The deafening silence of tiny Bhutan on the on-going Sino-Indian standoff on Doklam may be hiding issues between the Himalayan Kingdom and its giant neighbor and protector, India, writes P.K.Balachandran in www.southasianmonitor.com
The Sino-Indian military confrontation in Doklam is taking place on land claimed by Bhutan and China. Officially, India is not party to the dispute, and yet it is there ostensibly on the basis of the revised 2007 Indo-Bhutanese treaty which sanctions close cooperation to protect each other’s national interest.
But what is intriguing is Bhutan’s silence on the Indian intervention and China’s heated reaction to it. Tiny and powerless Bhutan may well be allowing Big Brother India to handle the matter with mighty China directly and entirely. But its silence may also be hiding issues with India which could surface any time to India’s discomfiture and China’s advantage.
Thanks to the indifference of the Indian media to issues relating to tiny Bhutan, New Delhi has been hiding from public view several issues it has had with Thimphu in the last decade and a half.
These are likely to surface and get articulated if the standoff at Doklam continues. In fact, the basic contours of a future Bhutan-India political standoff have already appeared in commentaries in the Indian and foreign media.
Therefore, New Delhi would do well to realize that the ground under its feet is shifting and take corrective steps to put its relations with Bhutan on a different and sustainable footing. New Delhi would have to adopt a strategy that would keep Bhutan within its fold in the face of China’s rising global economic and military power and its eagerness to spread its tentacles across frontiers through muscular military means (as in the South China Sea) and through economic means, as the US$ 1 trillion One Belt One Road (OBOR) global communication infrastructure project would suggest.
Time has come for New Delhi to shed its patronizing attitude to Bhutan. It should also shed its belief that giving billions of dollars in aid and executing massive projects will necessarily bring political support or subservience. New Delhi will have to identify the warts in its relations with Bhutan, attend to the blemishes expeditiously, and be more sensitive to the client state’s multifarious needs. New Delhi must keep in mind the fact that China is capable of attracting Bhutan with unrivalled blandishments and also wield the big stick, if necessary.
Bhutan has already been moving away from India steadily though subtly. According to former Indian diplomat M.K.Bhadrakumar, Bhutan’s one and only statement on Doklam, dated June 29, did not say anything to the effect that Thimpu had sought Indian help to tackle Chinese intransigence in Doklam, or that it consulted the Indian government. It has also come to light that Bhutan was unaware that the Indian military was crossing the border into Bhutan on June 18, he said.
Clearly, Bhutan had been kept in the dark. It is probable that there is disquiet in Thimphu about this. as past incidents show. Anticipating objections and trouble from India, Bhutan had had 24 rounds of border talks with China behind India’s back. In these talks, Bhutan had routinely given in to China’s demands without getting the concurrence of India, thus violating the 2007 Indo-Bhutanese accord in spirit.
It was the fear that Bhutan might acquiesce to China’s bid to take over Doklam also, which made India bypass it to militarily thwart China’s road building effort in Doklam. India was aware that China had offered Bhutan a “package deal” to settle the entire border issue, under which, China would give up a number of claims in other places if Bhutan would drop its claim to Doklam.
If Bhutan had acquiesced on Doklam too, India’s security would have been in jeopardy, given the fact that China’s sitting on the Doklam plateau, at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan, would have seriously threatened the Siliguri corridor in India. Known as the chicken neck, the Siliguri corridor is the only link mainland India has with its North-Eastern states of Assam, Tripura, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, which apart from being insurgency affected, share borders with either China, Myanmar or Bangladesh.
Even before the standoff over Doklam began on June 16, Bhutan had been looking for friendly relations with China despite getting loads of aid from India. According to Indian official figures, Bhutan had got Rs.31,587 crore (US$ 5.8 billion) from India between 2000-2001 and 2016-2017, to be the top most recipient of Indian aid I South Asia.
India-Bhutan economic ties have been exceptionally close. 84% of Bhutan’s exports go to India, and India accounts for 64% of its imports. Hydro power generated by Indian companies accounts for 40% of Bhutan’s GDP and is also the main item of export to India. But the heavy economic dependence on India in trade and investment has led to apprehensions in Bhutan and some real problems too. Hydro-electric power has also been a cause of tension because of changes in Indian policy to the detriment of Bhutan.
In 2009, India said it would help step up power generation to 10,000 MW by 2020, and purchase all the surplus power. However, Shripad Dharmadhikary of the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra quotes the New Delhi-based Vasudha Foundation to say that the commissioning of new projects was delayed while costs went up.
The cost of the 1,200 MW Punatsangchhu-I had gone up from US$ 510 million to US$ 1.46 billion. In the case of the 1,020 MW Punatsangchhu –II project, it went up to US$ 1.1 billion from US$ 570 million. And in the case of the 720 MW Mangdechhu, the cost went up to US$D 675 million from US$ 435 million.
India was to finance the entire project with a 60% grant component and 40% loan component. But this was reversed, due to financial difficulties. The loan component now comprises 60 to 70%. Interest rates have also gone up.
Economic analysis has revealed that the net profit per unit of electricity sold has fallen sharply since 2007, the Vasudha Foundation report said. Moreover, hydropower has contributed to a steep rise in Bhutan’s debts, and the report notes that Bhutan is “among 14 other countries that are fast heading towards a debt crisis.”
At the same time hydropower projects are causing massive environmental damage and jobless growth, the study pointed out.
According to former Indian diplomat P.Stobdan, on the international front, Bhutan started taking a divergent approach, especially after democratization in 2007. It sided with China and others on Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge issue at the NAM’s Havana summit in 1979; didn’t follow India’s stance on the status of landlocked nations at the UN; signed the Nuclear Non Proliferatio Treaty in 1985; and supported Pakistan’s Nuclear Free Zone South Asia proposal. It is yet to accede to the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal Motor Vehicle Agreement for the regulation of passenger, personal and cargo vehicular traffic signed under SAARC in June 2015.
Bhutan’s first democratically elected government led by Prime Minister Jigme Yozer Thinley extended diplomatic ties from 25 nations in 2011 to 53 in 2013. It is now close to establishing diplomatic ties with China as China wants to discuss the border and other issues directly with it. Prime Minister Thinley met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, setting off alarm bells in New Delhi.
“Uncomfortable about the increasing coziness between Bhutan and China, India looked for an opportunity to punish Thinley. In the days leading up to the Bhutanese General Election in July 2013, New Delhi, in an unambiguous signal, abruptly cut subsidies on gas and kerosene sales (among other tough measures) to Bhutan. Some critics inferred the move was simply meant to rock the election campaign. Others saw a clear message from New Delhi to the Bhutanese – be prepared to face sanctions if the Thinley is voted back to power.,” Stobdan noted.
Scathing criticism of India’s meddling in the Bhutanese election outcome poured in from Bhutan, India and abroad.
Perhaps sensing the disquiet in Bhutan, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it a point to go to Bhutan first. But in shaping India’s policy towards Bhutan he would do well to go beyond economic aid and look at the relationship from multiple angles to redress Bhutan’s articulated and unarticulated grievances and apprehensions in view of its strategic location.
(The featured image at the top shows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeting Bhutanese Prime Minister Tsheing Topgay)