India-Bhutan Ties: The visit of Bhutanese King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk to India in early April and the commitment of both the South Asian nations towards continuing relations based on “goodwill, trust and mutual understanding” has brought to the fore the strategic importance of both country’s relationship in the light of blow hot, blow cold relationship of India with China.
The timing of the visit of the Bhutanese king notwithstanding-when there is a fresh diplomatic skirmish between India and China over the re-naming of Arunachal villages, it is time India and Bhutan join hands to address their common strategic challenges while also acknowledging their common geographical, cultural and historical ties.
Understanding India-Bhutan ties
As per the Ministry of External Affairs of India, the diplomatic relations between India and Bhutan were established in 1968, with the opening of a special office in Thimphu by India. The ties that exist between both countries are largely based on the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation which was first signed by both countries in 1949 and then revised in 2007. In 2018, the Golden Jubilee of formal diplomatic relations between India and Bhutan was celebrated. India and Bhutan share a unique and longstanding bilateral relationship, based on trust, goodwill, and mutual understanding. The Indian government has consistently supported Bhutan’s socio-economic development, with a focus on key areas such as agriculture, health, energy, and education.
Hydro-power cooperation is a prime example of the mutually beneficial relationship between India and Bhutan, with four hydroelectric projects already operational and more under implementation. India is Bhutan’s largest trading partner, with significant exports and imports between the two countries. India is a popular destination for Bhutanese students, with almost 4000 enrolled in Indian universities, many of whom receive scholarships from the Indian government.
The China quotient in India-Bhutan ties
Observer Research Foundation’s The Changing Contours of Bhutan’s Foreign Policy and the Implications for China and India, published in June 2022 describes the world of politics, as the concept of alliances is not just about the balance of power, but also about the balance of threat. The paper quotes renowned American political scientist Stephen Walt, stating that four factors are crucial in deciding an alliance: aggregate power, geographical proximity, offensive power, and state intentions. Bhutan’s relations with India and China, both of which have superior military power, are based on the factor of intentions rather than just power.
After China annexed Tibet and became territorially aggressive, Bhutan’s ties with India intensified, leading to a friendship treaty in 1949. Bhutan’s decision to align with India and not China is based on their mutual interests in limiting Beijing’s aggressiveness and maintaining their territorial integrity. Bhutan’s dependence on the Indian economy and development projects has not threatened its sovereignty, as they have always been sensitive to India’s concerns despite China’s economic and military superiority over India.
This balance of threats has not only compelled Bhutan to accommodate and respect Indian sensitivities but has also led to their mutual interest in limiting China’s aggression. Despite India’s defeat in the 1962 war, Bhutan continues to align with India and has never used the China card against them. Thus, Bhutan’s relations with its neighbours are a product of a delicate balance of threat, not just power.
With continuous interference from China and its persistence in attaining control over the region, will the Indian and Bhutanese friendship pass the test on time against a common enemy?