Bhutan Faces Challenges As it Sits Between Asia's Biggest Powers

Feb 19, 2018
Originally published on February 19, 2018 7:24 am
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Let's turn now to Asia, where there is some hostility between India and China, and that is creating new tensions in the region. NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to the tiny kingdom of Bhutan to see how smaller countries are navigating the widening rift between these nuclear-armed giants.


JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: A river runs through Bhutan's Haa Valley, cascading from the mountains that separate Bhutan from the world's highest plateau, Tibet. Haa City is the last outpost before the Chinese border to the north. India is to the south. The Buddhist kingdom sits in between Asia's biggest powers. The two faced off this summer just 13 miles from here on an inhospitable spot known as Doklam. There, the Chinese began building a road on land Bhutan claims for its own. India rushed in troops.


MCCARTHY: One recent Sunday, this 65-year-old farmer, who goes only by the name Kado, performed the annual blessing of his home. He says the altercation at Doklam made an impression.

KADO: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "We were all worried because if the situation got worse, we didn't know where it would end up." Bhutan and India have a unique rapport. India provides the lion's share of Bhutan's development budget and is committed to protect the landlocked country, a defense that's hard to miss in Haa and is testament to how close relations are. Just below me is a sprawling Indian army garrison complete with a golf course. But Indian troops also stir resentment. They use the valley's renowned dzong, or fortress, which is also a Buddhist monastery. Kado calls it a cultural affront.

KADO: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "We told Parliament that the dzong should be given back to the people, but the Indians are not easy to chase out,"' he says. Historian Karma Phuntsho says India should not only pull out of the dzong but withdraw its military from Bhutanese soil altogether.

KARMA PHUNTSHO: Because Bhutan has its own army, and we trust India to come and help us when we need. And I think the perception people unfortunately have of India being as imperialistic and controlling as China wouldn't be there.

MCCARTHY: Indian and Chinese soldiers went toe-to-toe over land claimed by both Bhutan and China. No shots were fired, and no Indian land was involved. But historian Phuntsho says strategic interests were. He says India wanted to check China from advancing on the disputed territory because it lies near a strip of land that connects India's small eastern states with the Indian mainland. The corridor's called Chicken's Neck.

PHUNTSHO: If the Chicken's Neck is effectively cut off, one can see a serious problem for India.

MCCARTHY: Many Bhutanese say privately that India was defending its own interests rather than Bhutan's when it challenged China. Doklam was not a fight over a desolate piece of land, but a struggle for power, two rivals competing to dominate the region. India may have seen China's road-building on the Tibetan plateau on par with China's construction of artificial islands in the contested South China Sea, but Bhutan Institute for Himalayan Studies founder Sonam Wang says Bhutan is not that vulnerable.

SONAM WANG: So I don't think, you know, China would blatantly come and gobble us up. I don't think that's as simple as that.

MCCARTHY: But older Bhutanese remember China's bloody takeover of Tibet in the 1950s and distrust Beijing. Young Bhutanese, on the other hand, like Needrup Zangpo (ph), only know China as prosperous and rising.

NEEDRUP ZANGPO: Bhutan should increasingly warm up to China because we have a sea of prosperity right in the north, and we don't want to forego this.

MCCARTHY: But Bhutan must move carefully as it balances China and India. Phuntsho sees Doklam as a symptom of brewing geopolitical tensions between the two Asian powers.

PHUNTSHO: The bellicosity and the war-mongering attitude of the two big countries, it could lead to terrible human tragedy.

MCCARTHY: If, he says, a war breaks out. Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.