As China-India feud ebbs, tiny Bhutan reexamines its place in the world – Washington Post

 In World

A woman stands near prayer wheels at an eighth-century temple in Paro, Bhutan. (Annie Gowen/The Washington Post)

During the long weeks soldiers from two of the world’s largest armies camped on their doorstep, officials in the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan maintained a meditative silence.

Government leaders resolutely declined to comment, and even the Bhutanese media largely refrained from covering the standoff, which began in mid-June when Indian troops crossed into a remote plateau claimed by Bhutan and confronted Chinese soldiers preparing to build a road there.

When the respective armies began withdrawing from the Doklam area Monday, the Himalayan nation of just under 800,000 finally exhaled, and analysts said that its temperance had helped defuse tension between the two nuclear-armed powers.

For years, Bhutan — a landlocked nation squeezed between the Tibet plateau to its north and India to its east, south and west — has trod a delicate balancing act between China and its great patron, India, which trains its soldiers, buys its hydroelectric power and gives it $578 million a year in aid.

In the country’s capital of Thimphu, India’s influence can be seen everywhere — from the army officers jogging on its streets to the laborers on Indian projects to build mountain roads.

“Bhutan is really caught between two sides, and the confrontation at Doklam has brought everything to the surface,” said Nirupama Menon Rao, India’s former foreign secretary and ambassador to China. “Bhutan has played this game of survival for a long, long time. Nobody does it better than them.”

But the dispute caused many in Bhutan to call for the country to reevaluate its close — some say suffocating — relationship with its southern neighbor.

“If India’s border closed tomorrow, we would run out of rice and a lot of other essentials in a few days. That is how vulnerable we are,” said Needrup Zangpo, the executive director of the Journalist Association of Bhutan. “Many Bhutanese resent this.”

The country — with stunning mountain passes, rippling Buddhist prayer flags and ancient temples — was until recently a monarchy, its villages isolated from much of the world for most of the past century. Television arrived in 1999, and even now, only about 60,000 tourists from outside the region visit each year, paying a hefty $250-a-day visa fee during the high season.


The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan was thrust into an international showdown as militaries from China and India were locked in a two-month standoff on a remote plateau in territory claimed by both Bhutan and China. (Annie Gowen/The Washington Post)

Its beloved and progressive fourth king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, set the country on the path to democracy in 2008 and popularized the “gross national happiness” indicator, which rates quality of life, preservation of culture and environmental protection over economic output. In a 2015 study, more than 90 percent of residents said they experienced some level of happiness.

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