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.