As the Doklam plateau stand-off continues well into its second month, analysts in India, China and globally have focussed primarily on the India-China interaction. Those that have mentioned Bhutan – the Doklam plateau dispute is between Bhutan and China – have characterised Bhutan as either a protectorate, a state whose relationship with India limits its sovereign actions, or merely as a vassal state being bullied by India. These characterisations ignore Bhutan’s long history of fighting for its sovereignty as well the reasons (and context) in which Bhutan has pursued its special relationship with India.
The India-Bhutan relationship is often characterised by the grants and aid that India has extended to the small country, principally to the hydropower plants that provide Bhutan its largest single source of revenue. The political relationship, though, precedes the hydropower projects by decades, and is best seen in the context of Tibetan issues. The first official meeting between the leaders of the two countries after Independence took place after Jawaharlal Nehru, accompanied by a young Indira Gandhi, travelled to Bhutan via Sikkim, by plane, jeep, horseback and yak in 1958. Although the Chinese accorded a welcoming reception, and gave Nehru’s party an honour guard while passing through Chinese administered territory, the clouds of future conflict were already there. In 1956, on a visit to India to commemorate the 2,500 birth anniversary of the Buddha, the 14th Dalai Lama had asked for refuge. In 1959, he and his entourage would flee Tibet, setting in place a conflict that continues today.
Bhutan would not have been unaware of these issues. The Haa Drung (administrator of Haa), Jigme Palden Dorji, who also acted as the prime minister of Bhutan, was in touch with Major General Enaith Habibullah, the first Commandant of the National Defence Academy, who was also quite close to Nehru. Furthermore the pressure on the monastic orders being brought to bear by the Chinese in Tibet would have been relayed very quickly to Bhutan, whose monastic order was closely linked to Tibet’s.
The relations between Tibet and Bhutan have historically been about monks. The establishment of Bhutan as a separate domain, Druk Yul, in the 17th Century under the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, was set off by the rejection of his claims to be the head of the monastic order headed by his Gyare clan. This claim was rejected by the 5th Dalai Lama, which led to the Zhabdrung being offered shelter in Bhutan and a series of battles that would end up establishing Bhutan’s independence.
In 1864 another war erupted, this time with the British. Ashley Eden, who had negotiated an agreement with Sikkim that stripped the Chogyal of his powers and utterly eviscerated the sovereignty of the Himalayan kingdom, was sent to negotiate a similar treaty with the Bhutanese. Instead he encountered Jigme Namgyal, the Black Regent. Namgyal forced Eden to sign a different treaty – one which committed the British to return the Assamese Duars already forcibly occupied by them.
Eden’s treatment was used as a pretext for war for Britain to forcibly capture the territory they wanted – ideal for growing tea, an enormously costly cash crop of that time, one for which the Opium Wars against China had also been launched. The ensuing Duar Wars are considered victories by both Bhutan and Britain. Bhutan lost the Duars, but retained its independence, even being paid a rent (though a small amount) by the British Empire for the Duars.
In 1903 another war loomed when the British wanted to send the Younghusband expedition to Tibet. Caught between the two powers, Ugyen Wangchuck, the son of Jigme Namgyal, initially prepared for war against the British. It was his cousin and close advisor, Ugyen Dorji, a well-established trader based out of Kalimpong, who advised against this. Ugyen Wangchuck’s father-in-law also advised against it. Listening to their advice, Ugyen Wangchuck became the key facilitator for the Younghusband expedition, negotiating on behalf of both the Tibetans and British. He was one of the few that tried to keep some semblance of order in an expedition in which the British machine gunned Tibetans armed with muzzle loaders, some of whom were just trying to get away from the field of battle at Chumik Shenko.
It was this expedition, and the laurels that Ugyen Wangchuck won as a negotiator for both the power in the north – Tibet – and the power in the South – Britain – that set the stage for him being formally invested with kingship in 1907. The Tibetans, who had never in their history turned to Bhutan for help, offered him new ceremonial headgear in a mark of great respect. The British offered him knighthood, making him a Knight Commander of the Indian Empire.
This is the history of independence that the 3rd King of Bhutan, the Druk Gyalpo Jigme Wangchuck, carried forward when he welcomed Nehru to Bhutan in 1958. The King would have been well aware of what was going on in Tibet and its potential ramifications for Bhutan, which Mao claimed as part of Tibet. This was partially based on the defeat of Bhutanese forces by the Tibetan ruler Pholhanas in 1730 and 1732, invited into the country by the then Penlop (Governor) of Paro Valley, and the subsequent dispatch of Bhutanese leaders to kowtow before the Qing throne.
It is therefore why Nehru’s promise to Bhutan in September 1958, at his first speech to the Bhutanese public in Paro, was so important:
“Some may think that since India is a great and powerful country and Bhutan a small one, the former might wish to exercise pressure on Bhutan. It is therefore essential that I make it clear to you that our only wish is that you should remain an independent country, choosing your own way of life and taking the path of progress according to your will.”
