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Squeezed by an India-China Standoff, Bhutan Holds Its Breath

Since signing a friendship treaty with India in 1949, Bhutan has relied almost exclusively on India for its defense. To this day India trains and pays the salaries of the Royal Bhutan Army, while its engineering corps builds and maintains Bhutan’s hairpin mountain roads. The exact number is not public, but India usually keeps 300 to 400 troops in Bhutan.

The relationship has evolved along with the country itself, and as fears that Bhutan could be subsumed by China have faded.

In 2006, Bhutan’s revered fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated after overseeing a democratic transition that culminated in elections for a national assembly in 2008 and 2013. The advent of parliamentary politics has generated increased debate about further opening a country that did not allow television until 1999.

And after decades of tilting almost exclusively south, Bhutan has begun looking north to China.

In 2012, the prime minister at the time met with his Chinese counterpart at a Group of 20 summit meeting in Rio de Janeiro. Not long afterward, India cut subsidies to Bhutan for cooking oil and kerosene. The move was widely seen as retaliation, and the ruling party in Bhutan lost the next election.

Part of the lure of better relations with China is money. In addition to the shuttle trade, there is tourism, one of Bhutan’s biggest industries. Indians do not need visas to travel to Bhutan, but Chinese must pay $ 250 a day in advance for vacation packages. Still, for the first time last year, more visitors came from China than from any other country besides India.

Chinese fascination with Bhutan bloomed after one of Hong Kong’s biggest movie stars, Tony Leung, married the actress Carina Lau here in 2008. The wedding three years later of the current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, also stoked interest after footage of it went viral in China.

Pema Tashi, who manages Happiness Kingdom Travel and advertises “a sojourn in paradise,” caters to Chinese clients with eight guides who speak Mandarin. He complained that there were no direct flights between Bhutan and China, and expressed suspicion that India had worked to prevent a normalization of relations that would open up such routes.

“We try to protect the interest of our big brother,” he said, referring to India, “but they feel that if we get closer to the north, we might not be as dependent on them.”

Source: NYT > World

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