Foreign relations refers to the ongoing management of relationships between a public policy administrative organization of a state and other entities external to its authority or influence. The primary goal of such organizations is therefore to create, develop and manage foreign policy and therefore describes relationships as seen from the self-interested perspective of the state when viewing the international milieu.
Therefore, to develop foreign relations, a foreign policy must be developed for each country which is an instrument to serve the national goals, interests and aspirations of a country. The Foreign Policy of a country is framed in a way so as to follow the changing contours of international politics, so as to preserve and promote the national interests. It has to be flexible enough to adjust itself to the changing dynamics of the global order. The domestic milieu of a country plays a significant role in shaping its foreign policy. To a great extend, foreign policy is a reflection of the domestic dimensions of a country, its needs and priorities and strength and weaknesses. Therefore, Foreign policy is shaped by certain objective conditions like geography, socio-economic conditions etc on one hand and the other changing dynamics of international policies on the other. A successful Foreign Policy requires a balance between these two dimensions. My paper here focuses mainly on the Bhutan’s relations with the two giant neighbors China and India.
Foreign Policy Goals
It is imperative for Bhutan to keep in mind its diplomatic history and the various influences on its foreign policy as this will help to provide a proper direction for its diplomacy in the years ahead. The direction it takes must help realize the vision of His Majesty the King to achieve peace, security and prosperity Gross National Happiness, and building a dynamic democracy. It must also realize that being a small country, Bhutan cannot afford to fail in any of its diplomatic endeavors.
The actions of the foreign ministry as well as other agencies of the government in the international arena must being perfect synchrony. Any variance or deviation can lead to failures that are inimical for the sovereignty and national security of the country.
The following are the primary and permanent goals of Bhutan’s foreign policy.
- To preserve and maintain national sovereignty and territorial integrity, including air space.
- To enhance and maintain national security.
- To contribute to the economic prosperity and social wellbeing of the people.
- To promote sustainable development through the expansion of trade and development of a dynamic economy.
- To contribute to national self reliance and Gross National Happiness.
The first three constitute the core of Bhutan’s foreign policy endeavors’ that take precedence over everything else as the primary objective of diplomacy is to ensure the survival of the nation as a sovereign independent state. In today’s world, sovereignty has no meaning if this is not accompanied by economic self reliance. Therefore, economic prosperity and progress is vital to maintaining national sovereignty. The political and economic objectives should be pursued in tandem with each other.
The third Annual Ambassador’s Conference (4-13 July 2001) identified the following basic platforms, which are relevant even today, on which Bhutan’s true strength could be projected in order to realize its foreign policy goals:
- Strategic importance of Bhutan both in the traditional and modern sense, as a buffer state between two often polarized giant powers.
- Cultural uniqueness and culture fragility of Bhutan.
- Bhutan as an environmental wonder and her environmental wealth.
- Unique political and institutional arrangements of Bhutan.
- Development partnership.
- Philosophy of Development: Gross National Happiness.
- Social Skills of Bhutanese.
- Emphasize Bhutan’s role as a valued member of the international community.
- Appeal to the media.
- Bhutan as a good place for foreign direct investment.
For Foreign Ministry, which is the chief arm of the Royal Government of Bhutan for the implementation of Bhutan’s foreign policy, there are four overarching areas of the work that will be the focus and preoccupation of the Foreign Ministry and its Embassies and Missions. These areas are:
I. Maintaining excellent relations with the immediate neighbors;
II. Mobilization of different forms of resources for the country’s development ;
- Addressing the issue of the people in the camps and its related issues; and
- Ensuring effective RGoB participation in UN, regional and other international forums.
In addition to the above, there are other matters such as expansion of diplomatic relations and establishment of resident missions in Thimphu that also have to be examined.
Bilateral relations are an integral part of Bhutan’s diplomacy. Bhutan has established diplomatic relations with 21 countries and the European Union. Many of these relations were formalized in 1980s, at a time when Bhutan was expanding its engagement in international affairs and was fully on a path towards modern development.
