Bad news for Beijing from Thimphu

Beijing will not relish the result of the National Assembly election in Bhutan. The People’s Democratic Party has come back to power for the second time. Its leader Tshering Tobgay who is known to be friendly to India is the Prime Minister of Bhutan again. It will now be all the more difficult for China to push through in the Himalayan kingdom its agenda of gaining control of strategic territories on the Indian border. King of Bhutan Jigme Kheshar Namgyel Wangchuk who is the final authority in his kingdom being a firm friend of India, there is little chance that Chinese designs in Bhutan will succeed.

PDP has won the election with a thumping majority, securing 30 of the 47 seats in the National Assembly for which elections were held on January 7, 2024.  The rival Bhutan Tendrel Party has been restricted to 17 seats. It is all the more disheartening to Beijing that Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa, the party of the outgoing Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, had lost the election in the primary round, held on November 30, 2023.

Under the election rules in Bhutan, polling is held in two phases: the primary round and the final round; with only the two parties securing the highest and the second highest number of votes in the primary round contesting in the final round.  In the primary round, too, the PDP had an overwhelming lead, securing about 43 percent of the total votes polled; while the DNT polled about 20 percent. The ruling DNT could secure only about 13 percent of the total votes polled and was placed in the fourth position among all the five parties that had contested in the primary round.

Geographically, the PDP has almost swept central, western and southern Bhutan, with the rival BTP winning the majority of the seats in eastern Bhutan. Particularly in southern Bhutan, bordering India, the PDP has complete sway. This will help cementing the relation between India and Bhutan further, it is pointed out, and make it all the more difficult for China to find a foothold in Bhutan.

During the stint of Lotay Tshering as the Prime Minister from 2018 to 2023, the Bhutan Government, through its acts of omission and commission, had given China some concessions in the Himalayan kingdom.  In 2021, Bhutan and China signed a three-step roadmap to speed up the settlement of the border dispute between the two countries. At the 25th round of border talks between Bhutan and China held in Beijing in August 2023, a cooperation agreement was signed; outlining the responsibilities and functions of the Joint Technical Team on the delimitation and demarcation of the boundary between the two countries.

Bhutan was urged at the meeting to establish full diplomatic ties with China. Besides, with Lotay Tshering in the chair of the Prime Minister, China has set up a few villages in the Doklam Plateau to claim the disputed territory as its own. Beijing has also been putting pressure on Thimphu to become a member of the Belt and Road Initiative so that China can extend to Bhutan roads and railway lines through the Tibet plateau; to serve Beijing’s end of geopolitical dominance.

Lotay Tshering had landed himself in a controversy by stating in an interview to a Belgian newspaper that in the border dispute at Doklam plateau China had an equal say. Later, he had to retract his statement with an explanation that what he had meant was that all the three countries — Bhutan, India and China — were equal stakeholders in the Doklam plateau.

Tshering Tobgay took over as the Prime Minister of Bhutan in the first stint in 2013 when Indo-Bhutan relations were passing through a rare rough patch, mired in the controversy over the supply of cooking gas to Bhutan. Tobgay’s predecessor, Jigme Thinley, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Bhutan, was too close to Beijing for New Delhi’s comfort. Tobgay had helped to put the Indo-Bhutan relations back on an even keel.

Most importantly, the Doklam crisis of 2017 took place when Tshering Tobgay was in chair. The Chinese army tried to take control of territories of Bhutan, particularly a high ground in the Doklam plateau called Zompelhri ridge where the Royal Bhutan Army had a post. The aim of the Chinese army was to take control of the high ground to make Indian positions on the border vulnerable and to threaten the strategic Siliguri corridor. The Prime Minister of Bhutan did the right thing by seeking military assistance from India to prevent the Chinese army from making incursions into Bhutanese territory. Indian troops intervened and prevented the Chinese army from extending a road to the Zompelhri ridge.

The PDP election manifesto has promised that the move to impose Sustainable Development Fee on Indian tourists will be reviewed. When Bhutan reopened tourism to the Himalayan kingdom in August 2022 after the pandemic, the Lotay Tshering government imposed on tourists from India and other SAARC countries a Sustainable Development Fee of Rs 1,200 per person per day. The existing SDF on international tourists was also increased from $65 to $200 per day.

This move has since made it difficult for middle-class Indian tourists to visit Bhutan. This has damaged the people-to-people relation between India and Bhutan. Tour operators and taxi operators in Bhutan, too, have resented this decision as their business has been badly affected. Middle-class Indian tourists form the bulk of the tourist traffic to Bhutan.

Even if the SDF rate on Indian tourists is lowered from the present prohibitive rate, it will help Indians to visit Bhutan. More Indian presence in Bhutan will prevent the spread of Chinese influence in the Himalayan kingdom, analysts point out.

To begin with, the system introduced by the Lotay Tshering government of collecting Nu 10 from Bhutanese citizens entering the country through Phuentsholing will be done away with, says the PDP poll manifesto. This will help traders and businessmen in the Indian border town of Jaigaon and deepen relations between India and Bhutan.

The poll manifesto of PDP has promised the undertaking of a series of developmental plans in southern Bhutan, along the Indo-Bhutan boundary, to strengthen the economy of the Himalayan kingdom. These will help to strengthen the economic bond of Bhutan with India and cut out the need for Thimphu to seek help from China by agreeing to any Belt and Road Initiative project in Bhutan.  Among these is the proposal to carry out feasibility studies for the setting up of airports in south and east Bhutan which will boost both tourism and trade. One of the plans is to allow the establishment of casinos in the southern border towns to attract both investment and tourists.

To facilitate the arrival of tourists from India, the PDP proposes to open up the borders and establish entry and exit points for tourists at Samdrup Jongkhar, Nganglam, Pemagatshel, Gelephu, Samtse, Panbang, Zhemagang and Jomotshangkha. This, too, will facilitate the arrival of Indian tourists to Bhutan and develop people-to-people contact between the two countries. This will also prevent the growth of Chinese influence in Bhutan.

PDP has plans to set up dry ports at Pasakha, Phuentsholing, Samtse, Gelephu, Sarpang and Samdrup Jongkhar; all of which are close to the border of India and connect them with the network of Indian railways. With a railway line already planned to connect Pasakha with the trunk routes in north Bengal and other railway lines being planned to be extended to Bhutan from Assam, the offer of Beijing to build a railway connection to Bhutan from Tibet over high mountain passes may not have any taker any longer.

PDP also has plans to develop Samtse, close to the Jalpaiguri district of north Bengal, as a special economic zone. With PDP having plans to sign free trade agreements with Bangladesh and Nepal, all the cargo between these countries and Bhutan will pass through north Bengal, the natural route. Already, trade between Bangladesh and Bhutan is being carried out through north Bengal.