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Why Bhutan Matters to India and China

Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on May 16, 2008

For a tiny country that has very little contact with the rest of the world, Bhutan seems to be in the news a lot these days. Today India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is visiting the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu, the first visit by an Indian leader in ten years. This summit comes after the Himalayan kingdom had its first-ever parliamentary elections in March, attracting all sorts of coverage from reporters keen for an excuse to go to the country. And who wouldn’t? I went there on vacation a week after the elections and it’s an amazing place. (Here’s a story and a slide show about Bhutan from the recent BW Asian travel special.)

Bhutan is especially interesting for anybody like me who follows the complex relationship between India and China. The country is sandwiched between the two, and although culturally the Bhutanese are much closer to the Tibetans – the languages are similar, the versions of Buddhism are similar – Bhutan has thrown in its lot with India and has very little to do with China. According to this Bloomberg story, India accounts for 98% of the country’s exports and provides 90% of its imports. When I was in Bhutan, I could easily see India’s influence. The gas stations are Indian, the cars are Indian, the products in the stores come from India, the signs are in English to make things easier for Indian visitors. The Tata group has just opened a five-star Taj hotel in the capital. (It’s a swank six-storey building that is probably one of the first in the whole country to have an elevator.) Meanwhile, Bhutan has no relations with China and the border with Tibet is closed, although that doesn’t stop smugglers from going back and forth.

According to Bloomberg, the Indians are keen to ensure that newly-democratic Bhutan stays safely in New Delhi’s orbit. “‘After the democratic changes in Bhutan, the Indian prime minister can assure them things are on track with India,’ Sreeradha Datta, research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses said by telephone. ‘India is wary of China having a control over Bhutan.’”

Not that the Indians have much reason to worry. Bhutan is almost completely reliant on its giant neighbor to the south. And given what’s been going on in Tibet, the Buddhists of Bhutan are hardly likely to turn to China. Just a theory, but I think Bhutan’s willingness to live under India’s shadow might help to explain why Beijing is so determined to maintain its control over Tibet. Yes, the Chinese argue that Tibet has been part of China for centuries, and no, all you Chinese nationalists out there, I’m not taking any sides on that argument. What I am saying, though, is that regardless of those arguments, the Chinese government probably sees Bhutan and the extensive Indian influence there and thinks that the same thing would happen in Tibet if the People’s Liberation Army were to leave. It’s one thing for China to tolerate a little Swiss-sized country on its periphery dominated by one of its two biggest Asian rivals. It would be quite another for Beijing to surrender control of the giant Tibetan plateau and allow India to be within spitting distance of some of China’s heartland.

Reader Comments

India Bhutan relations

May 16, 2008 1:10 PM

It must be noted that India unlike China does not forcefully insert its influence with Bhutan or any of its neighbors. In fact its the fear of red China and the cultural similarities to the people of India that draws them closer. In return Bhutan's citizens get a lot of benefits from India as they can go to India freely (No Visa Required) and receive all privileges as a Resident would (pay local tuition in colleges, Join Army, work, stay etc.... Its like home away from home.


May 16, 2008 1:21 PM

Good that Bhutan shares good relations with India. I think it whould be great if Bhutan made an effort to strengthen her relations with China. China has developed world class infrastructure in Tibet while Bhutan continues to have her substandard infrastructure developed by an obscure Indian organization using the most antiquated methods. They make no effort to meet deadlines and don't care if they're years past their deadline.

Sure there are some Tibetans that have problems with the Chinese government but as China becomes more democratic, these problems will go away.


May 16, 2008 1:32 PM

I just wanted to point out one thing: English is the language of instruction in Bhutan and is extensively used. The signs being in English has nothing to do with making things easier for Indians or anyone else.


May 16, 2008 3:10 PM

Hi Bruce - Since when did you start specializing in geo politics. But I see the plausibility in your theory about evolving grand game in Asia.


May 16, 2008 5:13 PM

Not only that. CIA and the US first army will be busy in Tibet too once Dalai Lama takes control of 24% of China's land area. That Dalai Lama must be a big dreamer, thinking he can take Tibet from China without firing a shot.
He must be either an idiot or naive.


May 16, 2008 10:15 PM

your comments has highlighted the deep thought of a trouble maker. Asia continents do not like people who feels treated because of the rising continent in economic power as well as defence. You should not follow the American theory of in the name of democracy, destroy and build. Look at Vietnam, Cambodia, Afganistan, Iraq, etc, etc. all become the massive weapon export of American companies. Now they even manipulate the dollars to their advantage and started to accuse others of currency manipulation. Attack is the best defence.
Tibet is part of China. The CIA is taking advantage of the situation to create problem in this region. To create instability and everybody looking forward to them for "HELP". I think we should Sadam and now Iran to change the world trade currency to EURO instead of US$. And we will see who is the actual currency manipulator and create so many hardship the wold is suffering how.


