Source: The Hitavada      Date: 23 Feb 2018 10:26:41

ONE of the essentials of a healthy foreign policy is engaging small neighbours with cordial and compassionate outreach. A happy neighbourhood cements sound relationships that a big country like India can use as a foundation in its ambition of becoming one of the global powers. India’s relationship with Himalayan kingdom Bhutan is a perfect example of excellent neighbourly engagement characterised by co-operation, fine understanding and trust in each other. As the two nations celebrate golden jubilee of their diplomatic relations in 2018 the occasion provides India to further strengthen this exemplary friendship and smoothen out a few rough edges perceived by a section in Bhutan, especially during the 73-day-long stand-off with China in the Doka La plateau.

The Doka La face-off had tested India’s diplomatic mettle even as it avoided a military option against the unusually long Chinese aggression. That India managed to tame the dragon with subtlety instead of hostility was a huge diplomatic victory for the foreign policy-makers of the Narendra Modi Government. The stand-off was also a test of India’s unconditional support to Bhutan. According to former National Security Adviser Mr. Shivshankar Menon the Chinese aggression in Doka La was not just a military action but it was also a political goal of splitting India and Bhutan. Through its military might China was desperately trying to arouse an anti-India opinion in Thimphu. India not only managed to make Beijing realise its follies through strategic and strong diplomacy it also retained the trust the landlocked kingdom has in New Delhi by standing firm with Bhutan.

The milestone moment in Indo-Bhutanese partnership should be utilised to further keep the tiny nation away from Chinese influence. Though China and Bhutan do not share diplomatic ties it has been a consistent effort of Beijing to open up various channels to engage the kingdom. Bhutan has so far resisted the dragon’s attempts with generous help from India in trade, commerce, power, infrastructure and various other sectors.

The Indo-Bhutanese relations are unique as despite a big presence of India in every sphere of activities in Bhutan, New Delhi has insisted on the Himalayan kingdom retaining its own identity. The relationship has comfortably weathered Bhutan’s internal transition and its opening up to the wider world. In the words of former Canadian diplomat David Malone, “In spite of clear Indian dominance of its small Himalayan neighbourhood, the relationship has been a genuinely friendly, positive, and mutually respectful one, with India working hard to keep its own profile in Bhutan as low as possible and the Bhutanese mostly expressing appreciation for India’s contributions.”

India has managed to keep a low profile to date but there were a few voices of dissent during the Doka La stand-off where New Delhi was seen as an imposing big brother rather than a caring neighbour. Those concerns have been promptly noted which is evident from the unprecedented visit of Army chief Gen. Bipin Rawat, NSA Mr. Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary Mr. Vijay Gokhale to Bhutan last month to discuss strategic and security issues including the situation in Doka La region. China has been claiming Doka La as its territory despite no ethnic connection.

It is necessary for India to reach out to small neighbours like Bhutan to defeat the Chinese policy of encirclement. Beijing has already made foray into Sri Lanka by taking control of Hambantota port and setting up a special economic zone. There have been significant Chinese activities in Nepal. Beijing has also signed a Free Trade Agreement with Maldives. Keeping this in mind reaching out to neighbours must be the top priority for India.