Monday, December 14, 2020

Why is Bhutan suddenly establishing diplomatic relations?

I read today that the tiny, isolated state of Bhutan has established diplomatic relations with Israel. No, this is not another in the series of great diplomatic triumphs that Donald Trump has brokered (ha!): Bhutan is neither Arabic nor in the Middle East. Indeed, the main question that arises is: "why"?, and more specifically, "why bother?"

Bhutan is a mountainous kingdom in the eastern reaches of the Himalayas (technically a constitutional monarchy since 2008, when it held its first democratic elections), perched serenely between India, Tibet, Nepal and Bangladesh. It is a mainly Buddhist state, with a minority Hindu population, probably best known for using a "Gross National Happiness index" rather than GDP to measure success (probably mainly because it is extremely poor by traditional measures). And it is tiny, about the size of Switzerland or Taiwan (or substantially smaller than, say, the province of Nova Scotia), with a population of less than 800,000, similar to, say, Fiji or Luxembourg.

Historically, Bhutan has been notoriously isolationist, and has had a very cautious approach to opening up commercial and diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. It only opened up to (very limited) tourism in the 1970s, and the internet and television were only allowed in 1999. This, and its small size and poverty, has meant that it still only has diplomatic relations with 53 countries, including none of the five UN Security Council countries (USA, UK, France, China, Russia). Only seven countries have embassies there, of which neighbouring India's is by far the most important.

You can kind of understand Bhutan's lack of official international channels. After all, diplomatic relations cost money it can ill afford. And why should Bhutan feel the need to establish official diplomatic relations with countries like Belgium or Chile, particularly if it is not looking to expand trade or tourism in a big way?

There has, nevertheless, been a flurry of diplomatic activity in recent months, with UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, and now Israel, all establishing official relations. I still have no idea why. My best guess is that Bhutan is increasingly worried by the ultra-nationalist Modi administration in India. After all, neighbouring Sikkim was once an independent mountain state very similar to today's Bhutan; then, in 1975, Sikkim was summarily annexed by India and is now just another Indian state. Maybe Bhutan sees another such annexation in the tea leaves. And what would that do to its Gross National Happiness? Maybe it feels that some support in the UN might not be such a bad thing after all.

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