Relations with India
Bhutan has done very well in managing its relations with India. The manner in which Bhutan has pursued and handled its relations with India is a success of Bhutan’s diplomacy. From a period of personal friendship between two leaders, relations have matured to form a long lasting friendship. Bhutan has worked hard in enhancing its relations with India and this has yielded significant results. The revision of Treaty of Friendship with India in 2007 is a clear reflection of the maturity of this friendship and the confidence that the two countries have in their relations.
As Bhutan moves ahead as a democracy and under a new treaty, it is in Bhutan’s national interest to continue to promote and build upon the strong relations with India. Further, geo-political realities dictate such a policy. However, promoting relations with India should not be at the cost of the national interest. It is important to strengthen the partnership in a manner that allows Bhutan to grow politically and economically. As democracies, the commitment and the direction for further enhancing relations with India needs to come from the politicians and the political parties. As such, it will be important for the political parties of the two countries to build good understanding and close association. Bhutan should encourage and facilitate the interaction of political parties form Bhutan and the prominent political parties in India as early as possible. A good way to start would be to begin with exchange of visits. Bhutan could have key members of the political parties of Bhutan visit India to meet their counterparts from the different political parties in India. The visit could be reciprocated with a visited to Bhutan by the members of the political parties in India. The political parties from the two countries could then work towards having an annual exchange of visits, leading up to an Annual conference, alternating Bhutan and India. The objective of such interaction would be to foster close cooperation, good will and understanding between the political parties of the two countries, which will have a positive effect on the overall relationship between the two countries.
Bhutan will also need to cultivate and follow closely the rise and young and upcoming politicians of India, such as Rahul Gandhi, Saching Pilot, Omar Abdullah etc. Cultivating them can help to strengthen future relations.
There is a need to institutionalize the good relations between the two countries, starting from the highest level. Bhutan needs to establish a formal arrangement where political dialogue and discussion can take place at the highest level. For instance, a Summit Level Meeting at the Prime Ministerial levels could provide both sides to take stoke of the state of relations as well as provide the political commitment and direction to further enhance relations. The Summit could have different themes.
Formalize an arrangement for exchange of visits by the head of states every two years. Such visits at the highest level will enhance bilateral relations and greatly add impetus to strengthening Bhutan’s sovereignty and image in India.
Formalize arrangement for official bilateral meetings at the Foreign Minister and Foreign Secretary level annually. These talks could then build up to the Summit Level Meeting between the two Prime Ministers.
Work out a structured exchange of visits at the cabinet level. This should be pursued and encouraged vigorously. Encourage State visits such as the Tourism Minister, Power Minister and other relevant Ministers visit Bhutan regularly to facilitate cooperation in their respective areas.
The Annual Home Secretary level talks on Security Matters every year are a good forum to discuss security related issues. This is the kind of formal arrangement that Bhutan should have in all areas. The same could be replicated between the Trade and Commerce Ministries of the two countries. It would help resolve trade disputes.
Establishing a Consulate in Kolkata with a senior official as the Council General with the mandate to promote political, economic and trade relations with the Govt. of West Bengal is a very good initiative of Bhutan. Local Governors should keep in regular contact with their counterparts from the neighboring cities like Siliguri and New Jalpaiguri.
A Consulate should be opened up in Guwahati with the mandate to promote political and economic relations with the Government of the State of Assam.
Government of India (GOI) has been the largest donor of Bhutan since the inception of its planned development process. However, India’s share of contribution to Bhutan’s planned development process has been decreasing over the years mainly due to diversification of Bhutan’s external assistance. Today, GOI’s assistance accounts for about 50% of the total external assistance that Bhutan receives. In the 9th Plan India’s assistance amounted to Rs.17, 274.570 million and for the 10th Plan, India has committed Rs.28 million.
