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Who is bullying Bhutan, China or India?

(People's Daily Online)    13:28, July 12, 2017

On 26th June 2017, The Times of India posted a video on YouTube claiming to show Chinese and Indian troops jostling and shoving each other on what The Times commentator said is “Indian land” on the “Indian side” of the Sikkim border. He accused China of “aggression” and the Chinese troops of being “extremely aggressive.”

A few days later, it emerged that the dispute had nothing to do with Indian land. The China-India confrontation was taking place on the China-Bhutan border. Yet Chinese and Indian media quickly roused patriotic fervour and railed against each other.

Chinese media said India would be “kicked out”, “taught a bitter lesson” and “suffer greater losses than in 1962. One Chinese editorial mocked India’s claim to be defending Bhutan and accused India of treating Bhutan as a “vassal state” and forcing it to support India.

Meanwhile an Indian headline read: “China: The World’s Bully”, and another article called China “a geopolitical bully….The mere fact that a vastly bigger country like China is indulging in such antics against a peaceful neighbour like Bhutan shows the extent to which Beijing will stoop to, to occupy territory illegally, slicing it off like a salami, just like it's done with India.”

Through such welter of mutual recriminations and accusations, Bhutan’s media remained remarkably quiet and reserved, with “no aggressive posturing”, as reported by the Hindustan Times. And why should there be? The vast majority of Bhutanese have no interest in the remote, barren, high altitude Doklam Plateau, and have not even heard of it.

But the 89 sq.km. parcel does have strategic importance to India that sees Chinese presence there as a “dagger” pointed at its narrow and vulnerable 21-km wide “chicken’s neck” that links it to its northeastern states. And so, Bhutan’s initial quiet restraint was not good enough for India, and Bhutan quickly fell into line.

On 3rd July FirstPost headlines read: “Bhutan vents out first major disclaimer against Chinese, sides with India…” The article went on to say: “Bhutan, for the first time has taken a major stand against China's incursions …. Bhutan's stand against Beijing… goes on to show the country's unwavering alliance and support for big brother India.”

And that characterization itself raises a big question: Who precisely is bullying Bhutan? And what exactly are Indian troops doing on Bhutanese land in the first place? Just defending poor little Bhutan against big China’s bullying “aggression”? Who, in fact, is more seriously threatening Bhutan’s sovereignty and independence – China or India?

When “friendship” turns to control.

In fact, India has maintained a strong military presence throughout Bhutan for half a century, exercising its power and influence in every corner of Bhutanese life. Even in the remote and strategic areas of northern Bhutan, far from anything Indian, Indian soldiers exercise their authority and control the movement of local Bhutanese. Convoys of Indian military trucks travel freely across Bhutan and cannot be checked for contents by the Bhutanese authorities. The Indian army has occupied the Haa Dzong for decades, and has given no indication of handing it back to the Bhutanese. The Dzongs have since the time of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the founder of Bhutan, been a seat of power and a symbol of governance.

It is noteworthy that Indian troops’ efforts to block Chinese road construction on the Bhutan border are portrayed in Indian media as stopping China from building roads into India – revealing just how little respect the Indians really have for Bhutanese “sovereignty.” But such spin is not surprising. In Bhutan, the IMTRAT (Indian Military Training) General, and Indian Ambassador both residing in the two most prized real estates in the capital, are said to be the most powerful men in the country, even determining what does and does not get published in the national media.

When Bhutan obtained Asian Development Bank funding for a strategic highway linking its east and west, to avoid the necessity of Bhutanese travel through troubled, strike-prone and often violent Assam and West Bengal, India vetoed the plan. The highway was cancelled and Bhutan remains dependent on India’s grace and mercy for its own internal east-west transit. Just a few weeks ago an angry mob of Indians beat up a Bhutanese truck driver and set his truck on fire for being involved in a road accident.

But this Indian interference and infringement on Bhutanese sovereignty extends far beyond the military-strategic sphere into every aspect of Bhutan’s political and economic life.

Thus, Bhutan is the only sovereign independent nation in the world that has no diplomatic relations with any of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members – the US, UK, France, China and Russia – only because India, jealous of its exclusive hegemony over Bhutan and fearful of any competitive influence, won’t allow it.

