New Delhi sees Bhutan as little more than potential protectorate

By Liu Zongyi Source:Global Times Published: 2013-8-4 18:43:01

During Bhutan's recent second parliamentary elections, the main opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP) unexpectedly defeated the ruling Peace and Prosperity Party (PPP) and won a majority of seats.

However, in the first round of elections, the PPP was in a relatively leading position and received more votes.

At the end of June, shortly before the second rounds, India announced the withdrawal of subsidies on liquefied petroleum gas and kerosene for Bhutan, which resulted in fuel prices doubling, public rage and worries about the country's financial security.

These became main topics during the second round of elections, when the PDP took the chance to accuse the PPP of damaging the relationship with India and hurting people's livelihoods. This helped the former win the election.

Critics stated that the timing of India's subsidy withdrawal suggested it wanted to influence Bhutan's election results. Why did India, which is proud of being the largest democratic country in the world, venture to interfere in Bhutan's elections?

As a country located between China and India, Bhutan serves as a buffer and is of critical strategic importance to the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow stretch of land that connects India's northeastern states to the rest of India.

The corridor is considered a vulnerable bottleneck for India's national security. Delhi worries that China will send troops to the corridor if a Sino-Indian military clash breaks out.

Guaranteeing the security of the Siliguri Corridor has been a long-seeking strategic aim since Indian independence.

To achieve this goal, India made Sikkim an Indian protectorate, and then annexed it in the 1970s. Meanwhile, India stationed troops in strategic spots in Bhutan and also forced it to sign the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty in 1949, requiring Bhutan to follow India's guidance on foreign policy.

Although the provision was canceled in 2007 when the two signed a new treaty of friendship, the new treaty demands Bhutan's foreign policy not damage India's interests.

India also controls the lifelines of Bhutan's economy. As its largest trade partner, assistance provider and creditor, India controls the whole oil consumption of Bhutan and nearly 90 percent of the country's hydropower development.

In the 21st century when concepts like "protectorates" and "client states" are outdated, the India-Bhutan relationship seems to be rather unique.

Bhutan's leadership was worried about this abnormal relationship, and was afraid that Bhutan would be annexed by India some day. In 2005, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced he would drop the ruling element of the monarchy when the country realized democratic elections in 2008, hoping to gain greater legitimacy.

Bhutan has established diplomatic relationships with many countries after 2007, and made significant progress in border negotiations with China through active diplomacy.

During the meeting between former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and former Bhutan prime minister Jigme Yoser Thinley in June 2012, Wen said that China is ready to forge a formal diplomatic relationship with Bhutan on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and complete border demarcation.

In August 2012, former deputy minister of foreign affairs Fu Ying visited Thimphu to discuss the establishment of diplomatic relations with Bhutan, which aroused great concerns in Delhi.

Former Indian ambassador to Bhutan Pavan K. Varma was forced to resign due to his failure to prevent Bhutan developing relations with China.

New ambassador V.P. Haran, who used to be the acting ambassador to Nepal and was keen on practicing a "carrot-and-stick" policy, has played a big role in the PDP's latest victory in Bhutan. The withdrawal of subsidies before Bhutan's elections reflected that India never gives up its power politics where it doesn't need to.

India won't allow Bhutan to freely engage in diplomacy with China and solve the border issue. Besides, India will continue its stance on the Sino-Indian border dispute and strengthen its strategic posture.

Due to the Indian influence on Bhutan's elections, the wish of depending on democracy to maintain the sovereignty of Bhutan's royal family and its political elites has become a failure. India's interference in Bhutan's election is a tragedy for Thimphu. Bhutan is still firmly under Indian control.

The author is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a research fellow at Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

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