While maintaining India as a major donor for Bhutan, following could be explored to diversify sources of assistance for Bhutan’s socio-economic development:
- Funding of large projects by major industrialists in India
- Private-public partnership in infrastructure development
Organizing a CEO Roundtable Meeting between RGOB and the Indian Private Companies to discuss ways to expand economic ties, promote public-private partnership, and steps to promote investment and greater trade could perhaps be useful.
Pursue two pronged approach to development of the power projects: one with the GOI as per existing model and two, with the Indian Private companies and identify few private companies, such as Tata, Reliance, Jaypee to enter into partnerships to start joint ventures in consultation with the Department of Energy.
On the Promotion of trade, Bhutan should formalize on an annual basis, policy consultation at the secretary level to discuss bilateral trade issues as well as WTO matters and institutionalize linkage between the BCCI and the Business Chambers in India as well as linkages with the business chambers of West Bengal and Assam.
FDI policy to be made more favorable to India by organize a CEO Roundtable Meeting between RGOB and the Indian Private companies to discuss ways to expand economies ties, promote public-private partnership, and steps to promote investment and greater trade also by inviting leaders of Private Indian companies to Bhutan to study the prospects of investing in Bhutan.
India has world-renowned engineering, management, medical and computer institutes. Collaborative Programmes with Indian institutions would also be highly cost effective. Further, the technology and facilities available in India are most relevant for Bhutan. Most Indian institutes of Technology (IITs) have signed MoUs for Collaborative programmes with other renowned foreign universities, research institutes and industrial organizations throughout the world. This programme includes students and faculty exchange, joint research and fellowships for training at doctoral and postdoctoral level. Bhutan’s engineering institutes could collaborate with few IITs to have access to their faculty, train our faculty, design relevant academic programmes and in future, undertake joint research. Similarly, we could conclude MoUs with a few Indian Institutes of Management and even good medical colleges. Funding for such ventures could be explored with GOI.
Relations with China
The manner in which Bhutan has been able to conduct its relations with China and India in a most effective manner is yet another success of Bhutan’s diplomacy. Bhutan has never played one against the other and instead worked towards cultivating the best of relations with both countries within the confines of geo-political realities. The manner in which Bhutan has balanced its relations with India and China is certainly a success of Bhutan’s diplomacy and has only laid the foundation for relations to grow in future.
Relations with China is today marked by tremendous goodwill and understanding despite the absence of formal diplomatic relations. The two countries have been engaged in bilateral talks regarding the demarcation of the Sino-Bhutan boundary since 1984. Till date 18 rounds of talks have been held alternately in the two capitals, Beijing and Thimphu, with the last one being held in Beijing from 16-17 August 2006. Pending the final settlement of the boundary question, the two governments continue to abide by the 1988 Guiding Principle signed during the 5th Round of Talks and the 1998 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Bhutan-China Border Areas signed during the 12th Round of Talks. The signing of these Agreements is considered very significant in relations between Bhutan and China as they are the first bilateral agreements between the two countries. The Annual boundary talks have provided an excellent opportunity for consultation between two countries on all areas of mutual concern of a national, bilateral, regional and global nature.
There exists excellent cooperation at the UN and international fora. Bhutan has consistently supported China’s position on the resolutions relating to the human rights situation in China. China has reciprocated by supporting Bhutan at the Sub Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. In May 2001, Bhutan made a statement in support of China’s position to block Taiwan’s bid for observer status in WHO. Likewise during the 56th UNGA, the Bhutanese delegation made a similar intervention in support of one China policy, when the issue of Taiwan was discussed in the general committee. The Chinese government has greatly appreciated Bhutan’s support at the UN and other international fora.
China has also demonstrated its sensitivity towards Bhutan’s concerns by refusing a Japanese mountaineering expedition, Marco Polo Japan Inc. , permission to climb Mount Gangkar Phuensum from the Chinese side in April/May 1999, following a request made by the RGOB.
