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Power plays in Bhutan exemplify India’s growing influence March 30, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : Bhutan, DeSilva-Ranasinghe, Serge, Future Directions International, India, Maldives, South Asia - General , trackback

Serge DeSilva-Ranasinghe

For nearly a decade the intensifying rivalry between India and China has been seen in practically every country in South Asia. In South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, India has often encountered hurdles in attempting to expand its influence due to both political and historical reasons. Conversely, and as recently demonstrated in the Maldives, India has also successfully strengthened its influence in a number of smaller regional countries.  For example, in the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, India has positioned itself as Thimphu’s  closest ally.

With an estimated 75 per cent of the population Buddhist and 25 per cent Hindu, the people of Bhutan have traditionally shared strong linguistic, religious and cultural similarities to India, Nepal and Tibet . Since British influence was removed from South Asia following Indian Independence, relations with China have grown more complicated, especially since 1950, when China invaded and occupied Tibet resulting in thousands of Tibetan refugees seeking asylum in Bhutan. Later, in 1960, Bhutan decided to close its northern border with China. The border remains closed to this day.


Two boys in traditional dress outside the King’s palace, Thimphu, Bhutan.

For decades now Bhutan’s relationship with China has remained underdeveloped and practically stagnant, with no official diplomatic relations. However, some minor successes have been noted, such as when Bhutan voted in favour of China’s UN seat in 1971. Similarly, Bhutan has continued to honour its commitment to the ‘One China’ policy and has also signed the 1998 Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity in the Bhutan-China Border Areas. Nonetheless, these minor achievements have not necessarily translated into better relations. For example, trade relations have remained at minimal levels and equated to around US$1 million in 2002, according to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since then, bilateral trade statistics have been difficult to obtain, but there are few indications to suggest any marked increases in trade.

Instead, the vexing problem of the disputed border has been the focus of relations. Seemingly unending attempts to negotiate a common boundary along the 470 kilometre border appear to have met with limited success. In fact, since 1984, when negotiations first started, there have been 19 attempts between the two countries to resolve the disputed border. Added to this, in the last decade tensions with China have reportedly flared up on several occasions. For instance, in 2004 Bhutan complained that Chinese soldiers commenced road construction in an area claimed by Bhutan. China reportedly halted construction after strong protests were lodged. In 2008 and 2009 respectively, Bhutan again complained that on over 17 occasions Chinese soldiers wilfully trespassed deep into Bhutanese territory.

In marked contrast,  Bhutan’s  relations with India have continued to flourish, going from strength to strength. India has a 699 kilometre border with Bhutan and considers the Himalayan kingdom to be vital to its interests in providing strategic depth and security to the narrow Siliguri Corridor, also known as the ‘chicken’s neck’, which links mainland India to its distant north eastern states.

Most notably since May 2008, when Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh visited Bhutan, relations between the two countries have undergone a major transformation. Following his visit, in 2009 India signed 12 agreements with Bhutan pledging assistance and financial aid in a number of key areas, which reportedly included enhanced co-operation in law enforcement, defence, civil aviation, search and rescue operations, and health and information technology. Salient examples include funding for a 50-seat undergraduate medical college; assistance to set up ten hydroelectric projects by 2020 to generate 11,000 megawatts of power and the provision of Rs 205 crore to promote computer literacy. Such efforts by India have been strongly endorsed by Bhutan, which views India as an important counterweight to China.  The King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, summarised the relationship with India as follows: ‘Some say Bhutan was wise to seek strong bilateral relations with India. This is true. After all, whether we speak about our socio-economic progress or our successful transition towards democracy, India has been a steadfast partner and friend.’

But while relations with India continue to improve Bhutan still faces a major and potentially worsening strategic dilemma with China over its unresolved border dispute. Given the convoluted history of negotiations, and what appear to be increasing tensions associated with alleged Chinese incursions, there is potential for tensions to further escalate in the coming years as the rivalry between India and China continues to intensify.





1. dorji wangchuk - March 30, 2011

Nice article but Some major factual error.

Bhutan was never colonised and it is factually wrong to say it gained independence in 1949.

2. sandygordon - April 1, 2011

Thanks Dorji, it has been fixed. Ed

3. Vikas - April 1, 2011

Dear Editor,

Mr. DeSilva-Ranasinghe was not entirely wrong. The British treated Bhutan as a protectorate, which differed from princely states nominally. If I am not wrong, the Indian government had to explicitly recognize the independence of Bhutan in 1947. (If there was no scope for confusion then the explicit recognition would have been superfluous.) Only in 1949, when the two countries signed their first major bilateral agreement as independent states, was the Indian government’s statement translated into reality.


4. cuthbert lethbridge - February 27, 2013

I think Vikas is wrong! Bhutan enjoyed a special status
–the British even paying them off to exclude any Chinese or Tibetan political influence! No way was it a ”protectorate”.
The treaty of 1949 merely recognised the status quo.