There is a generational shift in the way Bhutanese perceive their neighbours India and China, evident with the demands for change in approach, from a limited engagement to an open-door foreign policy.
In small nations with smaller population, people’s perception is a key factor in shaping the foreign policy. With 60 percent of Bhutan’s eight hundred thousand population being young, the changing perspectives of the aspirational youth has driven the landlocked kingdom to diversify its foreign and economic policies. The new-generation political leadership, bureaucracy and intellectuals reflecting the popular opinion, have emphasised on the need to expand Bhutan’s traditional approach of limited engagement to a more forward looking and open-door policy towards the world.
Nestled near the ‘roof of the world’ between two economic, demographic and geopolitical giants, India and China, Bhutan is often described as a ‘buffer’ between the two mighty neighbours. Its relations with the two powers is a study in contrast, shaped by geography and history.
In the spectrum of neighbourhood relations, India and Bhutan symbolise peaceful co-existence of a large country with a small neighbour. India-Bhutan ties are characterised by cordial historical relations, close partnership and warm people to people engagement. Development cooperation has been the cornerstone of Indo-Bhutan relations with hydropower sector at its core. India has been vital as a market and as the largest aid donor for Bhutan. Older generation Bhutanese, hold India in high esteem for its support in Bhutan’s economic development, particularly in the infrastructure sector, security and in maintenance of Bhutan’s unique identity.
In comparison, Bhutan and China have yet to establish official diplomatic ties. China and Bhutan became neighbours after the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1951. Marked by historical unease and tensions over the unresolved border issue, Bhutan has been wary to cultivate free and open relations with China. One of the reasons for Bhutan to forge strong bilateral relations with India has been the fear of Chinese aggression and assertive claims over Bhutanese territory. Wary of the intentions of its northern neighbour, the earlier generation severed diplomatic contacts, closed its borders and stopped trade for fear of losing sovereignty and territorial integrity.
There is a growing disenchantment amongst the youth, with the over reliance on India and constrained opportunities in the ‘dependent’ bilateral relations. With rising inequality, youth unemployment at 10.6 percent and high external debt, people have begun to question the ‘loans and grants’ model of development cooperation between India and Bhutan. There is a realisation even within the leadership of the growing need for Bhutan to focus on ‘investments’ in comparison to ‘aid’ driven development. The growing disillusionment in the economic realm has spilled over to the strategic and geopolitical domain prompting demands for greater diversification in the foreign policy of Bhutan.
There is a strong opinion amongst the people that India’s embrace is becoming a strangle-hold, hampering Bhutan’s initiative to cultivate relations with other nations. Voices within Bhutan like blogger Wangcha Sangay have openly voiced their adverse opinions on overbearing Indian presence. Young students have criticised India calling it ‘a jealous big brother’ for scuttling Bhutan’s efforts to take bold initiatives in its relations with her other neighbour China. They have began to suggest that Bhutan needs to build an independent foreign policy, settle the border dispute and normalise relations with it.
For many aspiring Bhutanese, eager for new opportunities, China is fast emerging as an attractive option for trade and investments. The private sector in Bhutan has also shown interest in cultivating deeper economic ties with China and attract investments to stimulate higher growth and expand opportunities. By skillfully combining soft diplomacy and economic aid, China is slowly emerging as an alternative choice in Bhutan’s endeavour for job creation, revenue generation and economic growth. Over the past decade, even though there is no formal diplomatic relations and direct economic ties, trade has grown to the extent that China has emerged as Bhutan’s third largest source of imports.
The demands for diversification of engagements with China can be deduced as an objection to India’s over-protectiveness and a desire to maintain cordial relations with both neighbours. Irrespective of the opinions, the Bhutanese are comfortable with their long-standing ties with their southern neighbour, India. This is seen by the scaling up of bilateral cooperation in digital and space domains and India stepping up to fulfil the aspirations of the young Bhutanese.
Shreya Mishra is a research intern at ORF.
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