Why Should Tiny Bhutan Matter to the U.S.?

Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs María Otero is the Obama administration's most senior official to have visited Bhutan, a petite nation lying hidden in the Himalayas between India and China. Though a significant move by Washington, Otero's visit last month to discuss global issues in the capital city of Thimphu gained little media attention.

Few Americans have heard of Bhutan, and those who have know this nation for Buddhism and happiness. Though coined in the early 1970s, Gross National Happiness – emphasis on people's happiness as opposed to economic prosperity – is still featured by the Western media as "news." Bhutan, for them, is just the "Last Shangri La," a feast for tourists.

Bhutan seems insignificant on several counts. There are more people in Fort Worth, Texas than in the whole of Bhutan, which is half the size of South Carolina. And then, until a few years ago, Bhutan was India's protectorate. Till today, the U.S. mission in India is the de facto embassy to Bhutan. So many may wonder if the United States and India have warm relations then why should Washington establish formal diplomatic relations or seek to engage with Bhutan.

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Bhutan should no longer be seen as India's satellite country. A 1949 treaty which gave India a say in Thimphu's foreign policy was revised in 2007 – a year before Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy with its first democratic elections in 2008. Washington acknowledged this change. Barely two months after the treaty was amended, U.S. Ambassador to India Dr. David C. Mulford paid a "goodwill" visit to Bhutan.

Bhutan has gone a long way since then. It now has diplomatic relations with several European nations, including Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and Switzerland, which shows that Thimphu is gradually coming out of New Delhi's shadow. Though still influenced by India, Bhutan votes independently at U.N. forums. But India-Bhutan relations are still overrated in the media.

The "mind" of Bhutan's foreign policy is no doubt with India. But the "heart" of Thimphu's leadership harbors suspicion.

An absolute Buddhist monarchy until recently, Bhutan had little choice but to be friends with "religious" India, as opposed to China, a communist country. China's occupation of Tibet, Bhutan's neighbor, in the mid-20th century and the ensuing cultural invasion must have reassured Thimphu that its decision was wise. But two and a half decades later, Bhutan's other small neighbor, Sikkim, also lost its independence. This time, it was New Delhi's doing.

India was still a better bet. For topographical challenges coupled with economic and political isolation had made Bhutan completely dependent on Indian aid for survival. While maintaining relations with "soft" India, Bhutan began to secure its territory with its distinctive culture and identity.

Bhutan's cultural homogeny is valuable and attractive, but it also tells the tragic story of geopolitical anxieties faced by most small, landlocked nations. This anxiety, real or perceived, often victimizes minorities. When Bhutan sought to unify its culture by imposing the national language Dzongkha in education and by tightening citizenship laws in the late 1980s, the ethnic Nepalese minority, mostly Hindu, protested. Their protests were naturally interpreted as a grave national threat and were dealt with accordingly. Over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese ended up as refugees in Nepal. The United States has graciously accepted thousands of them as part of U.N.'s third country resettlement program.

However, today, Bhutan seems more confident. In April 2010, Bhutan hosted a grand meeting of the South Asian bloc, SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), for the first time. Bhutan's confidence is also visible in the significant improvement in its human rights record. The Bhutanese citizens are now being given greater democratic liberties as the government can afford moderation in its policies.

This self-assurance is apparently based on Bhutan's increasing interaction with foreign nations, mostly those seen as peaceful and neutral. Foreign dignitaries visiting Bhutan and Bhutanese leaders travelling abroad are routine stories in the local media. The U.S. engagement with Bhutan can further enhance this developing sense of poise among the Bhutanese leadership, which, in turn, will help the United States achieve at least some of its strategic interests in Asia.

It may take decades for China to overtake the U.S. as the next superpower, but Washington is already weary of Beijing's growing clout in Asia and elsewhere. Bhutan is the only nation in South Asia that has maintained distance with China. Bhutan should be rewarded for that, lest nations conclude they will have to play the China card to milk Washington.

While Thimphu is not likely to invite New Delhi's wrath by engaging with Beijing in the near future, one cannot predict what may happen a few decades later. How many analysts were able to foresee the ongoing political reforms in the Arab world, for example?

Moreover, Bhutan is a member of the United Nations and has a vote. Even one vote is valuable given that Muslim-majority nations, under the aegis of the Organization of Islamic Conference and backed by China, are fighting an ideological battle against democratic values being promoted by the United States. For example, Washington needs to defeat the Islamic Conference's resolutions against defamation of religions being passed at various U.N. forums. While "disinterested" India has normally abstained in the defamation of religions voting, Bhutan has voted in favor of these resolutions, which seek to curb freedom of expression internationally.

Furthermore, given U.S. efforts to promote religious freedom around the world, Bhutan can be engaged to protect the rights of the Hindu and Christian minority – the latter is yet to be recognized legally. While the government of Bhutan can be trusted to gradually grant the rights they deserve, encouragement by the United States will help a great deal.

However, the lack of formal engagement between the United States and Bhutan cannot be blamed on Washington alone. Thimphu, too, has apparently been apprehensive of Washington.

Bhutan's current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, who shapes the country's foreign policy, studied at Phillips Academy, Cushing Academy and Wheaton College in Massachusetts. But he has maintained a policy of "entertain, but not engage" with the United States.

Perhaps, there are two main reasons behind this. One, Bhutan seeks to protect its boundaries by preserving and exhibiting its distinctive culture while engagement with a powerful Western nation can lead to Westernization. Two, Bhutan does not have enough manpower or the intelligence resources to independently deal with influential nations or understand their interests.

To bridge the trust gap with Bhutan, the U.S. should send more high-level delegations to Thimphu to define and develop some common interests, no matter how small, to start with. The U.S. or agencies funded by it can also offer aid for the various development projects underway in Bhutan – though Washington may need to take New Delhi into confidence first.

But for that, Washington needs to realize the need. During his visit to Bhutan, former U.S. diplomat Mulford had said, "There are no disadvantages [of not having diplomatic relations with Bhutan] for either of us and in my opinion, there is no need to move ahead quickly and try to do that because there is no real driving necessity," as reported by Bhutan's Kuensel daily on April 18, 2007. Four years later, perhaps it is time to act.

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