Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal might all be India’s neighbours, but it is China that they are more likely to see as their friend.
In a line that could have been lifted from a Carpenters song, Pakistan’s new prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf highlighted as much recently, talking about a friendship “higher than the mountains”.
Dhaka, Kathmandu and Colombo coo in a similar fashion about their Beijing ties, with Sri Lanka famously crediting China with helping it to win its war against the Tamil Tigers.
But Bhutan – the tiny Himalayan kingdom wedged between north east India and Tibet – has always been staunchly in New Delhi’s camp, largely as a result of a border dispute with Beijing.
During Bhutan’s years of non-engagement in international affairs, Delhi has effectively conducted the country’s foreign policy and India continues to train the Bhutanese police and military. Bhutan still only has full diplomatic relations with about two dozen countries, the US and the UK not among them.
So it likely came as a shock when the Bhutanese prime minister Jigmi Y Thinley met Wen Jiabao on the “sidelines” of the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development in Brazil last week. He even expressed a wish to establish full diplomatic ties between the two countries.
“Bhutan is willing to settle border issues with China in a cooperative manner, enhance bilateral economic and trade cooperation and people-to-people and cultural exchanges, and carry out close communication and coordination in international and regional affairs,” Xinhua quoted Thinley as saying.
In China, the report initially went unnoticed, but in India it caused quite a stir.
“China’s coziness with Bhutan rings security alarm for India,” warned a headline in The Times of India and the article went on to call Wen and Thinley’s meeting a “surprise”, with “huge implications for strategic calculations in the region”.
The Indian Express also pointed out that “any settlement of the Bhutan-China border is significant for India as the disputed Chumbi Valley is 500 kilometres from the Siliguri corridor which connects India to its northeastern states.”
The Indian government tried to play the matter down, suggesting that it was far from a done deal and briefing that it had all been proposed with its blessing anyway.
China’s mainstream media tried to send a message that there was nothing to fear, but a few outlets stuck a more triumphant tone
“It is natural for Bhutan to choose China,” wrote the website Caixun. “Bhutan used to be China’s vassal state, they have golden dragons with four claws on their national flag while Chinese emperors have golden dragons with five claws. Bhutan people believe that they come from the Yarlung valley in Tibet, so their roots are here.”
Such sentiments are not going to placate India’s hawks.
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