21 August 2017

Dustup in Dok-La

Given my interests in geopolitics in general, Asia in general and China in particular, the gentle reader may with some justification ask: where the hell have you been all this time on the Dok-La question? You delivered yourself of some fairly strong opinions on North Korea of late! Are you simply indulging an America-centric view of the world which ignores problems in which America has no direct stake?

There is some justice to these charges – particularly the last one. It’s true, I don’t read or speak Dzongkha or Hindi, and thus haven’t been as nearly exposed to one entire side of the dispute. It also hasn’t appeared as urgent to me as the threat of a nuclear war, which has since fizzled out into yet another by-this-point paint-by-numbers predictable domestic squabble inside the Trump Administration. But, in my own defence, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been following the story, that I don’t have any stake in it, or that I don’t have my own views on the subject.

My familial ties to China are well-known at this point. But I do also have a significant sympathy for Bhutan, for political-philosophical as well as cultural reasons. I have written before with guarded praise for the idea of the Gross National Happiness, an idea pioneered by King-Father Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan. Following David Bentley Hart’s excellent essay, I posted this comment to Facebook in June of last year:
Bhutan does have very strong environmental protections and is carbon-negative.

Not mentioned in the video is that it is also a traditionalist, monarchical and confessional state (though not a theocracy) which places a strong emphasis on retaining local traditions.
Which I then followed up with:
[With the exception of its treatment of the Nepalis,] Bhutan’s kind of got it together. Environmentally-friendly, Anglophile, traditional agrarian kingdom in the middle of South Asia. Doesn’t go stirring up trouble with India or China, but basically minds its own business and leaves everybody else alone. Conserves over 50% of its land area with fœderal park protections and state ownership. Has a distributist, scale-free œconomy and mostly trades locally (something like 83% of its trade is with India, and much of the rest with China and South Korea). Exports sustainable energy. Doesn’t put emphasis on growth-at-all-costs.
Even though they are a confessional monarchy belonging to the same branch of Buddhism as their northerly neighbours in Tibet, and even though the Bhutanese people deeply respect Tenzin Gyatso as a religious leader, both they and their political leadership tend to turn off the Dalai show when the subject of Tibetan politics arises. That’s probably not surprising, given that Tibet historically treated Bhutan and her kings as subservient clients, giving them fewer political considerations than Tibet herself received from the Qing Chinese government. Little wonder, given this history, that they treat the cause of Tibetan independence with so little sympathy (and Tibetan white émigrés with a certain degree of scepticism).

That very history, actually, is precisely the background one needs to have in order to understand Bhutan’s seemingly-complex interests in Dok-La. Like the Qazaqs, Bhutan’s people understand perfectly well the perils that come from being a small country wedged between two regional great powers, and the strategy they embrace is a parallel one: retain close and friendly diplomatic ties with both, but never too close with either one.

In general, then, but certainly in Dok-La and the Tri-Junction, Bhutan has several key interests at stake which must here be enumerated:
  1. Bhutan is simply not going to relinquish her territorial claims to the area. Not only is this in her own national interest, it’s also simply good strategy. It would set a bad precedent if she yielded a historical claim to a much larger territorial power on her border.

  2. Even less than contesting territory with China, Bhutan does not appreciate having her foreign policy essentially usurped by India – this is the part that reminds Bhutanese all too much of their days as a de facto vassal state of Tibet.

  3. Bhutan does not want a war between India and China. In particular, she does not want a war between India and China on her own territory. And she does not want to lose key elements of her national sovereignty to the victor in such a conflict.
Sadly, in the current situation, Bhutan has become something of a political football between Chinese and Indian great power interests. There is far more to be said on the subject, of course. Modi’s aggressive, religiously-tinged revisionist brand of Indian nationalism is obviously not helping matters, and is pushing things in a predictable direction. And Japan’s LDP government acting as an accelerationist element on India’s behalf, unctuous and disgusting as it is, is obviously no surprise to me either. But for the present, for Bhutan’s own sake, it’s necessary to look for and work for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Dok-La.

EDIT: I seem to have made a fairly egregious omission, which would leave the reader with the wrong impression if taken the wrong way. Bhutan has been continuously independent since the 900’s at the very latest, although the country has had a treaty of friendship with India since 1949 that allowed the latter to guide Bhutan’s foreign policy. Tibet and India have at various times in history exerted strong influences on Bhutan’s culture and politics, but never to the point of establishing total suzerainty over them. Still, Bhutan has jealously guarded her own independence from both nations for at least 1100 years, and they aren’t about to start compromising now. More power to the Dragon Kingdom.

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