Bhutan Defense and Foreign Policy

Foreign policy and defense

Bhutan is a nation in Southern Asia. Its capital city is Thimphu. Bhutan has very close relations with India, while contacts with China are strained. India and China can be seen as competitors for the influence over Bhutan, sandwiched between the two neighboring giants. Relations with Nepal have long been hampered by a conflict over Nepalese-displaced refugees in two camps in eastern Nepal.

Bhutan Defense and Foreign Policy

Bhutan’s contacts with the outside world have long been very limited. Throughout the 20th century, foreign affairs were handled first by Britain and then India. But in the 1960s, the country began to gently open itself up to the outside world. Bhutan joined the UN in 1971.

Nowadays, Bhutan has formal diplomatic relations with more than 50 countries, including Sweden, which are also part of a group of European nations that account for a significant portion of aid to the country. Diplomatic relations have also been established with the EU. Bhutan, on the other hand, lacks formal relations with all the permanent members of the UN Security Council, including China and the United States.

In February 2015, as the first US Secretary of State, John Kerry held a meeting with Bhutanese government representatives, including the then Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, in connection with a visit to India.

India is by far the most important trading and cooperation partner. Two thirds of foreign aid comes from neighboring countries. India’s position as a protective power was removed without obligation when the two countries’ special friendship agreements were updated in 2007. Bhutan gained greater self-determination on international and military issues, and further strengthened economic cooperation. Among other things, there is free trade and passport freedom between the countries. India and Bhutan are also cooperating on security issues along the border.

At the end of the 1990s, Bhutan encountered problems with Indian resistance groups from Assam establishing strongholds in the country’s southeastern part. After a series of failed negotiation attempts, the Bhutanese army in 2003 went on offensive against the rebel forces. The effort was successful. The rebels were driven out and quantities of weapons seized. A number of rebel leaders were sentenced to prison. During the 2010s, there has been occasional reports that rebels from Assam have occasionally returned to Bhutan.

Relations with China deteriorated drastically in connection with the turmoil in Tibet in 1959, when several thousand Tibetans fled to Bhutan. In the 1980s, the two countries began discussions about the boundary between them. They signed an agreement on peace in the border area in 1998, but since then more than 20 rounds of talks have been held without the border issue completely resolved. Bhutan believes that the Chinese have built roads into Bhutanese territory and that the Chinese military has crossed the border on several occasions. In 2017, the situation worsened when Bhutan was supported by Indian military after Chinese soldiers crossed the border at the disputed Doklam Plateau in north-west Bhutan. For two months, the armies of China and India faced each other in a post war in the mountain area before the emergency situation was resolved.

During the 2010s, China and Bhutan have to some extent approached each other, especially under the DPT government that ruled Bhutan between 2013 and 2018. Bhutan can be said to have become a tile in the game between the two Asian giants India and China competing for influence in South Asia. During the same period, India has increased its aid and trade with Bhutan. In April 2019, Bhutan rejected an invitation from China to participate in a forum on Beijing’s major infrastructure initiative BRI (Belt and Road Initiative, or New Silk Road), which extends from East Asia via Central and South Asia to Europe.

Contact with Nepal has been tense since the late 1980s, when tens of thousands of people fled from southern Bhutan to Nepal (see Population and Languages and Modern History). However, in the 2010s, countries began to negotiate trade and possibly establish diplomatic relations. Trade with Nepal has increased steadily in recent years.

Bhutan is a member of the regional cooperation bodies Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and Bimstec (Bay of Bengal Initiative for MultiSectoral Technical Cooperation). When the country hosted a summit in Saarc in 2010, it was seen as a clear sign that the previously isolated country now has a more active role in regional and global contexts.

The army consists mostly of volunteers, but a certain degree of military service also exists. The education is run by India. A home defense force protects important facilities. In addition, there is also a royal bodyguard force, a semi-military police force and an armed forestry force. A total of about 8,000 people.