RGOB has appointed Dr. Cheng Yu-Tung to serve as Honorary Consul of Bhutan in Macao and Hong Kong.
The settlement of the boundary dispute with China is one of prime objective and goal of Bhutan’s foreign policy. RGOB should make all efforts to resolve the boundary dispute through the boundary talks as soon as possible. One of the main preconditions for resolving the boundary dispute settlements, China has settled these disputes with other countries only at a time when relations were good. Chinese cannot fathom resolving the boundary dispute with Bhutan in the absence of formal relations. It is not in keeping their culture. From that perspective, the RGOB may have to consider formalizing relations with China. Going by past trends, it may not be possible to settle the boundary dispute without fulfilling this precondition. It would be in the interest of Bhutan to settle the boundary disputes now for a stronger China in future may negotiate from a position of strength.
Bhutan and China have cooperated well at the UN and other multilateral fora. Bhutan has been very realistic in supporting China in the UN and multilateral fora on issues that are close to their heart. Chinese have greatly appreciated this gesture on our part, which has contributed to the tremendous goodwill that is prevalent between the two countries today. RGOB should continue China on these issues as this will help maintain the cordial relations that have been built so far.
Despite absence of diplomatic relations, Bhutan and China has had very good relations. The policy on development of political relations should be to further build on this good relation. Bhutan must, however, not appear too overzealous and the strengthening of relations should be done in a gradual and cautious manner in tandem with the growing of relations between India and China. As felt by certain quarters in India, both India and Bhutan could closely consult with each other to craft a relationship with China that does not affect relations between them. It is felt that this could lead to the development of good relations between the three countries that is sensitive to each others’ concern and mutually beneficial to all. There is also a need to develop expertise on China in the Ministry. Bhutan’s understanding on China is from secondary sources, so there is a need to train officers who would have a firsthand understanding of China and in the long run, it would help build capacity within Ministry on China.
China has been able to cultivate good relations with all countries in South Asia, both politically and economically. Its economic influence is visible in all South Asian countries as China provides consistent economic aid to some of them.
China likes to provide its assistance on a turnkey basis and has strings attached. China like to implement its assistance through it s companies most of which are state-owned or controlled and stresses on the use of Chinese laborers. For instance in Bangladesh, China brought in seven hundred laborers from China to work on a coal mine started with Chinese aid even though Bangladesh had enough laborers. One of the main objectives of Chinese companies working abroad is to explore different avenues and opportunities for Chinese companies to invest. Therefore, Bhutan needs to be very cautious in terms of furthering economic relations. There is a quiet but visible development taking place in the private sector with regard to China. With many Bhutanese visiting China for business, there is increasing interaction between Chinese and Bhutanese business. Chinese products are available everywhere in Bhutan. Recently, private companies, such as Tashi have tied-up with a Chinese company for their mobile services. Interactions between business people will inevitably increase in future. While RGOB should be cautious in terms of receiving assistance from China interactions such as this, which benefit the business people of Bhutan, should be encouraged.
The foreign policy issues are significant for small and under developed countries like Bhutan which are faced with the challenges of preserving and promoting national identity and securing and seeking support to its process of development. Bhutan’s economic structure is fragile and weak and has very limited resources. Water and forests constitute the major resource base. In today’s world system it is not possible for any country to keep itself isolate from the outer world. Despite Bhutan’s historical, geographical and socio-cultural limitations, it has to allow exposure of the country to the outer world.
Bhutan has defined its development goals in terms of maximizing people’s happiness. Yet it, being a resource scarce country, need external co-operation. The challenge to Bhutanese foreign policy is that it cannot allow unrestrained and unlimited co-operation and similarly the issue of preservation of cultural identity is important. This calls for the regularization of foreign policy in a way that the external influences do not affect its traditional cultural fabric. Bhutan cannot bear the burden of being ambitious on foreign policy issues.