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Bhutan’s special relationship with India

India does not exert hegemony over its immediate neighbourhood, at least not to the degree that would be expected in the case of any other large country aspiring to global recognition as a big power. Measured against their size and economic power, practically all neighbours, except China, would have to bear the full set of consequences of political, economic and military domination of a giant like India anywhere else on the globe. One among India’s smallest neighbours deserves a special attention with regard to its “natural” claim to independence: the Kingdom of Bhutan. This small country is located in the Himalayan mountain range on the north-eastern border of India. It supplies India with all the surplus of the hydro-power it generates thanks to its location in the Himalayas. This power export is Bhutan’s first foreign currency earner, the second being mountain tourism. India occupies a position of monopoly customer, which could, in principle, infringe on the supplier’s independence. But the Himalayan kingdom enjoys all the qualities and rights of a sovereign, independent State. Bhutan is an informative case with many respects. Look back half a century and you will find, along the mountainous border between the giants India and China, three kingdoms, from West to East: Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, each with a majority Buddhist population and each strategically and economically dependent on the giant neighbour to the south: India. Recent history shows how far countries, which seem comparable in many regards, can differ in their actual development. Nepal first: We may remember the killings in the royal palace and the disastrous end of the royal dynasty in Nepal a few years ago. The dynasty was obviously not fit for sound government. Then Sikkim: We may vaguely remember the case of Sikkim, where the ruling dynasty was even less fit for government and had to be replaced by Indian rule and then annexation for their own sake. Thus, the small kingdom became a member State of the Union. Finally Bhutan: This kingdom is still alive and doing very well domestically, in its relations with its giant neighbour India and in international affairs with the world. A completely different development! This was possible because, since 1911, the country has been graced by the rule of an exceptionally wise and responsible dynasty. Up to now, it has had five kings, who have all demonstrated a unique quality: decency and a profound sense of duty and responsibility for the well-being of the nation beyond any comparison with other monarchies. The third and the fourth king initiated and implemented the transformation of an absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy, initially against a reluctant people! and introduced democratic elections of Parliament and Government. Ministers are very well-educated and trained and non-corrupt. A few years ago, the fourth king stepped down before retirement age and had his son crowned as the fifth king, guaranteeing, thus, a smooth transition to the benefit of the country and the people. Bhutan’s Government is able to implement independent policies in domestic, regional and international affairs and has succeeded to gain a strong independent profile. Beyond all economic and social parameters, the country has developed a unique concept called Gross National Happiness, a set of parameters and policies which aim at the well-being of the people and the country and contain responsible criteria of sustainable development. The current prime minister is an internationally much respected expert in this field. India’s material dominance cannot be ignored or avoided, but it has not taken the form of hegemony. It is rather a sort of benign friendly neighbourly relations. Geographically and topographically, Bhutan is turned towards south and has the other giant neighbour, China, so to say “in the back”. That is the reason why Bhutan still has no formal relations with China. One major challenge for Bhutan is the development of the transport and energy infrastructure in its mountainous topography. Other challenges are the diversification of the economy, which is still dominated by traditional agriculture, and the diversification of the country’s almost exclusive dependence on India as buyer of its hydro-power. With all its economic and strategic vulnerability, Bhutan still serves as a most telling example of how India, out of natural inclination, refrains from abusing of its potential to dominate. In a region where power relations between states are not balanced by institutional structures of cooperation, India stands for decent neighbourly relations, which cannot be said of other global powers, particularly in that region.

5th June 2013 / Philippe Welti

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