One of the biggest news makers in the recent years, has been Bhutan’s foreign policy moves. These include hosting the Sixteenth SAARC Summit, passing happiness as a resolution at the UN, the Security Council bid, establishment of new diplomatic relations, etc.
As a result, there have been numerous articles, publications, seminars, views and discussions on Bhutan’s foreign policy in the public domain. As with GNH, Bhutan’s foreign policy is being discussed and debated among citizens with varying views.
There is no doubt that hosting the SAARC Summit was a big diplomatic success for Bhutan, and in a way it was our own coming out party. Here was the smallest member country of SAARC, which for the first time not only held a successful SAARC Summit praised by regional leaders, but also played the facilitator’s role in breaking the ice between India and Pakistan. The government, in that sense must be appreciated.
On the Security Council bid front, the Prime Minister on his return from New York prepared the country for the likely defeat of Bhutan’s bid. This was despite a mini-blitzkrieg launched by Bhutan entailing diplomatic capital, time and financial resources. As the final results are due on 18 October 2012, there will be the obvious questions on whether the whole process was worth it, or even doomed to fail from the start.
A happy success for Bhutan came at the UN General Assembly when it endorsed happiness as a developmental goal.
In a record of sorts, this government has increased Bhutan’s diplomatic relations from just 21 countries in 2009 to 46 countries till date, meaning an additional 25 countries mainly fostered and timed for the UNSC bid.
With all of the above, there is no doubt that Bhutan’s international image and profile has increased.
However, in the international diplomacy arena, the most important measurement of how a country’s diplomatic interests have been served is measured in terms of its Realpolitik or actual gains which are national resources, security needs and diplomatic say.
Bhutan has become ‘more famous’ and ‘liked’ around the world, but there is little to show for in any Realpolitik gains.
The majority of the 25 new countries with which Bhutan has established ties are globally insignificant entities that can do little to help Bhutan in any major sense. It is not clear how countries like, Armenia, Andorra, and Fiji can ever be of Realpolitik use to Bhutan.
By contrast the 21 older diplomatic partners established prior to 2008, which include important players like India, Japan, Norway, European Union, Switzerland, and Denmark – played and continue to play a key role in Bhutan’s socio-economic development.
The Rio Summit’s failure after high expectations demonstrates how off late, Bhutan’s foreign policy is high on idealism and ‘flower power’, and low on realism and state craft.
In the current globalized, unipolar and nuclear world, the era of bigger countries gobbling smaller ones is no longer relevant. The real game that is played out even by countries like Japan and South Korea is of aggressive economic domination with sturdy allies to back it up. It should not come as a surprise that many of the 25 countries that Bhutan has established ties with will probably vote for South Korea, which has much better economic incentives to offer.
In short, a country becomes weak both internally and externally when its economy is compromised. Also when you are down, it helps to have powerful friends with whom you share mutual interests. For example, the powerful European Union that stands proudly as a rival to the USA was once built with US aid or the Marshall Plan after the devastating Second World War.
Talking of economy and reliable friends, the current government’s handling of relations with our biggest developmental and economic partner India has not been as enthusiastic as the other diplomatic initiatives. It seems that the elected government is more interested with engaging in ties with obscure and distant countries, rather than engaging with an economic partner with whom we have billions of dollars worth of projects and economic aid at stake.
The 2003 Military Operations against the ULFA/Bodo militants, the revised 2007 Friendship Treaty, 10,000 MW and doubling of 10th plan assistance were among the many firm pillars of Indo-Bhutan friendship, laid by our Monarchs , that not only strengthened our sovereignty but also our economy.
On the other hand, the Prime Minister’s “diplomatic relations with China” misunderstanding in Rio has created an avoidable diplomatic headache for Bhutan.
The controversial Rio Summit remark reported by a host of mainly Chinese international news agencies and met with a feeble and unofficial denial from the PM’s media team has not helped Bhutan’s good will or standing with both India and China.
Media reports show that a huge amount of public suspicion has been generated in India on Lyonchhen’s statement, which has never been seen in the history of Indo-Bhutan relations.
The contested Rio statement by itself is not so much the problem as the failure or stoic unwillingness of the elected government to clearly clarify and thus clear both domestic and foreign confusion on the issue.
Bhutan no doubt as a sovereign and independent country can make its own foreign policy choices but any major choices must be based firmly on national interests, detailed calculations, historical and ground realities.
Such a statement comes in the backdrop of unprecedented military and diplomatic rivalry between India and China, especially in the last two years over their borders in the Himalayan region. It also comes at a time when Bhutan is engaged in finalizing multi-billion dollar projects with India that once completed, can make Bhutan’s economy a self sufficient one. It also comes at a time when donors are increasingly pulling out of Bhutan at the start of another ambitious five year Plan despite all our GNH pronouncements to the world.
In China, the state media houses initially reported with enthusiasm on the news that Bhutan and China would be ‘soon establishing diplomatic ties’. The diplomatic relation ‘yes and no’ statement has created avoidable diplomatic confusion and put Bhutan in an unenviable position with China whom we have so far successfully avoided antagonizing or embarrassing. It has also complicated future boundary negotations.
Bhutan’s Realpolitik interests have not been well served with the Rio statement and have instead sent wrong and confused signals to our two biggest neighbors’ one of which is our biggest developmental partner and time tested friend.
While the foreign ministry and the elected government must be recognized for lifting Bhutan’s international profile, it is equally if not more important, for the government to recognize and secure our own Realpolitik interests especially in our own backyard.