Japan has long been a friend of Bhutan, helping fund many developmental projects in Bhutan. The Japanese wished to have an embassy in Bhutan, to foster closer ties and more development projects. However, firm plans and agreement to build a Japanese Embassy in Thimphu were abruptly cancelled, once again due to India’s disapproval.

When China invited Bhutan to exhibit at its Shanghai EXPO in 2010, offering a free pavilion that would be a central installation in the EXPO, India forbade Bhutanese participation. Independent sovereign nations from the world over took part in the EXPO sans Bhutan. India, even if they forbade Bhutan, went and participated in the EXPO, even building a pavilion of their own. India regularly nixes Bhutanese official and commercial missions and visits to China, though it conducts its own with impunity, apparently due to Indian disapproval of potential competition with its own overweening influence.

More ominously, India has blatantly interfered in Bhutan’s elections and political processes. India strongly objected to Bhutan’s former Prime Minister forging extensive new diplomatic ties and carving out an independent foreign policy, and was furious when the Prime Minister simply met and talked with China’s Premier at the Rio + 20 conference. And so, India decided to get rid of him.

Just days before the 2013 elections, India removed its subsidies on liquefied petroleum gas and kerosene, thereby doubling and tripling prices on these essential commodities, to signal its disapproval of the existing government. The cynical tactic worked, and a new government far more compliant and obedient to India’s will and interests was elected.

Hydropower – cooperation or colonization?

But the cornerstone of India-Bhutan “cooperation” for three decades has been the hydropower that is a cheap power boon to India’s growing economy, and which accounts for fully 40% of Bhutan’s revenues and 25% of its GDP. Indian financing, which has switched from 70% grant and 30% loan to 30% grant and 70% loan at higher interest rates, is also the direct cause of Bhutan’s escalating debt that has even further deepened Bhutanese dependence on India.

Since, July 2006, when Bhutan and India agreed to develop 10,000 MW of hydropower from ten large projects, the benign sheen of this apparent cooperation has quickly faded as commissioned projects were delayed and costs mushroomed. Costs jumped $US 240 million at Mangdechhu; they doubled at Punatsangchhu–II, and they tripled at Punatsangchhu–I (from $US 500 million to $1.5 billion), and no end in sight.

And those costs obviously don’t include massive environmental damages for which future generations of Bhutanese will pay. A recent report from India documented severe impacts on water bodies and resources, forest and wildlife loss, and heavy pollution. The same report, reinforced by Bhutan’s own government statistics, notes that hydropower has failed to develop local capacity and employment, with most contracts going to Indian companies.

According to the IMF, Bhutan’s government debt now stands at a whopping 118% of GDP up from just 67% six years ago, with India by far the largest creditor, accounting for 64% of Bhutan’s total debt. By comparison, India’s ratio of government debt to GDP is 70% and China’s is 46%. Why does that ratio matter? Because it’s used by investors to measure a country’s ability to make future payments on its debt, thus affecting the country borrowing costs. Higher borrowing costs worsen debt further.

A recent British report on global debt lists Bhutan as one “among 14 other countries that are fast heading towards a debt crisis.” The report details hydropower’s rapid loss of economic viability, and concludes: “Should the hydropower sector’s financial performance continue to deteriorate, Bhutan’s solvency could be threatened.”

How convenient will that be for India? And what conditions will it attach to bailouts and pleas for loan forgiveness?

In this day and age, sovereignty and independence are much more likely undermined by economic than political control, albeit in far more subtle and hidden ways. So, the definition of “bullying” these days must go far beyond the old-fashioned geopolitical border disputes, however minor and insignificant, that still make for good press in TV images of jostling Chinese and Indian soldiers.

Time to ask hard questions – that can’t be publicly asked in Bhutan!

It’s time, if not long overdue, to question how benign India’s intentions are in Bhutan. How much “cooperation” is actually “exploitation” and “domination? And, how much of India’s foreign aid to Bhutan (now nearly $US1 billion a year) actually signifies mounting control and interference on one side and growing dependence and erosion of sovereignty on the other?