May 17, 2008 1:05 AM

Another attempt by western media to portray an authoritarian state as mysterious shangrilla just because that state doesn't has relationship with China.

Sure Bruce, Bhutan is beautiful, but why you didn't mention how the king expelled 100,000 of its citizens to refugee camps in Nepal, just because they are ethnic Nepalis? Isn't that the same with the Apartheid regime in South Africa or Nazi in Germany?

Rakesh Sumit

May 17, 2008 4:17 PM

Interesting arguments. However, Nepal used to be considerd under India's influence before and things have changed dramatically over the last 15 years in Nepal. With the Maoist in Nepal definitely inclining towards China. There is nothing to predict that Bhutan might not switch camp later on. It is however ironic that like Bhutan, India was instrumental in bringing democracy to monarchist Nepal which has elected the Maoist in recent elections. India has been completely taken unaware in this development. For long term security reasons, it has increase development efforts in the North East of India or else face the consequences of sleep walking into surrounded by Chinese influenced neighbourhood.

tom nguyen

May 18, 2008 2:44 AM

India and China are trying to get alone for next coming years, it might be not easy but is better for them to be that way. That is no other road for them to become enemy.

tom nguyen

May 18, 2008 2:45 AM

India and China are trying to get alone for next coming years, it might be not easy but is better for them to be that way. That is no other road for them to become enemy.


May 18, 2008 9:11 AM

what the article says about Bhutan is true that it is totally under the ibfluence of India. but its ancesters came from Tibet China. so the people there have always been related to China in feeling. that can be seen from the fact that a chinese dragon is on their national flag. China is not like the big power who tries to influence other countries. China means friedly to other countries, and believes that all countries can develop together instead of fighting each other to get better developed.


May 18, 2008 10:58 AM

I dont understand why when we chinese show our sincere love to our motherland you name us "nationalists", but when the same thing happen to your people it becomes "patriots", isnt it ridiculous. No doudt Tebet was, is and will for ever be part of china, Bhutan had special relation with china too, and so India. Sooner or later we will take back what belonged to us, and you, as well as your sons and grandsons will have to pay great price for your ignorance today. no one can save you, baby

India King

May 19, 2008 12:28 AM

I couldn't agree more with these opinions, but I think eventually Bhutan will get closer to China instead of India. With its economic power, China certainly could help Bhutan more than India. The Bhutan people also wants more economic ties with China. Considering the closeness betwee Bhutan and Tibet, people there are living like in one country. I don't know whether Bhutan wnats to be a part of China. On the other hand, I am not sure China wants to take this extra responsibility. At this moment, it's for everyone's best interest to build up more economic ties.


May 19, 2008 4:33 PM

@Rakesh Sumit, it is unreasonable to claimed that India and Bhutan have brought democracy to Nepal. The democracy in Nepal happened because the Nepalis fought for it. Why the Maoist can win? Because the royal government has failed to provide even the basic necessities to people.

Praful H

May 19, 2008 8:21 PM

Looks like a stupid discussion to me... China will take away Bhutan over a period of time and thanks our peaceful/democratic ways we won't do much about it. For we would think about it and over a period forget about it and have demonstrations every now and then, with politicians doling out BS about how they intend to free Bhutan, Tibet and Chinese (what the heck) from the Chinese.


May 19, 2008 8:58 PM

Bruce, it seems that you are the least qualified in judging whether Tibet is part of China or not. Besides that you are not Chinese, nor Tibetan, nor Indian, nor Bhutanese (or even Asian in general), you are not even a politician, nor geo-political strategist. Is Business Week planning to turn into a geopolitical magine, especially for China and India?


May 19, 2008 11:04 PM

The interesting geological fact is that "India just again gatecrashed into continental Asia and caused the massive earthquake in China whose casualities may exceed 70,000 besides the economic impact". Somehow I always believe that India just has capability of changing the whole dynamics of everything.


May 20, 2008 9:40 PM

Bhutan 100 % Tibetan Buddhist is more secure and independent with closer ties India then with China. When Tibet gains independent, the arm race this region will end. China’s occupation of Tibet was not just for the 24% of land but also 20% of China’s mineral resources that is feeding the China’s booming economic. Illegal Mining is being done by Chinese army under secrecy and heavy military escort. Everyday and night tons of minerals are being stolen by the Chinese army in sealed trucks and now through trains to China at no cost. Chinese dictators will face same fact as other dictator has faced.


