each other’s interests.
New Challenges for India
While Bhutan’s special relationship with India remains strong, new challenges are on the horizon. First, India must closely monitor the border negotiations between Bhutan and China. Sensitive sectors like Doklam remain unresolved, and new claims in the Sakteng region raise concerns about China’s intentions. Second, as Bhutan establishes diplomatic relations with China, it becomes the latest South Asian country to enter the competitive India-China dynamic. China has hinted at expanding economic, cultural, and people-to-people cooperation, posing potential challenges to India’s influence in Bhutan.
In conclusion, Bhutan’s evolving relationship with China presents both opportunities and challenges for India. While India and Bhutan’s special relationship remains robust, India must adapt to the changing regional dynamics and work to maintain its influence while respecting Bhutan’s sovereignty. The region’s geopolitics are evolving, and India’s ability to navigate these changes will be critical in safeguarding its interests.