India, Bhutan: No more unequal treaties

Posted in India | 17-Jan-07 | Author: Sudha Ramachandran| Source: Asia Times

BANGALORE - Long looked on by its smaller neighbors as a big brother or a bully, India appears to be moving toward an image makeover. New Delhi's decision to revise an unequal treaty with Bhutan will not only remove an irritant in its relations with that country but it also could remove the sting from criticism of India's "hegemonistic ambitions" in the region.

India and Bhutan are revising the 1949 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, which has hitherto provided the framework for bilateral relations. India has a similar but less offensive treaty with another Himalayan neighbor, Nepal, which was signed in 1950.

India and Bhutan have reviewed the 1949 treaty over several meetings during the past six months. A new treaty is likely to be signed in a few months when Bhutan's new king, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, visits India.

While details of the new treaty have not yet been revealed, India's Ministry of External Affairs has said that the changes in the 1949 treaty "reflect the contemporary nature" of India's relationship with Bhutan and aims at strengthening the ties in a "manner that is responsive to and serves each other's national interests through close cooperation". It will enable the "further intensification" of cooperation in hydropower, trade, commerce and human-resource development.

Relations between India and Bhutan have been warm. Bhutan is easily India's closest friend in the neighborhood. India is Bhutan's largest donor, accounting for almost 80% of its foreign assistance, and its largest trade partner. It has contributed generously to infrastructural development in Bhutan. Besides, India provides military training to the Bhutanese forces and maintains a permanent military training presence in Bhutan.

Whether in the United Nations or in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Bhutan has stood by India. It has endorsed New Delhi's position on a nuclear-weapon-free zone in South Asia, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the 1998 nuclear tests at Pokhran, and so on. And it has acted to address India's security concerns.

In 2003, on India's urging, the Royal Bhutan Army launched military operations against anti-India insurgents such as the United Liberation Front of Assam that had set up bases on Bhutanese soil. This was in sharp contrast with the response of Bangladesh, which despite India's requests has simply denied the presence of anti-India insurgents on its territory.

Although India-Bhutan relations have been largely trouble-free, there is an irritant. Bhutan has not been comfortable with Article 2 of the 1949 treaty. It feels that its sovereignty is circumscribed by this provision. India sought to address this to some extent by supporting Bhutan's membership in the UN in 1971.

Under the 1949 treaty, India has a significant role in Bhutan's external relations. Article 2 requires Bhutan "to be guided by the advice of India" in the conduct of its external relations, and Article 6 allows Bhutan to import "arms, ammunition, machines, warlike material or stores" for its "strength and welfare" but with India's "assistance and approval". It is believed that the new treaty will allow Bhutan to pursue a more independent foreign policy.

According to a report in the Indian Express, the language in Article 2 "will be replaced by 'language of friendly cooperation' that, in effect, will give a free hand to Thimpu in international affairs as long as it does not act against Indian interests". As for Article 6, it is likely that "the idea of prior Indian approval for every military purchase will be relaxed". It is likely that "Bhutan will not require any such approval in purchase of non-lethal military stores and equipment. There will be influence in the form of assistance in making all military purchases" but "this will be reflected in the revised treaty more in the form of advice than control".

An unequal relationship between two sovereign countries defined in a treaty is an outdated idea, and this appears to have prompted India to make the treaty more equal and contemporary.

Bhutan has been quietly raising the issue of revising the treaty with India for several years, and although India did realize that this was necessary, little was done about it. What has prompted New Delhi to act now is the fact that Bhutan is democratizing - it has a new constitution and the Bhutanese will elect representatives to Parliament in an election likely to be held next year - and that India needs to acknowledge Bhutan's full sovereignty formally. This appears to have provided momentum to the process of revising the treaty.

"India's obligation under the treaty to not interfere in Bhutan's domestic affairs suited the interests of the monarchy," a Bhutanese journalist told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. The kingdom pursued a studied policy of isolation and therefore was not particularly perturbed with having limited relations with the international community. That could now change.

China and Tibet were at the core of India's policy toward Bhutan. In 1949, when the treaty was signed, China had begun asserting control over Tibet. This was viewed with concern by India and Bhutan. India needed to ensure that Bhutan wouldn't fall under Chinese influence and Bhutan wanted India's protection. The Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation served the interests of both countries then.

But the geopolitical context in which the 1949 treaty was signed no longer exists. Today, India recognizes the Tibet Autonomous Region as a part of China, relations are normalizing with Beijing, and the two countries are working toward resolving their decades-long border dispute. Similarly, Bhutan has initiated talks with China to resolve its long-standing boundary dispute, and both countries signed an agreement for the maintenance of peace and tranquility along the Sino-Bhutanese border in 1998.

Analysts in Delhi feel that Article 2 has become irrelevant. "Article 2 has not been invoked for decades," Smruti Pattanaik, research fellow at the Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, told Asia Times Online. While Thimpu has stood by New Delhi on several foreign-policy issues, it has not hesitated to differ with Delhi either.

In 1978, for instance, Bhutan opened its first diplomatic mission outside India, in Bangladesh, without consulting Delhi. It openly differed with India on international forums as well. At the sixth summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Havana in 1979, Bhutan, unlike India, condemned Vietnam's intervention in Cambodia. And when the Cambodian issue came up before the UN General Assembly, Bhutan voted in favor of seating the China/US-supported Democratic Kampuchea regime and against an Indian-proposed amendment that would have left the seat vacant.

While in practice Article 2 is not being implemented, its presence in the treaty has often been held up by India's critics as examples of its "hegemonic and expansionist ambitions". The allegation that India has unequal treaties with Bhutan and Nepal has been exploited by China and pro-Chinese elements in these countries to mobilize anti-India sentiment. It has provided China with ammunition to attack India for "bullying its smaller neighbors" to get them to toe its line.

So over time, Article 2 has become something of a burden for India, without providing any big benefits.

Pattanaik said Article 2 is not required for India to retain influence in Bhutan. "There is no clash of interests in the foreign policies of the two countries," she said. Bhutan is dependent on India. Its geographic location - it is landlocked and surrounded by India on three sides - makes it dependent on India for access to the sea.

Unlike Nepal, Bhutan has not been uneasy with India's influence over the country. Neither has it seen the need to use the China card to wring concessions out of India. A pro-China policy is not viable for Bhutan, as China is not in a position to sustain Bhutan economically in the long run. Supply lines into Bhutan favor India and not China.

"India will not be conceding much by doing away with Article 2," Pattanaik said.

On the contrary, "India has much to gain," the Bhutanese journalist said. "It will be seen as a country that respects the sovereignty of its neighbors."

India is waking up to the fact that its "primacy in the neighborhood could be ensured by leveraging its geographic, economic and cultural strengths and not by waving crumbling pieces of paper", said an editorial in the Indian Express. This is prompting the rethink on its approach to its neighbors.

There are reports that changes in the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Nepal are in the pipeline as well. Earlier the political parties and now the Maoists in Nepal are demanding the abrogation of that treaty, and while India will not go that far to meet their demands, it is likely that Nepal too will see a change in its equation with India.

India's neighbors are intimidated by its size, and its economic and military power. And India has not been particularly gentle in dealing with its sovereignty-sensitive smaller neighbors.

India is still far away from being the gentle giant the neighbors want it to be. However, a revised treaty will go some way in assuaging its Indo-phobic neighbors. New Delhi's new willingness to rewrite treaties to correct the imbalance in the equation with some of them is a step in the right direction.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.