Bhutan gets more foreign policy autonomy
Last week, Bhutan’s new king and India’s somewhat new foreign minister renewed an old bilateral treaty. Under its terms, Bhutan is no longer obliged to takes its foreign policy cue from India. It will also allow the landlocked Himalayan kingdom to import arms without India’s approval. The new treaty is marked “by a language of cooperation, which would essentially translate into Thimpu not acting against Indian interests in the conduct of its foreign policy”. India’s decision to untether Bhutan has been explained on the grounds on their strong mutual friendship, Bhutan’s remarkable march towards constitutional democracy and more generally, to the winds of change blowing in the region.
Those who argue that the unparalleled history of friendship justifies India’s magnanimity are deluding themselves. Similarly, Bhutan’s transformation into a constitutional monarchy is not contingent on it acquiring autonomy in foreign policy matters. Those who argue that India retains a lot of leverage—in practical terms—on Thimphu despite relaxing its hold are on firmer ground, at least for the time being. The argument that is farthest out comes from the Calcutta Telegraph, which argues that “New Delhiâ€™s move to unshackle Thimphu could be a message to Beijing to follow the example in Tibet”.
While getting Beijing to unshackle Lhasa might remain wishful thinking, the new India-Bhutan treaty could not have been drafted without accounting for the two countries’ respective relations with China. Bhutan and China have a long running dispute along the 470km Bhutan-Tibet border. In addition to a serious incursion in 1979, China has periodically encroached on Bhutanese territory. Settlement of the dispute, according to China, requires the two countries to have formal bilateral relations. Essentially, this has been China’s way of challenging Indian influence over Bhutan. With the new treaty, Bhutan will be able to exchange diplomatic missions with China. So is India testing Beijing’s readiness to resolve border disputes? Or is the new treaty part of a wider rapprochement between India and China on settling Himalayan borders? It could be either.
There is also another possibility. Is the new treaty with Bhutan simply a move to create a precedent to justify renegotiating a similar one with Nepal?