Bhutan seeks to move out of isolation


The Bhutan government is acquiring an international profile with plans to contest the Asian seat for a non-permanent member at the United Nations Security Council. The government in Thimphu and its tiny band of diplomats and top officials have been on overdrive, lobbying with governments and diplomats around the Asian region.

The hermit kingdom, tucked along the northeastern corner of India, also borders the Tibetan region of China with which its shares close civilisational ties. The country has been going through a series of fast-paced events in recent years, shedding its isolation from the outside world and transiting from monarchial rule to an elected government. Bhutan began its transition towards democracy and modern governance in 2008 when the first ever elections were held in the country and an elected government formed.

The Bhutan government expressed its intention to contest the Asian seat during the UN session in September 2010. A two-year membership of the Security Council would propel the tiny Himalayan kingdom into the epicentre of high international diplomacy. At present, Bhutan has diplomatic relations with barely 40 countries; diplomatic ties with 15 countries were established in the past two years. Bhutan has Indian and Bangladesh resident missions in Thimphu, and has consular relations with its other large neighbour, China.

Bhutan’s prime minister Jigme Y Thinly lobbied with all the South Asian countries with varying results at the last SAARC summit held in Maldives last year.

Bhutan hopes its smooth transition towards democracy and its concept of ‘gross national happiness’ would act as a USP for showcasing its capacity to contribute to the councils of the UN. In case Bhutan wins the contest it will take up the seat vacated by India on completion of its twoyear term. The election is due this October.

As Bhutan moves out of its isolation, it is inevitable that it would seek to establish bilateral relations with other countries, including China. Bhutan does not have diplomatic ties with China as relations have been strained between them ever since China took control of Tibet in 1951.

Prime minister Thinly and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao had a historic meeting on the sidelines of the Rio+20 UN conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June, when both leaders spoke about the possibility of establishing diplomatic ties.

The Bhutanese leader also sought Chinese support for the prestigious UN seat during his discussions with premier Wen. The subject came up again when Bhutan and China held border talks in Thimphu recently. The two countries have a festering border dispute and have held 20 rounds of talks to try to resolve the issue. In 1998, the two sides signed an agreement to “maintain peace and tranquillity on the Bhutan-China border areas”.

India has welcomed Bhutan’s opening up to the outside world. Under the Treaty of 1949, India handled all of Bhutan’s external relations. In 2007, the two sides signed a new treaty reflecting a new contemporary relationship based on mutual cooperation. India is Bhutan’s main trade partner and Indian built hydel power projects provide

Bhutan its main revenue source based on sale of power to India.

China’s plans to build a road network in Tibet reaching up to the Bhutan border has raised concerns in Thimphu. There have been incidents in the recent years when Chinese troops have entered Bhutanese territory close to Bhutan army posts. China claims Bhutanese territory towards the west, bordering the Chumbi valley in Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulimpa and Dramana pastureland.

The narrow Chumbi valley ends at the strategic trijunction between Bhutan, India and China. The area is of immense importance to India for it lies a few hun

dred kilometres north from the Siliguri corridor or the chicken’s neck corridor that connects Assam and the northeastern states to the rest of India.

China has indicated keenness to engage Bhutan while there are sections in Bhutan that would like to explore bilateral ties with China. Chinese goods are available in Thimphu and many would like to reopen border trade with Tibet that thrived many decades ago.

The Bhutan government has taken measured steps in its relations with China, but it may hasten the pace as it lobbies for the UNSC seat.

(The writer is a foreign affairs commentator)

Courtesy :