The sidelines of the ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ summit witnessed what many in the regional and international press called a ‘historic meeting’ between the Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay and the US Secretary of State John Kerry.
The meeting was ‘historic’ as it was the senior-most meeting between a US official and a Bhutanese head of government.
The, meet and greet, is part of a growing interest shown by the world’s sole superpower, USA, towards Bhutan.
American interest in Bhutan is, however, not a recent phenomenon. American diplomats meeting Bhutanese leaders over the years have directly or indirectly indicated interest in establishing closer ties with Bhutan.
Bhutan’s engagement with America is also not new as one major example of indirect cooperation is USA resettling large numbers of people in the camps from Nepal in USA.
At the regional level Bhutan’s revised 2007 friendship treaty with India gave Bhutan complete say in its foreign affairs, allowing the potential for cooperating with new like minded partners.
At the Asian and international level, the USA has been focusing on its ‘Asian Pivot’ strategy to strengthen its existing partnerships and find new ones in Asia, which is increasingly becoming important at the global stage for economic and strategic reasons.
A more innocent cue can be taken from President Obama’s first trip to Africa being to democratic and reform minded Ghana rather than his own ancestral Kenya. This was meant to send a signal to the African continent on USA’s appreciation for countries, no matter how small, that have vibrant democracies. John Kerry’s genuine appreciation for Bhutan’s reforms and democracy is an indicator too.
However, it can be surmised that the overwhelming and main reason for USA’s interest in Bhutan is due to Bhutan’s strategic ‘buffer state’ location in between the world’s two emerging superpowers of India and China.
As a part of its increasing strategic and economic interest in Asia, the USA has been keeping an eye on the rise of China.
There has been an effort over the years to stitch up a loose alliance or network of countries in Asia to ensure the ‘peaceful rise’ of China. This means that in addition to existing allies like Japan, South Korea and Philippines the USA has tried to rope in India, Indonesia and smaller ASEAN countries with varying degrees of success. China in the meantime has also been trying to extend its strategic footprint, and one such area is South Asia where strategically located countries like Sri Lanka and even Maldives are deepening their engagement with China.
So where does Bhutan stand to gain or lose in all this and how should we proceed?
As pointed out by both His Majesty the Fourth Kinga in the past and His Majesty the King in recent times the key cornerstone of Bhutanese foreign policy has always been India.
Bhutan has a special place in the Indian strategic and foreign policy calculus, and as a result, enjoys the benefits in the form of developmental aid and projects. No other country is close to even matching India’s economic investments in Bhutan.
Apart from the history and sentiments and even if seen from a purely strategic angle the strategic cooperation between India and Bhutan is defensive in nature. In other words it is not aimed offensively against any third country.
USA or any other friendly power wanting to engage with Bhutan, at whatever level, should realize that Bhutan is a largely neutral country in the Asian power game. While we share close and defensive strategic ties with India we also cannot afford to make China upset.
It in fact serves neither the interest of Bhutan nor any of its diplomatic partners to raise the hackles of China. Bhutan shares a long northern border with China and though we have border disputes the border has remained peaceful. In short while Bhutan has a close friend and ally in the South, it also does not have nor want an enemy in the north.
Bhutan has also so far maintained a traditional line of not establishing diplomatic ties with any permanent five countries of the UN Security Council.
The USA in recent times has also been accused by its much bigger and closer Asian partners of first committing a lot, and later not being there to back up its friends when there is real trouble.
At the regional level it is also interesting to note that there are real efforts being made to strengthen ties between India and USA especially with President Barack Obama being a Republic Day guest this year in Delhi.
However, all of the above ground realties do not mean that Bhutan should shut its door to engagement with the USA or on the other hand throw caution to the wind. Bhutan should do it in incremental steps in keeping with its own core national interests that are intimately linked to the regional ground realities.
At the end of the day there have been no better and practical strategic geniuses for Bhutan than our Kings and it is from them that we should take our ultimate cue.
Opinion by Tenzing Lamsang/ Editor-in-Chief