India’s response to a Sino-Bhutanese Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed on October 14 to speed up resolution of their boundary dispute is the clearest evidence so far that the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, in its second term, is making fundamental changes to its neighbourhood policy.
Four years ago, Bhutan and China tried the same recipe to cook up a solution to their border problems, which have been stalemated since 1984, with 20 rounds of talks offering no clear way forward. However, before the two governments could logically move towards an MoU, Doklam erupted in a military stand-off, which saw India attempting to checkmate the Chinese military on territory which Bhutan claims as its own.
The long face-off had consequences which went beyond those from a localised confrontation. China and Bhutan put aside their plans to progress towards establishing diplomatic ties consequent to resolving their outstanding border issues. But now, having waited four years and reviewed options, India’s these two important neighbours are back at it: the MoU is proof of it.
In pronounced contrast to the fire and fury during the Doklam stand-off, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) merely “noted” the announcement of the ministerial-level MoU for a three-step roadmap for expediting a border settlement dialogue. Details of the roadmap were predictably not made public.
“We have noted the signing of the MoU between Bhutan and China today,” Arindam Bagchi, the MEA Spokesperson, said within hours of the Sino-Bhutanese announcement. “You are aware that Bhutan and China have been holding a boundary negotiation since 1984. We have noticed the development and we are aware of it. For the moment, I will limit myself to just these comments on it.”
To squelch any supplementaries from the questioner, the Spokesperson firmly said: “Next, anybody else?”
The briefing went on to a different subject. There was a definite intent not to muddy the waters unlike four years ago. Following the MEA’s quick and diplomatically correct response, India has begun a carefully-scripted Track 1.5 campaign of sweetening the India-Bhutan bilateral relationship. Track 1.5 dialogues are made up of government officials along with experts from outside the government.
More important perhaps, organisations which carry the imprint of the ruling sangh parivar have been actively discouraging any discussion on Bhutan’s relations with China, specifically on the MoU. This author was a participant at one such Track 1.5 dialogue, where an attempt to bring up the MoU was sternly put down. A concerted effort is underway to avoid spreading jingoism and xenophobia, which are inevitable if discussions on Bhutan’s desire to have closer ties with China are permitted at such forums.
The most noteworthy change is that four years ago, the government had no qualms about appearing to speak on behalf of Bhutan over Chinese military activities and build-up in Doklam although it is not Indian territory. There is a definite willingness now to leave things to Bhutan, and demonstrate trust in Bhutan’s maturity in dealings with its external partners. For the moment, this includes China. Whether such as an attitude in New Delhi will last as the MoU is implemented will very much depend on its hitherto secret — “sensitive,” according to Bhutanese sources — content and the roadmap itself.
In the coming months, as Bhutan and China move towards a new modus vivendi in the conduct of their bilateral engagement, the ‘unique’ relationship which India has with Bhutan will be extensively publicised in India and abroad. At a sentimental level, much will be made of the fact that Bhutan is the only country in the world from which a father, son and grandson, as Heads of State, were Chief Guests at India’s Republic Day celebrations in decades separated by generations.
In a contemporary setting, it will also be advertised — without the distasteful boastfulness that often accompanies Indian aid — that Bhutan was the first country to receive COVID-19 vaccine supplies from India, which helped the kingdom to vaccinate its entire population. Bhutan is 100 percent free of the pandemic.
In an official policy brief, which this author has seen, New Delhi plans to help Bhutan open up in a big way to global engagement as Beijing inevitably plans its own future relations with Thimpu. One example of this is a proposal to enable Bhutan to have rail connectivity with the outside world. Two more posts for border trade with India are being planned, which will increase prosperity in villages on both sides.
Some of the ideas in the brief deceptively appear to be weird on the surface: India helping a country of only 700,000 people enter the space sector, for example. In reality, however, an agreement signed last month between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Department of Information Technology and Telecom in Thimpu to develop and launch the kingdom’s own satellite on an ISRO launch vehicle has become a household story making every Bhutanese proud of their progress.
After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Thimpu in 2019, at the start of his second term, there has been a sea change in New Delhi’s attitude. It is a huge change from the Manmohan Singh government’s withdrawal of cooking gas and kerosene subsidies, piling immense hardship on Bhutanese people in 2013, and turning public opinion against India. The subsidy was stopped to arm-twist Bhutan into distancing itself from China.
Modi recognises that Bhutan is now a multi-party democracy well on its way to becoming a middle income country in two years. It aims to be a high income country by 2030. Bhutan already has 52 foreign development partners where India was once the only source of development assistance. It is futile to try and prevent China from becoming Bhutan’s 53rd development partner. The new Indian policy is a welcome recognition of this realpolitik.
KP Nayar has extensively covered West Asia and reported from Washington as a foreign correspondent for 15 years. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.