There has been a flurry of international and national discussions on the purported news of the move towards establishment of diplomatic relations between Bhutan and China. This was based on supposed statements by the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lyonchhen Jigme Y Thinley and the Premier of China, Wen Jiabo when they had met along the sidelines of the Rio+20 summit.
The maximum news coverage of the meeting is visible in Indian and Chinese news agencies, reporting without having checked with the Royal Government of Bhutan on the actual interpretation or details of the statements.
There are some in the Indian media calling it a possible security threat to India; others say that it shows the growing maturity of India-China relations, and others point out that Bhutan is seeking a bigger role for itself in the international arena.
Some are even equating Bhutan’s move to that of Nepal’s that regularly uses the China card against India with varying effect and implications.
However, the reality is simple and also less exciting. To put the conversation between the Lyonchhen and the Premier in context; one will have to read the few complete stories of the interaction.
It was actually the Chinese Premier who brought up the need for formal diplomatic relations between Bhutan and China and so the Bhutanese Prime Minister was compelled to give a response.
For a follower of the limited Bhutan-China relations, this would be nothing new as Chinese leaders at various levels have declared their country’s wish to establish diplomatic relations with Bhutan in the past, especially during the boundary talks.
So what Lyonchhen is supposed to have said next should also not come as a surprise.
Bhutan’s Prime Minister without giving any time frame or firm commitment is quoted by the Chinese media as saying that Bhutan, “will establish formal diplomatic relations as soon as possible.” The operative word here is “possible” which does not mean a definite yes. Sources within the Bhutanese government deny that any firm time bound commitment was given to establish diplomatic ties and in fact that the Prime Minister was misquoted in places.
The official position of Bhutan in such cases is not to directly turn down China’s requests, but instead come up with any array of quite credible excuses. One has been that Bhutan as a least developed country does not have the resources as of now, to establish embassies in all major countries. The other excuse is that Bhutan has not as yet decided on having relations with any of the permanent five members of the Security Council – USA, UK, France, Russia and China.
In addition to this background, the Prime Minister of a small country cannot afford to directly refuse a public proposal from a leader of the world’s second superpower, which is also a close geographical neighbor. The supposed reply, “will establish formal diplomatic relations as soon as possible,” by Lyonchhen can be interpreted as a Bhutanese way of saying something without actually committing to anything, but also not offending the person making the request.
It is also not beyond the realm of possibility that in a time of increasing competition between India and China, a characteristically nationalistic and state controlled Chinese media would want to enthusiastically increase their country’s diplomatic mileage during such meets.
In short, it appears that Lyonchhen said nothing new nor gave any firm and time bound commitment on establishing formal diplomatic relations with China, but repeated a modified version of the ‘old one liner’ that got twisted way beyond its original intent or meaning.
Lyonchhen’s comment that Bhutan “stands by the one China policy” again is not a new statement. This is the same line taken by India and a majority of countries around the world. This has also been a generally unspoken but understood policy of the Bhutanese government.
Policy watchers and media outlets in India should not be unduly alarmed as Bhutan is still a close and strategic friend of India, and the only South Asian country which has not used or attempted to use the China card.