India’s Blasé Attitude to Bhutan Only Makes China More Attractive
A muscular and generous China is already seductive to many.
A muscular and generous China is already seductive to many.(Photo: Kamran Akhter/The Quint)

India’s Blasé Attitude to Bhutan Only Makes China More Attractive

“We are not getting bang for our buck [in our relationship with Bhutan].”
Former Major General Ravi Arora, Chief Editor, Indian Military Review
“Countries like Nepal and Bhutan have to incline towards India, because of geographical considerations.”
General Bipin Rawat, Indian Army Chief

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

These are recent comments made by former and current high-ranking members of the Indian Army. Former Major General Ravi Arora's comments on The Big Picture aired on Rajya Sabha TV ruffled feathers in Bhutan.

"There was no official response, but it was talked about a lot on social media," Dawa Penjor, former executive director of Bhutan Media Foundation, told The Quint.

Rawat's comment (while not untrue due to the Himalayas blocking access to China in the north) will undoubtedly leave a bad taste in Bhutanese mouths – Bhutan values its sovereignty, and, sandwiched between two competing behemoths, its political neutrality; something that should be obvious to an India that led the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War.

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‘You Just Don’t Say Such Things’

Needrup Zangpo, Executive Director of the Journalists' Association of Bhutan, had this to say about Rawat's comment: "There has been no visible public reaction to General Rawat's comment. But I think the people of Bhutan would cherish self-determination more than our special friendship with India."

In a highly competitive climate, with China offering tempting loan and development packages, India’s cavalier attitude isn’t going to do it any favours.

Omair Ahmad, journalist and author of 'The Kingdom at the Centre of the World: Journeys into Bhutan', told The Quint,

“What [Rawat] is saying is to a certain degree true, but you just don’t say these type of things. The thing is that geographically these things are changing, and that’s one thing that India doesn’t realise because they’re still stuck in some colonial mindset of the 19th Century, where you know we have our zones of influence... but the whole infrastructure of BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) is actually changing connectivity patterns. [...] Bhutan at some point is also going to look at trade and economic opportunities with China, that’s just what the geographical reality is, and that’s what Rawat is not clued in on.”

The Cost of Neglect

Despite India's vaunted 'neighbourhood first' policy, the remarks by high-ranking government figures like Amit Shah, General Rawat and ex-major general Arora have exposed a certain arrogance in India's dealings with its closest neighbours. From Shah promising to rid the country of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and calling them "termites", to the devil-may-care comments about Bhutan and Nepal, India appears to be chipping away at its own regional soft power – and this could not have come at a worse time.

A muscular and generous China is seductive to many, especially to countries that have been let down by India’s sluggish movement on trade deals and its lacklustre approach to following up on promises.

China is making huge inroads in the region – literally and figuratively – via it's Belt and Road initiative, and has offered attractive development packages to small countries in India's orbit like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives, Bangladesh and Bhutan.

The allure is undeniable, despite fears of small countries being made to take on exploitative loans to China’s long-term benefit.

Already, Sri Lanka has been caught in a debt trap with its Hambantota Port – a strategic asset – now on a 99-year lease to the Chinese since Sri Lanka was unable to repay the Chinese loan it took to build it.

Nepal too has slipped closer to China from a previously more India-friendly position. Nepal was one of the first countries to sign up to the BRI, and China is investing massively in hydropower projects and infrastructure there. But Nepal too is beginning to suspect it’s in the jaws of a debt trap.

But if the choice is between an eager China that rolls out the red carpet and showers money, and an inept yet possessive India – who balks at any increased engagement by its neighbours with the world’s second-largest economy – we know which option many countries are choosing.

There Goes the Neighbourhood

Bhutan will have the last round of its elections on 18 October. The ‘pro-India’ Tshering Tobgay’s party, the PDP, was ousted in the first round, leaving India nervous.

But since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first visit to Bhutan at the beginning of his term in 2014, there has been precious little attention paid to one of our closest, friendliest neighbours – that is, until high-profile events happen. Like Doklam.

“It would have made a world of difference for the PMO to say something about Bhutan any time after Doklam, just ‘happy Losar wishes’, that type of thing. It doesn’t require much but that type of thing would have been deeply appreciated, instead we just kind of didn’t communicate, and you can’t build up expectations as we did after Modi’s first visit and then not follow through.”
Omair Ahmad, Author of ‘The Kingdom at the Centre of the World: Journeys Into Bhutan’

Bhutan hit Indian headlines again during its first round of elections, which ousted the ruling PDP in a surprise result. Immediately, Indian media lamented the ouster of a 'pro-India' government.

"None of the major parties have taken a pro-China line, that has never been a formal part of Bhutan's politics for a very long time. There's always been a vocal, strong minority that has said that Bhutan should be closer to China, but that's never been a mainstream view, and still is nowhere near a mainstream view," says Ahmad.

But that doesn't mean Bhutan enjoys being made to feel like a protectorate of India either, which is an attitude India has to be careful not to assume. Bhutanese political parties have an obligation to their people to grow their economy and improve standards of living – and pressure from India to limit ties with China is seen as unfairly restrictive.

Penjor says,

“Look at India’s own economy, over the last five years, within Modi’s government itself, even though you have said ‘Make in India’ and everything, the imports from China have gone up tremendously. And if you look at Bhutan’s trade figures today with China, it’s almost negligible. I wouldn’t even say we trade with China. Now, for India to be apprehensive about that, I see no reason for you to be apprehensive at all, at the end of the day, if people in India can enjoy cheap goods, or easy access, or better markets from China, why should Bhutan be limited? We should not be prohibited from gaining from that.”

Bhutan is currently India's only neighbour who has stayed away from joining China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but that may change if India can't make itself an attractive ally and neighbour. On 24 July this year, in the aftermath of the Doklam incident, Chinese vice foreign minister visited Thimphu to discuss a range of issues. It was at this meeting that Bhutan was invited to join the BRI and reap the "development dividends" – surely a tempting offer for a country looking to diversify its heavily India-dependent economy.

"If you read between the lines and read the manifestos of all the four parties, they're basically the same, the outcomes are the same even if the wording is different – as a developing country, we need to diversify our economy. The fact is, even DPT, PDP, everyone mentioned that we are investing so much in hydropower. Self-reliance has been one of the keys in all the four parties' manifestos," says Penjor.

Lured by Chinese charm offensives, largesse, and surgical efficiency compared to India's lukewarm attitude, Bhutan could choose a similar path to Sri Lanka and Nepal – and India will have no one to blame but itself.

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