The development demands of Bhutan should be respected by its neighbors
Published: Dec 06, 2023 06:19 PM
Illustration: Tang Tengfei/GT

Illustration: Tang Tengfei/GT

After the latest China-Bhutan border talks, India has shown great concern over the closer Beijing-Thimphu relations. A recent op-ed in the Indian media outlet of Deccan Herald smeared Bhutan as being "under China's shadow." 

India views Bhutan as having great security importance because of Bhutan's location in China-India border disputes. New Delhi is concerned about the possibility of Thimphu giving up its claim over areas in the vicinity of Dong Lang (Doklam) in western Bhutan which could put New Delhi at a strategic disadvantage in the region.

India and Bhutan previously signed "perpetual friendship" treaties in 1949 and 2007. According to the 1949 treaty, Bhutan's diplomatic practices must be guided by India, and even the purchase of national defense equipment must be approved by New Delhi. Under the "guidance" of India, Bhutan has established official diplomatic relations with only 54 countries in the world and has no diplomatic relations with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The treaty was renewed in 2007 and it was said that Bhutan had more freedom in diplomacy. However, according to the treaty, any diplomatic progress made by Bhutan shall not harm India's interests. The bilateral relations are unequal. 

Bhutan is the only country in Asia that does not have official diplomatic relations with China. The two countries share a border. People from both sides have cohabitated harmoniously for the past few decades and China and Bhutan have engaged in 25 rounds of boundary talks since 1984. In 1998, China and Bhutan signed a bilateral agreement for maintaining peace on the border. In the agreement, China affirmed its respect for Bhutan's sovereignty and territorial integrity and both sides sought to build ties based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.

Bhutan currently relies on imports from India for most of its needs, particularly for oil. Thimphu is thinking about diversifying its supplies by opening another route with its northern neighbor China, having learned a valuable lesson from another Himalayan country, Nepal. Nepal's fuels supplies were cut by India in 2015 as Kathmandu denied India's interference in its domestic politics. Apparently, if Bhutan aims at a bigger development vision, multilateral cooperation is an option that must be taken.

Bhutan is evaluating how much it can rely on India for development. According to the Asia Development Bank, after meeting domestic demand, about 70 percent of the 1,500 megawatts of Bhutan's hydropower being generated is exported to neighboring India to help drive that country's booming economy. 

However, hydropower projects are facing security challenges and uncertainties. In October, the Chungthang dam of Sikkim Urja Limited's 1,200 MW Teesta-III hydroelectric project on river Teesta gave way, leading to the death of around 94 people in the downstream areas of Sikkim and West Bengal. The devastation has refreshed worries over two of the three India-assisted, under-construction mega hydropower projects in Bhutan, the 1,200 MW Punatsangchhu Stage-I (Puna-I) and the 1,020 MW Punatsangchhu Stage-II (Puna-II). These projects, along with the 660 MW Kholongchu, are estimated to cost around $25 billion, funded by India, benefiting states in northern and eastern India. Now these two India-funded mega hydro projects currently being constructed in Bhutan have come under scrutiny and evaluation. It is of great concern whether these projects will help to boost Bhutan's economy or become a threat to the country's safety.

India used to be the largest trade partner of Bhutan. But, in recent years, Bhutan has been developing closer economic ties with China. Now, China-Bhutan trade accounts for around a quarter of Thimphu's trade. Also, China has played a significant role in the development of Bhutan's infrastructure through various cooperative projects, including the construction of roads, railways, hydro-electricity, and more. Moreover, people-to-people exchanges have been enhanced through tourism. 

There are many reasons why Bhutan should build official diplomatic relations with China, with development being the main reason. The establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Bhutan would bring new opportunities for the two countries to strengthen good-neighborly friendship and expand mutually beneficial cooperation, which fully serves the long-term and fundamental interests of Bhutan and its people.

The author is an expert in South Asian Studies, Communication University of China. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn