Bhutan is neither a ‘vassal’ nor a ‘protectorate

This is just a correction of certain terms being used by Chinese and Indian media outlets to describe Bhutan.

Recently a Global Times article mentioned Bhutan as a long time ‘vassal state’ of imperial China until the British influence in Bhutan from 1911 onwards.

Forget about a Bhutanese leader, there is no historical record of even a Bhutanese farmer going to China to ‘kowtow’ to a Chinese emperor.

The Chinese imperial troops never reached the borders of Bhutan.

Instead, Bhutan has successfully defended its sovereign borders against its much bigger neighbors, and even made territorial conquests in some cases.

It is this successful defense of its sovereignty, over the centuries, ensuring that Bhutan is an independent and sovereign nation to this day.

When Bhutan fought the mighty British Empire in 1864-65, Bhutan did it very much on its own with no foreign assistance. The British concluded a peace treaty with Bhutan after the war and not with China.

There are a ton of other evidences to cite, but the above should be more than enough to dispel any nostalgic Middle Kingdom notions of suzerainty.

In short, Bhutan never has been and never will be a ‘vassal state’ of any country.

Some Indian and Chinese media outlets or articles have used the term ‘protectorate’ ( of India ) to describe Bhutan.

This is another major misnomer.

Bhutan, is not a protectorate of India, but an independent and sovereign country with its own territory, identity and leadership.

A ‘protectorate’ would not decline the BBIN agreement that India was eagerly pushing for and which even the normally more argumentative Nepalese meekly agreed to.

A ‘protectorate’ would not be an active and much appreciated member of the United Nations like Bhutan.

A ‘protectorate’ would not have the indigenous philosophy of GNH, which is not only well recognized but even adopted in varying degrees by countries, big and small.

A ‘protectorate’ does not put on hold four joint venture hydro projects with India on the basis of Bhutan not being happy with certain Cross Border Trade in Electricity guidelines from India.

Even prior to the Friendship treaty of 2007 the assumption in Bhutan was though India may advise Bhutan on its foreign affairs, it was up to Bhutan to make its own decision as a sovereign country.

So the 2007 treaty was not just a change in wording, but recognized and re-affirmed the ground reality of Bhutan’s independent stance in its own affairs – foreign or domestic.

So, no, Bhutan is not a protectorate of India by any stretch of the imagination.

Bhutan is a friend and ally of India due to our mutual interests.

Yes, Bhutan does not do things that could infringe on India’s core interests, but that is a conscious choice, made by Bhutan. It is not to please India for the sake of pleasing India. It is also not a free ride for India.

In that sense, this practical relationship will work – if it recognizes that both countries are equal partners, and any action or lack of it, should be in the collective mutual interest and not necessarily skewed in one way.

This piece is not to put down any Chinese or Indian journalist, but to only set the record straight on the two terms used in some media outlets and articles.

By Tenzing Lamsang

The writer is the Editor of The Bhutanese.

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  1. Shrikant salunkhe

    Sir, u r right. And we all Indians admire it…we enjoy our historical friendship and relations….there is no question about Bhutans soverignity. However we have been taught in schools that Bhutan is the only country in the world which has remained independent since it’s formation. We love Bhutan.

  2. Bharatiya Australian

    Bhutan and India are connected by mutually trusted umbilical cord which respects each others soverignity and will cooperate to make not only progressive econimic development of our citizens but also stand together strong so that evil expansionist minded selfish irresponsible so called super powers are kept at bay. Arrogant chinese who have problems with all its neighbours except mother ship of terrorism. It is funny they talk about chinese soverignity without showing guilt about encroaching soverignity issues of its neighbours un relation to south china sea, building roads in India’s legal land under Pakistan occupied Kashmir, showing impunity and casting evil eye on Bhutan.

    World is ready to teach Bully and Arrogant chinese a good lesson.

  3. Thank you Tensing,
    As an American and an appreciator of Bhutan, its people and culture I agree with what you say. Bhutan must never be swayed into the Chinese lair which they are desperate to do. No better an example than the takeover of Tibet, a sovereign nation. Nor must India overproject its influence without respect and a balance of trade. Bhutans wealth comes from its water. As we say in Hawaii, “water is Life”. I am deeply hoping that with the generation of electricity Bhutan will be able to disperse its income among its people to upgrade their standard of living, invest in infrastructure improvements and rural development and become less dependent on tourism. Please wan your people of the Chinese infiltration of your politicians.India is your best bet to stay free and we here in the U.S will lobby for strong support for Bhutan.


    We have great respect for the Bhutanese people. We are also very apprehensive of Chinese policy of slow encroachment into Bhutanese territory. The Great Wall was their original western border. The insatiable Chinese hunger for land has drawn them to the doorstep of Bhutan & India.

  5. I am a sri lankan and a buddhist obviously intersted in bhutan. Hope to visit bhutan one day. Also we sri lankans are friends with chinese. We have a problem with india because they supported tamil terorists. Tamil nadu politicians ans people xonstantly create problems to tiny sri lanka. Northen india are friendly to sri lanka.
    I hope this problem get solved peacefully

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