Wanting a piece of the last Shangri-La

BHUElections2018VARANASI, India – Bhutanese voters have already decided to oust their current leaders, voting out their prime minister and his political party in the first round of parliamentary elections last month.

Now many voters of this tiny, ancient kingdom hope that whoever wins the second round Thursday will renegotiate their lopsided long-time alliance with India and make nice-nice with China.

"We love our sovereignty," said Pawo Choyning Dorji, 35, a photographer in the capital of Thimphu. "We appreciate how India has helped in the development of Bhutan but our relationship with India has cost us our sovereignty. India must know that someday Bhutan is going to establish a good relationship with China.”

Bhutan is only one case of China and India jockeying for influence in South Asia, a rivalry that has been heating up over the past few years, and playing out especially in Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and the Maldives.

But it is the tiny country of Bhutan where the rivalry is hottest these days.

"It's a tiny speck of a country in South Asia, and it was only last summer's standoff between India and China that brought Bhutan to the headlines," said Faisel Pervaiz, South Asia analyst at the global think tank, Stratfor. "But now, what looks to be an election in a tiny, mountainous Himalayan kingdom actually has geopolitical implications between the world's two most populous countries."

Both countries are closely watching the results, hoping for an advantage in the future: The ruling party had been very close to India, analysts said.

In fact, India has had a "hegemony by default" in the region for decades, being the largest country in terms of size and population and the strongest economy and military strength, say analysts. And while it has strong cultural and linguistic ties to its neighbors, it is Bhutan where it has played the most dominant role, all but dictating its foreign and economic policy, and being its dominant benefactor and trade partner.

Enter China with its Belt and Road initiative, it's 'Marshall Plan' to connect Asia, Africa and Europe. In South Asia, it's been calling on governments with offers of investments, loans and economic partnerships, talking to countries who lack resources for roads, bridges and ports. As a result, they have been very receptive.

India has been so concerned that it has tripled its foreign aid over the past seven years – the most going to what it sees as its buffer state of Bhutan – and upped its offers of loans, infrastructure projects and other economic links, and also military cooperation.

Last year, the rivalry came to a head.

New Delhi has long had an interest in protecting the so-called narrow “chicken neck” near Bhutan that connects northeastern India to the rest of the country. Last year, Indian troops stopped Chinese forces from building a road on Bhutanese-controlled land on the Doklam plateau that Beijing has long claimed, stoking fears of a repeat of the Sino-Indian border war of the early 1960s. Both sides stood down after talks.

While each country in the region has had a different reaction to China: for example, in Sri Lanka, it has been politically risky to embrace China while in Nepal, it was an advantage, China is still inching forward in the race for hearts and minds.

"India is still the dominant country," said Pervaiz. "But where it was winning by a mile, now it is winning by an inch."

In Bhutan, that's because many see China as the future.

“China is beneficial for us," said Shyam Parajuli, 46, who sells gifts and knickknacks, often to Chinese tourists in Thimphu. "They pay a good price for the goods they buy here. Indians don’t, because they know every inch of this country very well.”

Some voters thought it would be a boon for local business.

“We get most of the business-related items from India but recently China has started giving us cheap products which make the trade cheaper, and many people prefer cheap products here,” said Sangay Choden, a middle-aged teacher in Thimphu. “If we get more trade goods from China on regular basis, we may be able to do more business with more profit.”

Other noted, however, that India provides Bhutan with crucial aid and the lion’s share of its commerce. “We enjoy Indian liquors in the bars here, thinking how to loosen the Indian hold around our neck,” said Pushpa Gurung, a 28-year-old aspiring fashion model.

Four years ago, India cut off kerosene shipments to Bhutan in what many viewed as punishment for expanded economic relations with China. The move soured many Bhutanese on India’s role in their economy.

Still, the prospect of becoming a battleground for fight between two nuclear-armed powers was a wake-up call for Bhutan.

“The Doklam standoff highlighted the vulnerability of a small, landlocked country like Bhutan to the changing geopolitical dynamics between its large and powerful neighbors,” said lawmaker Pema Gyamtsho, a leader of the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, the mainstream opposition political party squaring off against the upstart Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa in Thursday’s election runoff. "The incident became a better opportunity for Bhutan as it has opened more toward the world.”

The Bhutanese say they are not worried of becoming another Tibet – China annexed the Himalayan nation in the mid-20th Century. That development was one reason why Bhutan drew closer to India in the first place. The world has changed since then, said Thimphu-based political blogger Yeshey Dorji, 63.

“We are not worried about China entering Bhutan – this is not the 1950s or 1970s," Dorji said. "If China wants to enter Bhutan, they will employ economic means – as does India, to subjugate Bhutan. Once our boundary issues are sorted out, China will be as good a neighbor as any other country.”

Meanwhile, leaders from across the political spectrum have repeatedly said they want to make the country self-reliant and avoid foreign entanglements that might compromise their environmental and economic progress.

The country is focused on so-called positive development. Agriculture is on track to being entirely organic in two years. By 2030, the Bhutanese intend to recycle 100-percent of their waste. Under Bhutanese law, leaders must strive for Gross National Happiness rather than economic growth alone.

Issues other than foreign relations are also playing a big role in voters’ choices, of course. Rural poverty and poor healthcare were major reasons voters rejected the ruling People's Democratic Party in September.

Tshering Cigay Dorji, the chief executive of the Thimphu Tech Park, a venture launched in 2012 to diversify the Bhutanese economy, said the country’s choice in the long-run was not only between its two neighbors. It was whether Bhutan wanted to full join the international community or not.

Television was allowed in the country in 1999. The country’s monarchy ceded power to parliament in 2008. Mass tourism is limited with a $250 fee. Like Shangri-La, Bhutan has been closed off to the rest of the world for much of its history.

“Bhutan has already opened itself to the world though cautiously and carefully,” said Dorji. “It is not possible to isolate itself in this age of fast-changing developments spurred on by new technologies. For the future, I would like for Bhutan to be peaceful, balanced and happy as it is now, but also economically more self-reliant.”

Bhatti reported from Berlin; John Dyer in Boston contributed to this report.

Photo: July 6, 2018 - New Dehli, India - Former Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a meeting in the Indian capital where both leaders idiscussed a wide range of bilateral, regional and international issues.
Credit: Courtesy photo by Tshering Tobgay's official Twitter account (07/06/18)

Story/photo published date: 07/06/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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