Wary of China, India to warm up to new Bhutan Govt soon

Polls in Himalayan Shangri La indicates imminent change of guard, PM Modi to visit Thimphu soon

Tshering Tobgay led People's Democratic Party (PDP), which was in power in the country since 2013, lost the primary polls. (Image courtesy: Twitter/@PMBhutan)

Wary of China, India is likely to move fast to engage with the new government in Bhutan, where the primaries of the third parliamentary elections this week indicated an imminent change of regime.

The primaries of the election to the National Assembly of Bhutan cleared Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) and Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) to contest the general elections on October 18. The People's Democratic Party (PDP), which was in power in the country since 2013, lost the primary polls. The new Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP) too performed poorly. 

Bhutan, a tiny nation wedged between India and China, is now set to have a new government by the end of October or early November. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to visit Thimphu as soon as his new counterpart takes over, sources told the DH in New Delhi on Saturday. 

With Beijing stepping up efforts to expand its influence in Bhutan, New Delhi has been keeping a close watch on the parliamentary elections in the Himalayan Shangri La. The outgoing PDP Government headed by Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay in Thimphu has been very supportive to New Delhi during the 72-day-long India-China military face-off at Doklam in western Bhutan. But, more than the rout of the PDP, what caused unease in New Delhi is the re-emergence of the DPT. 

The DPT Government headed by Prime Minister Jigme Thinley ruled Bhutan from 2008 to 2013. A quiet meeting between Thinley and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Rio De Janeiro in June 2012 irked New Delhi, which suspected that the DPT Government in Thimphu might be moving towards having formal diplomatic relations with Beijing and settling the bilateral boundary dispute on the terms of the communist country. New Delhi, which provides extensive financial support to Bhutanese Government, conveyed to Thimphu its concerns over implications of closer Bhutan-China relations on the national security of India.

The DPT was voted out of power just a year after Thiley-Wen meeting in Rio De Jeneiro. Beijing's efforts to open an embassy in Thimphu did not make much headway during the PDP Government's tenure over the past three years. China's envoy to India informally looks after its relations with Bhutan. 

A source in New Delhi, however, pointed it out that the DNT, not the DPT, was most likely to get the majority in the National Assembly after the forthcoming general elections in Bhutan. Some of the PDP candidates might also win and get ministerial berths in the new Government, if they quit the party and join the DNT to contest the general elections. The same had happened in 2013, when the DNT candidates, who had secured the first or second positions in the primaries, had quit the party, contested as the PDP's nominees and had not only won the general elections, but had also got ministerial berths, added the source. 

New Delhi also took note of the fact that notwithstanding Thinley-Wen meeting in 2012, the DPT had never spoken out against Bhutan's traditional ties with India in the past five years. Neither had it ever publicly supported Beijing's bid to open its embassy in Thimphu, noted another source, arguing that New Delhi should not have problems engaging with the new Bhutanese Government even if the DPT could secure a lead role for it in the new dispensation. 

The source also pointed it out that none of the DPT leaders had ever publicly spoken out against New Delhi or Bhutan's close relations with China. 

Bhutan turned from an “absolute monarchy” to a “constitutional parliamentary monarchy” in 2007-08, with the then King Jigme Singye Wangchuck transferring most of his administrative powers to the elected Prime Minister and his Council of Ministers. His eldest son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was crowned King in 2008.

Beijing early last year tried to renew its efforts to open up its embassy in Thimphu – a move New Delhi has been closely monitoring. China's ambassador to Bhutan, Luo Zhaohui, visited Thimphu in January 2017 and met King Namgyel Wangchuck and the then Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay. He was quoted by Kuensel (the national newspaper of the kingdom) saying that he had conveyed to them Beijing's keenness to “expand” China-Bhutan relations. He also told Kuensel that China was keen to resolve the boundary dispute with Bhutan “as soon as possible”.

Beijing's renewed move to warm up to Thimphu, however, hit a bump on the road when China's People's Liberation Army came to Doklam Plateau on the disputed Sino-Bhutan border on June 16, 2017 and started building a road, brushing off protests by the Royal Bhutanese Army. Indian Army troops went to Doklam Plateau on June 18, 2017 and stopped the PLA soldiers and construction personnel from building the road, resulting in a face-off, which continued for 72 days and ended on August 28, 2017 with the withdrawal of troops by both sides. 

Sources told the DH that New Delhi had since been closely monitoring Beijing's overtures to Thimphu, given the “uniqueness” of the “close and longstanding” ties between India and Bhutan and shared “security concerns”. 

The Article 2 of the 2007 India-Bhutan Treaty provides for both the Governments to cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to the national interests of the two. It also stated that neither Government should allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.

Luo, Beijing's envoy to New Delhi, again visited Thimphu in July accompanying China's vice foreign minister Kong Xuanyou – just weeks before the parliamentary elections commenced in Bhutan. They called on King Namgyal Wangchuk and Prime Minister Tobgay.  

New Delhi, according to the sources, is aware that Beijing may renew its old offer to Thimphu to settle the boundary dispute between China and Bhutan.

Bhutan and China had 24 rounds of negotiations to settle the border dispute. The process was suspended after India-China military face-off at Doklam last year. 

Beijing is understood to have offered to give up its claim on about 495 square kilometer of areas at Bayul Pasanglung in northern Bhutan, if Thimphu agrees to make “progress in diplomatic relations” leading to the establishment of the Embassy of China in the capital of the Kingdom.

Beijing, however, also made it clear to Thimphu that it would not give up its claim on about 269 square kilometer areas in Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulimpa and Dramana in western Bhutan.

Sources in New Delhi told the DH that China was not ready to go soft on its claim on areas in western Bhutan ostensibly because it wanted to gain a strategic edge over India. Doklam, in particular, is adjacent to India-China-Bhutan tri-junction boundary point and very close to Siliguri Corridor, which links north-eastern States of India with the rest of the country.

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Wary of China, India to warm up to new Bhutan Govt soon

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