As India and China moderate the tensions in their enduring rivalry, Bhutan remains a key space for competition. The Himalayan buffer state is India's closest partner in South Asia, but last year's Doklam Plateau standoff between the Indian and Chinese armies demonstrated Beijing's interest in pulling Bhutan closer into its orbit. Incoming Prime Minister Lotay Tshering's administration will try to strike a delicate balance between Bhutan's two giant neighbors.
Voters in the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan ushered a new party into power during the country's third elections since transitioning to democracy a decade ago. On Oct. 18, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), a center-left party founded in 2013, won 30 of the 47 seats in Bhutan's National Assembly. The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) captured the remaining 17 seats and will maintain its role as the opposition party.
DNT leader Lotay Tshering, a urologist, will serve as the South Asian country's next prime minister after running a successful campaign focused on unemployment, health care and inequality. Seventy-one percent of the electorate turned out to vote during the second round of elections. The DNT and DPT advanced to a runoff after outpolling the ruling People's Democratic Party during the first round of voting on Sept. 15, denying Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay a second five-year term and ensuring that Bhutan will have had a new government following all three of its elections.
Why It Matters
Bhutan's geopolitical significance stems from its location as a buffer state between India and China. New Delhi has traditionally acted as the dominant power in Bhutan, seeking to prevent China from establishing a military presence that would threaten the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow ribbon of land linking the Indian mainland with its far-flung northeastern wing.
In summer 2017, Bhutan asked the Indian military to intervene on the Doklam Plateau, a disputed territory between Bhutan and China, to halt a Chinese road construction project that India feared would advance China's regional military presence. Sino-Indian tensions flared during the ensuing standoff that lasted for 73 days. Although Beijing and New Delhi have cooled their tempers in recent months as part of their ongoing recalibration under Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the two countries will be jockeying for influence in Bhutan now that a new administration is in power.
Because tiny Bhutan is overly dependent on much-larger India, it has every reason to follow neighboring Nepal's example and try to strike a more advantageous balance in its foreign relations. Thus, Tshering will likely seek ways to explore more cooperation with China, but he will be careful to avoid upsetting New Delhi, which lavishes Bhutan with foreign aid in support of the country's critical hydropower sector.
Bhutan's parties agreed to avoid politicizing foreign policy during the campaign, and the government appointed officials to monitor online party chat rooms to ensure compliance. But the DPT alleged that the DNT breached this understanding by suggesting that a DPT win would hurt the flow of Indian foreign aid into the country.