May 21, 2008 11:51 AM

Tsultrim. Go ahead dream on.

Blue Poppy

May 23, 2008 12:48 AM

Now that Bhutan has formally joined the comity of democratic nations,I think it will be quite difficult for China to walk into Bhutan and take over the country as easily as it did 50 years ago with Tibet. The situation is entirely different today. Anthony, I'd like to point out Bhutan has never been a part of China in any period of our country's history, so you needn't start focusing your greedy-for-land attention on our territory.
And Andy, contrary to the blatant lies and accusations that the Nepalese media always spread about our King about driving out 100,000 people of Nepalese origin why doesn't anyone report the facts as they stand? Before the Southern Bhutanese left the country in the 1990s the Fourth King personally went down to the south to plead with them not to leave their country. But did they listen? No, they decided to go and set up refugee camps in Nepal hoping that international pressure would be put on our government for them to return with more Nepalese (who incidentally were not Bhutanese at all) and turn it into another Sikkim. Don't all countries try to protect their borders against illegal immigrants?


May 23, 2008 1:52 AM

The only reason why Bhutan can preserve its undemocratic regime is because India back it up. The same goes for the royal family in Nepal. But not even the mighty India can protect the royal family regime in Nepal when the people united behind the Maoist.


May 28, 2008 12:37 AM

Bhutan can choose to go where it wants to. Borders change and history is witness to such change. China is a great economic power but I will choose to live in India with all its problems. It is a democracy and has built a foudation to sustain a democarcy. With China there is far too much nationalism and an inclination to use force. It may eventually become a democracy and we will then find out if the peoples of China can remain together and contain its right to freedom. They may also have their stupid Gujjars who will rebel and plunder and they may have their Tibetans who will remember that their grandmothers were jabbed with a butt of the rifle to eliminate their unborn children. I can't beleive a freaking Chinese claiming that Tibet was Chinese. Go read history it will tell you that China was Tibets' and not the other way round.

And Bhutan was Indian...and Tibetans migrated there and made it their homeland. I agree a weak argument in a world built by migration.


May 28, 2008 12:43 AM

Any country should be concerned about its neighbour. Bhutan has been a great neighbour for India. India does not want its peace destroyed like in Tibet and Nepal. And as for China, its people want to be a superpower and taking over lands and forcing its influence is power to them.

Mao continues to destroy even when buried. He terrorized China and his followers now carry the torch outside of China.

China is scary...its own people are not allowed to move and work freely in its own country.


May 28, 2008 1:05 AM

guys can we all be together and think of something better for Bhutan,India,Tibet and China.
Lets make out something constructive and not having big differences as what i read.We need to be together my friens!:)


May 29, 2008 1:34 AM

Nice comments Bruce! From the comments which I see, many Chinese are masquerading as others and tying to build up support for their despotic rulers. Development doesn't mean more public participation, but democracy means. If Bhutan became a democracy it is good for the people who can now take part in the development of their own country. This Chinese cannot understand as they don't understand the concept of democracy. People who invade and oppress people cannot understand the value of democracy. So if Bhutan becomes a democracy and gets closer to a democratic society it’s a nightmare for the communists.


May 31, 2008 4:19 PM

tsultrim, Ram, Rose, Pranab;

Democracy hasn't changed cast system in India after independence in 1947, that is 60 years ago. What casts you are from? Are you willing to marry lower cast lovers? Or they are so dirty even to be looked at? Just like your left hand are dirty to every Indians.

How about burning brides for not giving groom family enough money or gold? How about wife buring for them can't give birth to a son? How about enfant girl killing? West ignore all these are happening in India because you are usefull for them now to count balance China. You are being used and didn't know while enjoy to be used for now. May be you think you can use west too in the process, but, remember the weak on in a team is the first one to be sacrifised. Western social Darwin culture is too strong for Indian pacified culture. That day will come when Indian gets too strong for them. While China and India had no war in the past few thousand years until west got into asia through India.

Ronak R.

June 2, 2008 9:45 AM

India tried becoming friendly with China, and the outcomes were apparent in 1962 war. But, I know, its subjective to changing perceptions and the time.


June 2, 2008 12:23 PM

The reason why Bhutan kicked out all of the Nepali illegal Nepali migrants was because they were more interested in joining protest rallys and shouting meaningless slogans, than working hard to develop Bhutan. We Bhutanese like the Chinese are pragmatic people who don't care much for street theatrics.


June 3, 2008 8:49 AM

For all those who don’t know Bhutan and the Bhutanese, I want to say that Bhutan is THANKFUL TO THE INDIANS. We give due respect to China, but we are happy to have one good relation with one neighbour than a half-good / bad relation with 2 neighbours.

