Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - China moves to woo Bhutan



China moves to woo Bhutan

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Bhutanese college students at the Royal University of Bhutan in Thimphu. Despite past confrontation, Beijing is seeking to mend relations with Bhutan. ARUN SANKAR/AFP

China moves to woo Bhutan

A PEEP into a Thimphu toy shop shows stacks of Pokemons, all made in China, a testimony to the quiet overtures Beijing is making in Bhutan at rival India’s expense.

China’s annexation of Tibet in 1951 and an unresolved border dispute have long been irritants in ties with Bhutan, and India would prefer they remain estranged.

India jumped to Bhutan’s defence last year when Chinese troops started building a road on Doklam, a territory claimed by both China and Bhutan.

The eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation lasted 72 days before the Indian and Chinese armies pulled back.

But now Beijing is seeking to mend relations and extend a hand of friendship to the tiny Himalayan kingdom, despite the two having no diplomatic relations.

Chinese shipments have shot up in the past decade, with goods from machinery and cement to electricals and toys making Beijing the third largest source of foreign products to heavily import-dependent Bhutan.

And stuck between the competing regional powers, Bhutan has been gasping to assert its sovereignty and shrug off decades of heavy dependence on India.

Many among Bhutan’s 800,000 population feel India’s embrace is becoming a stranglehold and getting in the way of Thimpu’s ties with other countries.

“Within Bhutan, there is a growing demand to diversify and loosen its dependence on India,” University of British Columbia historian Tsering Shakya said.

“However, given the geography and history it is not easy for Bhutan to ignore India’s interest.”

‘Jealous big brother’

Bhutan was almost as isolated as the mythical Shangri-La until the early 1960s when its first highway was built.

But it has become increasingly dependent on neighbours, as shown in 2013 when India was accused of triggering a fuel crisis by cutting subsidies on cooking gas and kerosene – which some say was a punishment to Bhutan for warming up to the Chinese.

“If we [India and Bhutan] are good friends, our friendship shouldn’t be affected by our relations with other countries,” said Vimla Pradhan, a 21-year-old college student.

“It appears as if everything Bhutan does, it should have tacit approval from India. India will always come before others but please don’t behave like a jealous big brother,” she told AFP in Thimpu.

Many aspiring Bhutanese are restless for new opportunities at a time when youth unemployment is 10.6 per cent against the national average of 2.4 per cent.

India has been generous with loans and grants but Bhutan could do with more investment, and China has deep pockets.

“Where are the jobs? Look at any nook and corner and you will find young men hanging around aimlessly,” said Karma Choden, a mother of two, as she waited for customers at a roadside stall selling dry cheese and red chillies.

Bhutan, a growing economy which has been trying to shed its tag as one of the world’s least developed countries, is struggling to reduce unemployment as it gears up for only its third ever election on Thursday.

The ruling party was knocked out in the first round of polling in mid-September, signalling the electorate’s desperation for change.

China has been reaching out to Bhutan through sports, religious and cultural visits as well as scholarships to Bhutanese students.

Its vice foreign minister Kong Xuanyou made a rare trip to Bhutan in July.

Bhutan has also been receiving a growing number of Chinese tourists, with number surged from fewer than 20 a decade ago to 6,421 in 2017, according to official figures.

Taxi driver Kinzang Dorji is unable to make much sense of Bhutan’s diplomacy and history. But he understands the value of foreign investment.

“Bhutan should make friends with other countries,” Dorji said.

“Many Chinese tourists have started coming and they are bringing in a lot of money,” he added.

MOST VIEWED

  • Time to avert disastrous Covid situation: officials

    The Covid-19 situation in Cambodia is heading towards further large-scale community transmission as the total number of confirmed cases is nearing 61,000 and the death toll passed 900 on July 10, senior health officials warned. Ministry of Health spokeswoman Or Vandine expressed concern that the country was going

  • Two luxury hotels latest quarantine options for inbound travellers

    The Inter-Ministerial Committee to Combat Covid-19 has designated two luxury hotels as alternative quarantine options for travellers who wish to enter Cambodia through Phnom Penh International Airport – Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel & Residence and the Courtyard by Marriott Phnom Penh. In a notice detailing guidelines issued

  • Visa A holders get to quarantine at Himawari Hotel

    The Ministry of Health has permitted foreign diplomats, UN and International NGO officials to undergo quarantine at Himawari Hotel in the capital in case they do not have a separate place suitable for this purpose, but the government would not be responsible for the expenses.

  • Baby saved as mother is lost to Covid

    Newborn baby Neth David has had a rough start in the world. His mother, Vong Daneth, was seven months pregnant when she contracted a severe case of Covid-19. When it became clear to her doctors that she would not survive, they performed a cesarean section

  • Jabs for kids bring hope for school reopenings

    Cambodia is tentatively planning to reopen schools – at least at the secondary level – when the vaccination of children aged 12-17 is completed, even though daily transmissions and deaths in other age groups remain high. Schools across the country have been suspended since March 20, one month

  • Hun Sen: Get 12-17 age group ready for Covid jabs

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has told parents of children aged 12-17 in Phnom Penh and the provinces of Kandal and Preah Sihanouk to get them ready for vaccinations soon. “There is a need to vaccinate children and youths aged 12 to 17. According to the statistics provided