But of course, with Indian control of Bhutanese expression and politics, those questions will never be asked in Bhutan’s supposed free “democracy”. Just imagine if Bhutan’s daily Kuensel newspaper or its state-run Bhutan Broadcasting Service radio and television dared to publish this article. Unimaginable! How ironic that India, the world’s largest democracy that prides itself on its own free speech, utterly suppresses it in its “friendly neighbour”.

And here’s another question equally impossible to ask: How might it benefit Bhutan to warm up a bit more to China, and even to establish diplomatic relations with its huge northern neighbour, cooperate economically, and welcome selective Chinese aid and investments in Bhutan’s infrastructure?

After all, our connection with China already goes far beyond the political and economic to a deep cultural and spiritual affinity. For example, Bhutan shares directly with China the profound wisdom, texts and traditions of Mahayana Buddhism. China today is experiencing an unprecedented Buddhist revival that creates a natural and intuitive bond with Bhutan.

In fact, Bhutan is already benefitting directly from the resurgence of Buddhism in China. From one end of Bhutan to the other, from the giant Shakyamuni Buddha statue at Kuensel Phodrang in Thimphu to the giant Guru Rinpoche statue at Takila in Lhuentse, monasteries, temples, ceremonies and rituals are maintained, sponsored and supported through Chinese donations and contributions.

For all the fawning gratitude, praise, and adulation Bhutanese officials regularly heap on India for its “special relations” with Bhutan, what word of acknowledgement or appreciation do these officials ever utter for the steady, quiet Chinese support for our precious Bhutanese culture and traditions? Support, incidentally, that comes with “no strings attached” and no crippling debt burden!!

And this shared culture and tradition is a major reason for the surge in Chinese tourists flocking to Bhutan, now greatly outnumbering tourists from any other country. And while the Chinese all pay top dollar on expensive tourist visas to visit Bhutan, thus making China by far the largest contributor to Bhutan’s tourism industry, Indian visitors come for free, requiring no visa of any kind. Sorry to say this, but ask any hotel owner in the country who their least favourite, least respectful and most troublesome guests are, and they unfailingly say “Indians”.

The Prime Minister of Bhutan has agreed with India and promised to sign the South Asian Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA). This would open up Bhutan to cars from India, Nepal and Bangladesh; further strengthening India’s hold on Bhutan. Just imagine Bhutan’s roads filled with Indian cars, taxis, buses and trucks. Indian tourists would come in busloads, totally over running Bhutan’s carefully planned ‘quality of quantity’ tourism policy that has helped protect Bhutan. Indian presence would increase, Bhutan’s roads would be destroyed by the increased traffic, resulting in more DANTAK presence to come ‘repair and maintain’ the roads, our pristine environment would be destroyed. It is interesting to note that the Prime Minister of Bhutan has agreed to sign this agreement, even if the National Assembly of Bhutan has voted against it. Showing how he is willing to do whatever the Indians want.

And despite the absence of diplomatic relations, Bhutan’s commercial relations with China are already quietly flourishing beneath the surface – all the way from yak-herders on Bhutan’s northern borders to Thimphu merchants dependent on Chinese imports, whose quality often far exceeds comparable Indian products.

In short, might Bhutan benefit in more ways than one by slipping away from total domination by one of its neighbours and instead strategically playing off and leveraging China-India competition to its own advantage?

But questions (let alone policies and solutions) like these are an unwritten “no go zone” in Bhutanese politics and media. Indeed, it is a telling mark of the sinister extent and penetration of Indian control and subjugation of Bhutan that no politician or journalist dare touch such questions with a ten-foot pole.

Interestingly, India is unwittingly aided in such suppression of free speech and other human rights by the utter failure of western human rights groups even to notice. Rather the west seems intent on drawing attention to human rights violations in countries like China, which has grown so rapidly into an economic powerhouse that its global reach now threatens western interests. Conveniently for India, it poses no such threat and escapes western scrutiny.

Yes, China may occasionally though very rarely “flex its muscles” in minor border disputes, as India accuses. But compared to Bhutan’s actual ground-level experience and interaction with China, isn’t India’s domination and subjugation of Bhutan far more intrusive, pervasive and insidious, extending into every portion of Bhutan’s social, political and economic fabric?

Are there any Bhutanese out there who dare even to ask? 

This article is republished from the Facebook page of BHUTANESE FORUMS.

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(Web editor: Wu Chengliang, Bianji)

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