Relationship between Bhutan and India is a testament to the world that balanced relationship can exist between a big and a small nation.

Bhutan never had any kind of relationship with China and I don’t think we would like to have one in the future. The symbol of dragon on the national flag has got nothing to do with China.

Chinese people should be happy with their countries size and leave small neighbours like Bhutan to leave in peace.


June 5, 2008 2:07 PM


Thank you for your superficial commentary. It's clear that you haven't really gone beyond reading superficial articles in the India/Bhutanese media in order to really understand what Bhutan is gaining and losing from it's relationship with India. You also don't seem to know your Bhutanese history very deeply because if you did, you would know that Tsangpa Gyare the founder of Drukpa Kagyu was from a Chinese clan. That's right sir, the it's not a mere coincidence that our dragon looks identical to the Chinese dragon.

Last but not least, you seem to have the deluded fear so common among superficially educated, intellectually lazy Bhutanese such as yourself, that Bhutan is this important place that China is looking to take over when, nothing could be further from the truth. China is on it's way to becoming the next power in the world an it's not going let others get in the way by taking over a small country that still has to beg the WFP for food despite the very low population and abundant amount of land resource available to it. So please don't embarrass us with all your delusional insinuations.


June 13, 2008 12:15 AM

Ugyen This topic is quite interesting... aie.. Ugyen.. are u really bhutanese..


July 25, 2008 12:33 AM

I guess Bhutan is more worry to become another Sikkim.


July 27, 2008 12:45 AM

China does seem interested in taking land from Bhutan. It's been quietly doing so in the past couple of years along the border with Tibet.


August 6, 2008 3:03 AM

I was closely watching this article and comments it was accumulating over the period of time, good or bad it was receiving attention. India and China are receiving world attention and Bhtuan cannot be forgotten in the process.
It would be wise to take advantage of these fastest growing nations of Asia. For Bhutan it should be no different. As a bhutanese, how could we benifit by being in the economic circle of Inda and China? Should China join SAARC tomorrow, can Bhutan be a place to assemble the hardware of China with Sofware of India?
As for being friend, Bhutanese government with the farsightedness of Monarchs of Bhutan, we have made decisions, and it is not likely to change. Bhutan could have economic relations with China.
I am a Southern Bhutanese of Nepalese origin... The number of refugees would not have hit that high, if it was not for few people who influnced these poor people, who were anyways betteroff than they are at the moment. Most of these people in camp are not even educated, educated ones are here in Bhutan trying to change negative feelings among the remaining ones in the villages.
Ignorance was certainly not a bliss at that time. No one can blame the kings of Bhutan, the people of bhutan have been provided with free health care, free education at the highest level one can achieve. These facilites are not for free even in the advance countries of world. We have problems and diffrences under one roof, we are talking about country here. Still today, I face few problems with security clearance, but i have realised that nothing will outweigh the benifits I have received as a Bhutanese Citizen.
The outside world should not think that we have problems in Bhutan, it is a peaceful country and we are gald and grateful to our leaders who helped to restore peace. Bhutan is a small country, but we take pride being an idependent country for all these years. We will not succumb to anything. Anything at all.


August 12, 2008 9:55 PM

Ugyen: Hello Ugyen, I think you are not bhutanese, probably you are chinese. If you are a Bhutanese, first answer to this.
On November 13, the Chinese soldiers entered the country’s northern districts, including Paro, and marched 20 km inland, claiming that they had been forced by melting glaciers and heavy snowfall in Tibet to breach the border. Then Bhuta government allowed them on humanitarian ground. But they also went on to infiltrate remote places like Haa, Boomtang and Wangdi Phudrang, which have no human habitation. SLowly they the Chinese built pucca bridges in Paro and Haa districts, prompting concern among the people’s representatives from Paro, Haa, Laya, Lunana, Zhemgang and Thimphu.
When secretary of international boundaries Dasho Pema Wangchuk took up the issue with the Chinese delegation led by deputy director-general of the Asian department in the China’s ministry of foreign affairs, China just brushed off the apprehensions.

“They told the Bhutanese that they were over-reacting and that the roads were being built as part of the economic development programmes for western China.
What you will say now about the Chinese intentions.

So think now: If India is not beside to Bhutan, then Chinese will invade the bhutan.


August 31, 2008 2:57 PM

Nepalese who got kicked out of Bhutan are illegals. You just can't illegally settle in a country and then call yourself a citizen. USA kicks out illegals and so do the Europeans. Nepalese immigrants are abusing Bhutanese hospitality of free entrance into Bhutan.


