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Buddhism is Bhutan’s Key to Working with the Great Buddhist Powers

India and China are right now locked in a dispute over a plateau (known as Doklam in India and Donglang in China) that lies at a junction between China, the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim, and Bhutan. My focus today is not on the technicalities of the border dispute (this analysis by Wangcha Sangey, a retired civil servant and former managing director of Bhutan Times, lays out the situation far better than I can), but rather how Bhutan could play its cards over the long term through the piety of its Buddhist people and its Buddhist royal family.

HRH Ashi Kesang Wangmo Wangchuck with Bhikkhu Sanghasena

In an age where landlocked Bhutan’s behemoth neighbors, China and India, are going all in with Buddhist diplomacy (not to mention regional neighbors like Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka), the Himalayan country’s Buddhist heritage grants it a unique and priceless asset. This is because the idea of “Buddhist kingship” or chakravartin-hood is embodied in its monarchy. I venture to propose that without Buddhism, the moral authority of the royal house of Wangchuk would be diminished whilst one of the country’s key soft power exports (such as its concept of Gross National Happiness) would be compromised. Nowhere else, except perhaps in Thailand, is there a monarchy invested with such a Buddhist mandate.

Bhutan’s GDP is estimated at US$2 billion. India’s is around US$2 trillion, and China’s at US$10 trillion. With Bhutan sandwiched between two civilization-states, no sober geopolitical commentator would conclude that Bhutan has a totally independent say in its economic destiny. This does not mean, however, that it has no options or that it must accept quasi-vassalage to one of the Great Buddhist Powers (although I sense that some of Bhutan’s intelligentsia and elites are growing increasingly impatient with India’s treatment of the Himalayan kingdom as a pseudo-protectorate). Bhutan, due to its historical reliance on India, has no official relationship with China.

Queen Mother Ashi Sangay Choden

Buddhist soft power is where Bhutan can claim serious heft. It is here where it might even have things to teach India and China. While it is true that China and India have long “civilizational” histories, India has a good deal of making up to do (in the eyes of Buddhists) for fumbling the torch of the Dharma so badly in the 12th century, while modern China has only recently begun to truly appreciate its Buddhist inheritance. Bhutan has had a monarchy since its founding on 17 December 1907 (technically earlier than the founding of the Republic of China, the People’s Republic of China, or the creation of India!). All this time, its beloved royal house has made several interesting moves, including an early abdication of the politically astute King Father Jigme Singye Wangchuk in 2006 and a transition to constitutional monarchy with elections in 2007.

Princess Ashi Kesang working on a thangka. Image courtesy Princess Ashi Kesang

Members of the royal family do not sit still, and the intellectual and gracious princesses are particularly hardworking. HRH Ashi Kesang Wangmo is president of the International Buddhist Confederation, whilst Queen Mother Ashi Sangay Choden has travelled the world sharing the work of the Bhutan Textile Museum in Thimphu. Another princess, HRH Ashi Kesang Choden T., is executive director of Bhutan’s Thangka Conservation Center and admired wherever she goes to promote her country’s unique artistic inheritance.

Many in the US, a republic with a proud anti-royal tradition, follow the gossip of the British Windsors passionately. We know that the Wangchuks are adored in Japan and Thailand—notably, both constitutional monarchies have large Buddhist populations. Perhaps the popular royals might have room to help reframe Bhutan as a bridge facilitating peaceful dialogue between its two neighboring colossi rather than as a proxy being pulled in opposite directions. The Bhutanese royal family is a soft asset that commands respect even from much larger nations, and its Buddhist legitimacy reinforces my impression that it can help the country punch above its weight.

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Preserving Bhutan’s Cultural Heritage: An Interview with Princess Ashi Kesang Choden T. Wangchuck

The Fabric of Happiness: Facets of Bhutanese Weaving

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2 Comments

  1. Wangcha Sangey

    Surprised that a reference has been made to me. I like the gravity laid on Buddhism by you. . Over the many centuries, Bhutanese leaders and lay people ( even before Monarchy ) always looked into and upto Buddhism as a source of inspiration, guidance and protection. The Wangchuck Kings have served this Bhutanese nation like god -slaves always slogging but with wisdom and care. And as you pointed out, His Majesty the King would have to somehow ensure that the Kingdom weathers such political manoeuvres and snares.

