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Millennium Post

Bonding big time with Bhutan

In the years to come the geopolitics in Asia will depend much on the influence of two emerging and contending powers namely China and India. The Himalayan kingdom, Bhutan placed in the midst of two rivals, therefore, assumes strategic importance.

India’s relationship with Bhutan has been time tested and harmonious. China is conscious of the fact that if it can woo Bhutan into its fold it can keep India always on the tenterhooks and spread its influence all over South Asia. China is playing a hard ball on boundary issue with Bhutan and has so far built six roads close to Bhutan’s border towns in the north and northwest. According to a statement by the Secretary of International Boundaries of Bhutan, Dasho Pema Wangchuk, Chinese forces had come 17 times to army posts of Bhutan in 2009. Since 2007, Chinese forces have dismantled several unmanned posts in Bhutanese territory.

The boundary issue between Bhutan and China remain unresolved. The boundary in northwestern and central Bhutan has not been demarcated, thus making the strategic Chumbi valley – a vital tri-junction between Bhutan, India and China, which is five km from the Siliguri corridor in India – a space of contested aspirations.

Losing of Siliguri corridor would mean India snapping direct contact with its northeastern region. The Siliguri corridor, otherwise called the “Chicken Neck” connects India to its northeastern territory, Nepal and Bhutan.

Bhutan and China have had 19 rounds of border talks. In the last round of talks, it was decided to have a joint field survey with a view to harmonise the reference points and names of the disputed areas, particularly in the western sector of Bhutan which constitute the pastoral lands of Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulumpa and Dramana. This exclusive focus on the western sector of Bhutan should be a worry for India owing to its geostrategic importance of sharing borders with Tibet (on the Chinese side) and Sikkim (on the Indian side).

China’s aggressive postures were clear, when in 1954, 1958 and 1961, it published maps showing Bhutan as part of its territory. This made the Himalayan kingdom look towards India for security.

But the situation has changed for India since 2007. It can no longer directly guide Bhutan. In 2007, at the insistence of Bhutan, the 1949 India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty was revised. The Article-II of the original treaty, which obliged Bhutan to be guided by India, was amended.

The revised Article-II says “both countries shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interest. Neither government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.”

The revised treaty recognises Bhutan’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity” which were absent in the original treaty. Bhutan is upscaling its relationship with other countries. Internal changes have taken place in the Himalayan Kingdom with the introduction of Constitutional Monarchy. Bhutan’s population is divided among three main groups – Sharchops in eastern Bhutan, Lhotshampas in southern Bhutan and Ngalungs (or Drukpas) in western Bhutan. Ngalungs, who earlier migrated from Tibet, control the monarch and the National Assembly.

In the elections held in 2008, the Ngalungs dominated Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) won a landslide victory against the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) winning 45 out of 47 seats in the lower house of the National Assembly.

Voices for settling border dispute with China is gaining momentum in the National Assembly. If the border dispute were settled in China’s favour, then its influence in Bhutan’s northwestern part namely Haa, Paro and Samste would increase and make India’s Siliguri corridor strategically vulnerable.

The young monarch of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel is an alumnus of the National Defence College of India and is a friend of India. India began extending its diplomatic gestures by inviting him to be the Chief Guest at the 64th Republic Day Parade this year. Though monarchy in Bhutan still enjoys some powers, India needs to extended similar gestures to the emerging democratic forces. (IPA)
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