Sunday, July 09, 2006

After Nathu La, India Faces Chinese Challenge in Bhutan

By C. Raja Moha, Indian Express

New Delhi; July 7, 2006 -- As it regains access to the Tibetan markets by throwing open Nathu La pass after 44 years, India is being compelled to cope with an important downside.

It is the emerging Chinese challenge to India's special relationship with Bhutan.

While Sikkim and Tibet celebrate the renewed trade links between the two regions across the Sino-Indian border at Nathu La, Bhutan is bracing up to new pressures from China to establish diplomatic and trade ties.

As the only country in the sub-continent that does not have a normal relationship with China, Bhutan has discussed the implications of trade at Nathu La with the Indian Government at the highest political levels in the last couple years.

Having opened its own borders for trade with China, New Delhi may not find it easy to argue against Thimpu from doing the same with Tibet.

The unfolding dynamics for an open border between Tibet and Bhutan, which may now be unstoppable, could radically alter the triangular relationship between New Delhi, Thimpu and Beijing.

This in turn could force a reconsideration of India's traditional security arrangements in the eastern Himalayas.

Ever since New Delhi and Beijing announced their intent to open up Nathu La, in June 2003, an anxious Bhutan has been examining the long-term consequences for its own policy towards the giant northern neighbour.

India, which enjoys a special relationship with Bhutan under a 1949 treaty, is acutely conscious of Beijing's relentless effort to normalise ties with Thimpu and the incentives it had put on the table.

At the core of Beijing's diplomacy towards Bhutan has been the offer of a generous settlement on the disputed boundary if Thimpu opens up trade and political ties. China has never accepted India's claims for an exclusive sphere of influence in Bhutan and other Himalayan Kingdoms.

Traditionally Bhutan has been reluctant to establish diplomatic relations with China. And amidst deteriorating Sino-Indian relations in the late 1950s, Bhutan, in a gesture of goodwill to Delhi, had closed its own borders with Tibet.

All that is now up in the air, with India agreeing to let the geo-strategic Chumbi valley become a trade corridor with China.

Bhutan's western borders with Tibet form the right shoulder of the Chumbi valley, which juts into narrow Siliguri corridor that connects India to the North-Eastern provinces.

The Chumbi salient provides easy access to Bhutan, Sikkim and the southern slopes of the Himalayas. India is fully aware of the many concerns of Bhutan on opening up Nathu La.

While the border between Sikkim and Tibet has never been in dispute, Bhutan's 470-km-long border remains contentious. Some of these contested areas are on Bhutan's western frontiers with the Chumbi valley.

As India opens up the Chumbi valley for trade, Thimpu is likely to face strong internal political demands to open up the many traditional trade routes on the disputed border between Bhutan and Tibet, which are bound by geography, religion, ethnicity and culture.

Externally, China's rapid modernisation of its border infrastructure has already begun to make Bhutan nervous. Last year, Bhutan protested against Beijing's construction of roads on the contested border between the two countries. Although Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with China, it holds formal talks with the northern neighbour on the boundary dispute.

China has used these negotiations to tease Bhutan into a deeper engagement.

Sections of the Indian security establishment have been deeply concerned about the danger of a northern political pull on Bhutan in the event of a normalisation of relations with China.

Others in the government have suggested an action plan for early and rapid economic integration between Bhutan and India.When the King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, visited India as the chief guest of the Republic Day in January 2005, the two sides agreed to strengthen road and rail networks across the southern borders of Bhutan.

Meanwhile, the decision last year to let China into the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation as an observer has highlighted the increasing difficulty of maintaining the diplomatic status quo between Beijing and Thimpu.