    Democratic elected Government or not, the WANGCHUCK Dynasty has a historic responsibility to see through the Kingdom in laying a good foundation of friendship not just with India which has been admirably achieved but with China. This two way relationship can secure Bhutanese sovereignty. Right now Bhutanese leadership is wary of Indian warnings and therefore staying away from Chinese overtures. But I am of the faith that an additional friend is far productive than one masterly generous big friend. It is time Bhutan took the risk which may not even be that grave a leap.

    But one thing is a reality. Bhutan will always be closer to India than China for so many reasons too many to list here. Bhutan will never play China versus India or vice versa. May Lord Buddha Bless my Country Bhutan and our two giant neighbours China and India with the light of wisdom and warmth of good neighbours.

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    Indian Defence News [View All Articles]
    India will suffer worse losses than 1962 if it incites border clash – Chinese Media
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    Wednesday, July 05, 2017
    By: Global Times

    Source Link: CLICK HERE

    The face-off between Chinese and Indian troops in the Sikkim section of the Sino-Indian border seems to be escalating. The Indian military was quoted by Indian media as saying that more troops have been deployed there in a non-combative mode. Indian Defense Minister Arun Jaitley claimed that the India of 2017 is different from the India of 1962. Chief of Staff of the Indian Army, General Bipin Rawat, even said they are fully ready for a two-and-a-half front war – referring to China, Pakistan and internal security requirements.

    Indian troops have trespassed over the China-Sikkim border, which is viewed as having already been demarcated, and is not a line of actual control. The Indian side has changed arguments several times, first claiming that “China intruded onto Indian territory,” but later saying “there was no incursion into our territory,” followed by the new excuse that India is helping Bhutan safeguard its territory. India is acting shamelessly before the international community.

    New Delhi’s real purpose is to turn the Donglang area of China into a disputed region and block China’s road construction there. The Cold War-obsessed India is suspicious that China is building the road to cut off the Siliguri Corridor, an area held by Indians as strategically important for India to control its northeast area. India is taking the risk to betray the historical agreement and wants to force China to swallow the result.

    India should look in the mirror. It was not able to refute the evidence of illegal border-trespassing and coerced its small neighbor Bhutan to shoulder the blame. India has long treated Bhutan as a vassal state, a rare scene under modern international relations. India’s illegal border intrusion is not allowed by international law; besides its suppression of Bhutan must be condemned by the international community. The Indian media claimed in recent days that New Delhi “shouldn’t abandon Bhutan.” India is humiliating the civilization of the 21st Century.

    The Chinese public is infuriated by India’s provocation. We believe the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is powerful enough to expel Indian troops out of Chinese territory.

    We firmly believe that the face-off in the Donglang area will end up with the Indian troops in retreat. The Indian military can choose to return to its territory with dignity, or be kicked out of the area by Chinese soldiers.

    If New Delhi believes that its military might can be used as leverage in the Donglang area, and it’s ready for a two-and-a-half front war, we have to tell India that the Chinese look down on their military power. Jaitley is right that the India of 2017 is different from that of 1962 – India will suffer greater losses than in 1962 if it incites military conflicts.

    China attaches great importance to domestic stability and doesn’t want to be mired in a mess with India. But New Delhi would be too naïve to think that Beijing would make concessions to its unruly demands.

    Instead of taking immediate action, China still wants to address disputes by peaceful means, a practice that has been maintained for decades, and it is unwilling to face a pattern of confrontation in the border area. But a peaceful solution must lead to legitimate and justified outcomes. We hope India can face up to the hazards of its unruly actions to the country’s fundamental interests and withdraw its troops without delay.

    We need to give diplomatic and military authorities full power to handle the issue. We call on Chinese society to maintain high-level unity on the issue. The more unified the Chinese people are, the more sufficient conditions the professionals will have to fight against India and safeguard our interests. This time, we must teach New Delhi a bitter lesson.

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    Copyright © 2016www.DefenceNews.inAll Rights Reserved vice versa. I for one respect India and am grateful for all 5 Year Plans major funding. India is special but there is definitely a place for a good friend China in the north in our diplomatic circles and development spheres. May Lord Buddha Bless Bhutan, India and China to see the light of happiness and good neighbourliness.

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