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.
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.
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.
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.
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