The perils of being a buffer | Pakistan Today

The perils of being a buffer

  • Is Bhutan a vassal state?

By: Amjed Jaaved

Speaking at the South Asia conference, Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh said, “India is engaged in conversation with neighbours except one country to develop a joint approach for regional peace and security.” He aded, “With the exception of one country, and I would like to say frankly, Pakistan, the region has adhered to a policy of non-interference.”

The brutal reality is that India wants all neighbouring countries to act like its vassals. To achieve this aim, India is banking on its aid and trade leverage. Let us have a bird’s-eye view of Bhutan.

Bhutan is sandwiched between two powerful neighbours, India and China. Despite ostensible bonhomie, the two countries have divergent perceptions of their influence in neighbouring countries, including Bhutan. Due to its cultural affinity, colonial heritage and geographical proximity, India has an edge over China in Bhutan. India always vies for ousting Chinese influence from Bhutan.

Bhutan has an area of 18,000 square kilometres and a population of about 742,000 with a density of 19.2 persons per square kilometre. It is a buffer between India and China. Being landlocked, it is isolated from the rest of the world. On the north, it is bounded by the Tibetan plateau. On the south, it is surrounded by the plains of the Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal and the Golpara, Kamrup, and Darrang districts of Assam.

While India remains focused on warding off Chinese influence, many other countries are taking an economic interest in Bhutan. There are over 18 foreign domestic investments in Bhutan led by Singapore, Japan and Thailand. India’s FDIs are only eight. It remains to be seen how long India can retain Bhutan as a vassal

Bhutan is sandwiched between the Chumbi valley of Tibet, Sikkim and Darjeeling in the west, and the Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh of India in the east. Bhutan can maintain relations with other countries only through Indian territory.

Bhutan is weak militarily. Its army has a strength of only 10,000. To defend itself, Bhutan has to look towards India and regional and international organisations like the United Nations.

Bhutan understands its inability to score a major outreach in international relations. It understands the constraints of topography, untapped resources to tap natural resources, poor infrastructure and a dependent economy.

The Indo-Bhutan Treaty of 1949, revised in February 2007, reduces Bhutan practically to a vassal state under India. The Treaty says ‘The government of India undertakes to exercise no interference in internal administration of Bhutan. But the Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of government of Indi in its external relations.’

Upon Bhutan’s insistence, the word `advice’ has been changed to `mutual assistance’. But, practically there has been no impact of the semantic change. Bhutan wants to revive and strengthen its age-old multi-faceted relations with Tibet.

Bhutan resents the insertion of Article 2 in the Treaty as a provision with quasi-colonial connotations. She considers it a constriction of its sovereignty and independence. The Treaty debars Bhutan from establishing relations with other countries, particularly China, in the national interest.

Bhutan points out that the present treaty with India is s a reincarnation of previous treaties like the Treaty of Sanchu-La of 1865 and the Treaty of Panakha of 1910 signed between British India and successive kings of Bhutan. The treaties pre-empted Bhutan from seeking economic assistance from countries other than India. to tap its natural resources, improve its infrastructure or take other steps for an economic turnaround.

India is unwilling to relax its hold on Bhutan for strategic reasons. Situated on India’s northern border, Bhutan is crossed by three rivers, the Raidak, Santosh and Manas. The rivers run through a line of mountains rising from 5000 feet along the Indian border to the great peak of Jula Kangri, over 24,000 feet. India’s first PM, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, was very sensitive about retaining Bhutan as a buffer vassal against China.

In many ways China is obstructing India’s hold on Bhutan. China contended that Tibet was an integral part of China. So, it liberated (or annexed) Tibet in 1950. In July 1958, China laid claim to vast Indian territory, besides 200 square miles of Bhutanese territory, as being part of Tibet. China took over the Bhutanese enclaves of Kailash and Gartok region. This area has strategic importance. It enables China to keep an eye on the Chumbi valley and the roads leading to it. The area is adjacent to the Jaldakha barrage in the Indian state of West Bengal. China has constructed a road linking Chumbi Valley with Bhutan.

China and Bhutan have held many rounds of talks to settle border disputes. China has made it clear that it is well-nigh impossible for it to cede territory that could be advantageous to India. The talks from 10 to 14 May 1988 stressed the principles of peaceful coexistence, mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression and peaceful coexistence.

The 12th round of Sino-Bhutan border talks took place in Beijing from 8 to 12 December 1998. It inter alia focused on ‘establishment of diplomatic and trade relations’, besides discussing ‘exchange of land’.

India was alarmed by Chinese efforts to establish diplomatic relations with Bhutan (2014 talks). Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bhutan in 2014 to neutralise Chinese influence. He shouted slogan B4B, Bharat for Bhutan and Bhutan for Bharat. He laid the foundation of the 600-MW Kholongchu hydro-electric project. Actually, India is building three hydro-electric projects as joint ventures, totalling 1416 MW. They are Chukha, Tala and Kuricho, which are in operation. Three more under construction are Punatsangchu-1, 1200 MW, Punatsangchu-II, 1020 |MW, and Mangde, 720 MW. India has increased scholarships for Bhutanese students aspiring to study in India.

Despite its best efforts to woo Bhutan, Bhutanese youth are not happy with India’s oppressive demands. India wants Bhutan not to establish diplomatic ties with China and welcome Chinese investment. While India remains focused on warding off Chinese influence, many other countries are taking an economic interest in Bhutan. There are over 18 foreign domestic investments in Bhutan led by Singapore, Japan and Thailand. India’s FDIs are only eight. It remains to be seen how long India can retain Bhutan as a vassal.