It was based on this promise that Indian assistance to Bhutan, initially by helping fund Bhutan’s Five Year Plans, began. At that time Bhutan had no currency of its own, and was the country with the lowest per capita GDP in South Asia. Today Bhutan’s per capita GDP is $2,870 while India’s is $1,850. That growth has been facilitated by Indian assistance, but is based on Bhutan’s freedom to develop the way it wanted.
In recent times that freedom has been what has come under strain, most obviously when the Indian state abruptly, and without any explanation, stopped a subsidy for LPG in Bhutan in 2013, between the first and second round of the Bhutanese general elections. The LPG subsidy had an immediate impact, the ruling party lost, and the LPG subsidy was resumed, again without any real explanation. This was seen by many Bhutanese as undue interference. But while the action may have generated much talk, evidence of its efficacy – if that is what one can call so ham-handed a move – is slight.
Bhutan has two rounds of elections, with a run off between two leading parties in the second round. (In 2008 there were only two parties registered, so there was no run off.) In the first round of the 2013 elections, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, the governing party, received 44.5% of the vote, with the three Opposition parties, two of whom merged together after the first round, received the rest. In the second round, after the withdrawal of the subsidy, the DPT received 45% of the votes. The impact of the subsidy removal may have had more impact on commentary than voter share, much of which is determined by local issues. Bhutan experienced a painful currency crisis that had deeply eroded the DPT’s popularity. After the elections the former Bhutanese prime minister first accused the Bhutanese Election Commission of misconduct, and when directed by the king to direct those complaints to the chief election commission, resigned his post as a member of parliament. Such moves indicate that issues within Bhutan – as in every other country – have a greater impact on politics than any external meddling.
None of this should be used as an excuse for Indian high-handedness vis-à-vis Bhutan, but just goes to show that Bhutan has acted based on its own self-interest. It has done so as well when it comes to managing its foreign relations. The security and diplomatic support that Bhutan receives from India allows it to focus on issues of its core concern. The 4th King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who abdicated in 2006 in favour of his son after ruling for 34 years, had all the necessary weight to conduct foreign policy differently if he wanted to. He could have been a very prominent actor on the world stage, and certainly has enough personal connections with high-ranking diplomats to play that role even now, instead he focussed almost entirely on internal issues. His son, the 5th King, Jigme Khesar Wangchuck, became one of the few heads of state to address the joint houses of parliament in Japan in 2011. He too, could easily be an important international actor, and yet both father and son have chosen to play their roles in a low key manner, and Bhutan has avoided international entanglements, while strengthening the country internally. Part of that strengthening is the hydropower dams, built by grant and aid by India, which supply India with cheap electricity and Bhutan with much needed revenue. Neither of these actions, of diplomacy, or economic planning, are examples of “vassalage”, of a state forced into a subservience by its larger neighbour. Instead it has been a complex and delicate furtherance of Bhutanese sovereignty that keep Bhutan secure and prosperous, leaving it free of the meddling that has compromised the sovereignty and security of its Himalayan neighbours – Sikkim, Tibet and Nepal.
The key question for those following the stand-off at Doklam is going to be this one: how will Bhutan continue to exercise its sovereignty? The challenge that China is throwing is not a merely military one, but rather the question of whether Bhutan’s old deal with India, or whether Chinese partnership will allow Bhutan greater freedom, and greater sovereignty.
One answer to this is obvious. In Tibet the Potala palace has been reduced to a tourist attraction. The 14th Dalai Lama cannot visit, and is regularly vilified in the domestic press. Monasteries are severely constrained. Over the last few years more than a hundred Tibetans have immolated themselves. Although this has drawn scant criticism by global actors, such actions have their impact in Bhutan, where the monastic order is an important actor. Just this last week, the Nobel Laureate and long advocate for democracy, Liu Xiaobo, died in Chinese incarceration.
Yet the news from China is not all bad, nor is the news from India all good. As China invests in the grand Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and Bhutan’s neighbouring mountain state, Nepal, dreams of using BRI to link with the world, many admirers of China’s development model in Bhutan compare this to the situation in India’s northeast, where annual floods displace millions of poor, and atrocities by state forces and militants are as common as the entrenched poverty. Today Bhutan faces the challenge of managing its two gigantic neighbours, both of whom face massive internal challenges themselves. In the 18th Century, Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Gorkha King who unified Nepal, described this challenge as being like a yam between two boulders. Bhutan chose a different path, one that now means it stands as a peaceful anomaly in the midst of the contested border between the giants of Asia.
It will take great skill and wisdom to resolve this challenge from the power in the north and the power in the south. Bhutan has done this before, becoming not a yam to be crushed, but a bridge of understanding between vastly different cultures and polities. Nevertheless that incident led to massacres and was based on aggression, an outcome of colonial policies and fears. Today, as two Asian powers face off with Bhutan at the centre of this delicate situation, the outcome will show whether the Asian century has a chance to be a peaceful one, or whether it will replay the violence of the colonial period. Much of that depends on how India and China, as well as Bhutan itself, manages its sovereignty. It is no small thing, and should not be ignored. To misquote George W. Bush, it would not be wise to misunderestimate Bhutan.