November 18, 2008 5:00 AM

Hi friends, it is becuase Bhutan is a independent and sovereign country. India definetly want to strengthen his close and time tested frenship with Bhutan. Ofcourse, China wants to sincerely develop close friendship to her only neighbour, Bhutan, left without diplomatic relationship cosidering the globaliztion trend of the world.


February 22, 2009 10:18 AM

Dear Ugyen,
Everything you say scares me and makes me fear for our country Bhutan. You would trade our independance, and sovereignity for a few highways? Or improved infrastructure? Why don't you go to China yourself, I doubt youll come back. Youll probably open your uneducated mouth and get executed promptly by the Chinese authorities.


May 27, 2009 6:26 AM

Thankless Ugyen,

If you like China to be your side for your development, why don't you go for yourself. we are residing by India whether you ide or live. Stupid.


May 29, 2009 1:57 AM

hi readers... ooks like there are some mis understandings...and i also did not know why bruce is into this forum. what ever, Bhutan is independent, the tibetan Lama has come to Bhutan but that does not mean Bhutan has been a part of China or Tibet. It is because Bhutan existed since eons and there for the Tibetan Lamas came to spread their religion...if Bhutan wasn;t there how can any body visit...

another thing is that Bhutan and India enjoy a close friendship and there will not be any harm in going with economic ties nor i think China intend to take over Bhutan. It might have been the Chinese policy to Claim Bhutan their part before but this would not be now.

But i believe that China is playing with border dispute to take some bhutanese land into their account for some reason.

Well at last Nepal Problem was not a Bhutans Problem, It was encouraged by some Nepali folks from outside and was taken by some Nepali in Bhutan Who might have become a Bhutanese if had they been a loyal people to be a part of the country. there for it is their problem of who seeded and who took it.
WE as Bhutanese And our goverment as responsible to safe guard, has do what we have to... It is no one's business to talk much if you did not have any idea... And Bruce what is your intention..


September 22, 2009 11:04 AM

Rakesh, it should be noted that while the Maoists would appear to be, in name, influenced by China, the fact of the matter is that their inspiration comes from the communists of India. In fact, as I'm sure you may be aware, the "Naxalites" are named as such since they come from Naxalbari, West Bengal.

And Yakman, the Bhutanese of Nepali origin, known as Lhotsampas, were officially accorded Bhutanese nationality by the king in 1958. However, the government later reneged on this agreement and took the position that they were illegal immigrants. As such, the Lhotsampas were forcibly evicted from the country in an act of ethnic cleansing with detailed incidents being reported in journals such as the Washington Post (don't take my word for it- look it up). In order to enforce the government decision, security forces were mobilised against the Lhotsampas. A former Bhutanese national by the name of Dorge Gurung was quoted as saying, "They were threatening us. In the census, they were saying that within fifteen days we had to leave the country; otherwise, we would be shot or tortured." Under this persecution, Southern Bhutanese were deported to Nepal where they were admitted into camps run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). You can call kicking out one third of your population "deporting illegal immigrants". The rest of the world calls it ethnic cleansing.


February 19, 2010 12:05 PM

Ugyen is a chinese...he should be kicked out from Bhutan. As a Bhutanese I would prefer to live closer to India than the inhuman chinese.


April 21, 2010 7:25 AM

lot had been talked about Bhutan. Few consciously and more so without even knowing anything. I would like to highlight few contradictory statement made by Mr.RT who seemed to showcase his knowledge regarding "illegal immigrants." I guess he needs to know what actually happened during the uprising. I still remember those events..Let me narrate few incidents that took place during those unforgettable moment. The few Nepalese politicians who could not rise against 80000 strong Nepalese troop who were so loyal to their royal family started looking for an alternative ground to showcase their political affairs started influencing our southern Bhutanese people specially in Tsirang and samtse district.I remember those people who were directly influenced and eye washed by those politicians started strolling around the villages and brain washing those innocent people and making every effort to differentiate themselves from other people. Mass demonstrations was carried on encouraging people to go against every rule framed by the govt. plainly claiming against them one way or the other. Those who resist against their will were tortured. I still remember that particular night when a group of Gun man came to house and started abusing my father to join the moment forcefully. My father made every effort to make resistance but was bitten inhumanly by those people. They told if we don't support their moment, we have face the consequences. Luckily we manage to take shelter from RBA. Why I am saying this is that, i see lot propaganda and untruth spell by those few who are facing the actual consequence of their evil deed are out pouring their share of cry to get emotional support from others. I have always been Bhutanese by heart and will always remain. what AMNW had posted is ground zero reality.

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