The November APEC summit in China concluded with “historic” news – on agreements about climate change, trade, visas, and other issues. But the triumphal headlines do not mask the cold reality: Beijing is moving steadily to supplant U.S. power in the region, and replace the American-led international system with one of its own. Nowhere is this effort more obvious than in the largely underappreciated geopolitical contest in South Asia, where China has aggressively extended its sphere of influence. Washington should not accept China’s challenge as a fait accompli but should rather seek to buttress the prevailing international order by strengthening U.S. ties with states large and small, protecting their sovereign rights from Chinese hegemony and, essentially, giving the nations of South Asia something to choose over a “Chinese order.”
This effort should begin – perhaps counterintuitively – with Bhutan, the small Himalayan kingdom nestled between China and India. About the size of Switzerland and with a population of around 730,000, Bhutan – known as Druk Yul, or Land of the Thunder Dragon – has a long-standing border dispute with China rooted in China’s claims to what it considers greater Tibet. China claims about 4,500 square kilometers of northern Bhutan, a staggering ten percent of the land-locked country’s total area.
Beijing has a strategic interest in Bhutan’s imposing peaks, especially an area in northwest Bhutan abutting the Chumbi Valley on the borders of Tibet and Sikkim. These mountain passes provide access to a part of India known as the Siliguri Corridor, or “the chicken neck.” It is a narrow strip of land that runs from central India to its northeastern states that could pose a strategic vulnerability to New Delhi should hostilities break out between China and India. To highlight the permeability of Bhutan’s border and Bhutan’s tenuous control of its countryside, China occasionally sends military convoys into northern Bhutan uninvited. These repeated incursions, in the words of one observer, show how China may “muscle” its way into Bhutan, “just as it has annexed territory over the objections of South China Sea claimants Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and, most recently, Indonesia.”
In response, India has increased its assistance to Bhutan, going so far as to station Indian troops in disputed areas, train Bhutanese soldiers, and build infrastructure to help rebuff Chinese incursions.
The United States and Bhutan have never had much of a relationship. Bhutan was never colonized and lived in self-imposed isolation for much of its history – television was banned until 1999 and, until recently, tourism was rare. During the early twentieth century, the United Kingdom handled Bhutan’s external relations. After World War II, India took Britain’s role until 2007 when Bhutan gained full control over its foreign affairs. Today, the U.S. has little trade with Bhutan. The American diplomatic post in New Delhi handles whatever Bhutan-related issues arise, and, according to the State Department, only “several” Bhutanese travel to the U.S. through government-sponsored programs every year and a paltry “few” Bhutanese have attended courses at the Defense Department’s Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. While Bhutan joined the United Nations in 1971, it does not have diplomatic relations with any of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the United States and China.
It is time to write a new chapter in the U.S.-Bhutanese relationship. Indian and Bhutanese interests alone are not all that is at stake high in the Himalayas. The United States should take a more active role in the region as a sign that it will contest Chinese dominance and support burgeoning democracies in South Asia. Bhutan is the logical, if often overlooked, place to start. There is both a realist’s case and an idealist’s case for doing so.
The realist’s case recognizes the strategic value of Bhutan in and of itself and what it means for the other small states of South Asia. A Bhutan under Chinese sway would threaten India. But even more, as a matter of precedent, the U.S. cannot allow China to alter the territorial status quo of the countries on its periphery, much as Russia has in Ukraine, and China itself has in the South China Sea. For both Russia and China, the playbook is simple: Raise doubts about the inviolability of sovereign lines with repeated incursions, even if they are limited, or if the sponsor state’s hand is hidden. If China crosses the Bhutanese frontier often enough with impunity, China’s claim to Bhutan’s territory will become stronger. And other states – from Nepal to India – will be on notice that they could be next.
More broadly, as Fareed Zakaria notes, “China has begun a patient, low-key but persistent campaign to propose alternatives to the existing structure of international arrangements in Asia and beyond.” In the past year, Beijing has launched a full-court press in South Asia, constructing ports in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, and overtaking India as the biggest foreign investor in Nepal. China, which is openly lobbying for full membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), has promised almost $200 billion worth of increased trade and investment in South Asia and recently announced a $40 billion investment in promoting development along the old “Silk Road” in South and Central Asia. In October, China established a twenty-nation Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as an alternative to the World Bank, which, notably, Bhutan did not join. In fact, Bhutan is the only country in South Asia that does not have diplomatic relations with China, even though China has offered to increase its investment there and is currently building the world’s tallest Buddha in Bhutan’s major city.
Some may argue that the U.S. should concentrate its efforts on bolstering its relationships with major South Asian powers, like India. But Washington should not restrict its focus to the large countries. Developing a relationship even with tiny Bhutan would reaffirm America’s commitment to South Asia and demonstrate the vitality of the current international order.
The idealist’s case for stronger U.S.-Bhutanese relations recognizes the laudable journey on which Bhutan has embarked toward liberal democracy. Under the leadership of its Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan chose, without foreign pressure or internal strife, to shift from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. In July 2008, it adopted a constitution that contains many liberal democratic provisions: It established universal suffrage, an independent judiciary headed by a Supreme Court, a powerful anti-corruption commission, parliament’s power to force the abdication of the king, and the tenets of equality and sustainable development as principles of state policy, among others. One writer called Bhutan’s internally driven transformation “one of the most astonishing and unique transitions to democracy witnessed by scholars so far.” Bhutan has already had a successful transfer of power between political parties, and a Harvard-trained engineer is now prime minister. In its commitment to sustainable progress, democracy, and the rule of law, Bhutan is, as one public policy analyst put it, “trying to build a future that much of the world wants.”
Of course, Bhutan is far from the perfect “Shangri-La” of lore. A quarter-century ago, tens of thousands of Bhutanese of Nepali extraction (often referred to as “Lhotshampas”) lost their citizenship and either fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries or remained in Bhutan but without citizenship, an outcome of Bhutan’s policies of strict ethnic nationalism. Bhutan should do more to protect the rights of Nepalese in Bhutan and address the plight of those who have fled the country. But greater Western engagement would only help Bhutan strengthen its commitment to ethnic rights and find a way forward. The same could hardly be said for greater Chinese influence.
So what should the United States do? To begin with, it should speak out in defense of Bhutan’s territorial claims against Chinese aggression. And it should reward Bhutan’s decision not to join the Chinese version of the World Bank by providing alternative USAID infrastructure funding. Next, the State Department should invite more Bhutanese to the United States and the Defense Department should institute regular visits by Bhutanese military officials to military training centers. The American Chief of Mission in India should visit Bhutan as a sign of American commitment and to lay the groundwork for the eventual establishment of official diplomatic relations between the two countries, if Bhutan agrees. American efforts should complement (and not supplant) those of India, Bhutan’s most important ally. A small state can have more than one big friend.
These may seem like minor initiatives in a tiny country sandwiched between two enormous ones. But such an approach can have an outsized impact. By standing with the small states, like Bhutan, the United States will live up to its own best traditions – protecting the weak against the strong, standing by those embracing (however imperfectly) liberal democratic values, and buttressing an international system on which global prosperity and peace have rested for decades.
Matthew F. Ferraro (@MatthewFFerraro) is an attorney whose article, “Stateless in Shangri-La: Minority Rights, Citizenship, and Belonging in Bhutan,” was published in the Stanford Journal of International Law.
Update: According to social media reports, in Bhutan on December 22, 2014, Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay met with Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, the Charge d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. According to Stephens, they “discussed the strong U.S.-Bhutan partnership.”