History and diplomacy influence each other. It is particularly so for countries with shared borders and historical memories. If Bhutan did not have normal diplomatic relations with China for over 60 years, the reason had much to do with history. Historically, Tibet was the conduit for Bhutan’s relations with China. Things changed dramatically in the Himalayan region when communist China took control of Tibet in 1951. Bhutan was alarmed and shut itself off from its giant northern neighbour. Since the 1980s, the two countries discussed the border dispute between them and even signed an agreement in 1998 to maintain peace on the border. But old suspicions stood in the way of Bhutan forging formal diplomatic relations with China. The small Himalayan nation has now made a brave new beginning by deciding to establish such ties with Beijing. The decision is “of historic significance”, as Bhutan’s prime minister, Jigme Y Thinley, put it, not only for the two nations but also for the entire region. It is a measure of Bhutan’s increasing self-confidence. It also reflects the anxiety of the new political regime in Bhutan to end the country’s isolationist history. Bhutan has full diplomatic relations with only a few countries. But having such ties with China is not just an exercise in neighbourhood diplomacy.
New Delhi will be watching closely how this new episode unfolds in the Himalayan corner. It is certain that Bhutan took India into confidence about its new encounter with China. Bhutan’s borders and security have long been part of India’s strategic interests. There are important locations in the region where the borders between the three countries meet. Historically, too, Bhutan has always looked to India for support against potential threats from the north. Bhutan’s decision to open up to China is best seen as part of a new initiative across old frontiers. India and China have been partners in this initiative for some years now. It was almost inevitable that Bhutan would like to join it. Benefits from reopening old trade routes are obvious. But there is also the hope that trade would be an important tool for easing tensions along disputed borders and among suspicious neighbours.
However, for the only country in the world that measures development in terms of the ‘gross national happiness’, engaging with a major economic power has to be a cautious affair. Bhutan will need to learn how to open up and still retain its uniqueness. Engaging China comes with its historical baggage, especially for countries in the Himalayan region. Misgivings about Chinese aims and strategies persist, despite new initiatives. What Beijing does with its new ties with Bhutan could set the stage for other engagements in the region.