By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
Ma Zhanwu, dapper even if his Mao jacket is no longer fashionable in sartorially conscious Beijing, represents China in Kolkata. Karma T. Namgyal, swashbuckling in knee-length kho, is Bhutan’s consul-general in the city. Last week they celebrated national occasions within three days of each other, inadvertently highlighting a foreign policy priority that prompted Narendra Modi to make the Himalayan kingdom his first destination abroad as Prime Minister. The visit’s timing was especially significant. Two weeks later Bhutan’s foreign minister flew to Beijing for the 22nd round of the talks to demarcate the 470-km Sino-Bhutanese border that began in 1984. This year’s 23rd round was similarly inconclusive.
This is not to blame any of the three countries that meet in the Chumbi Valley but to indicate how closely India, China and Bhutan are bound. India and China must work together in the next years and decades — as Mr Ma stressed at the start of the delightful “White Lotus Black Sand” Sino-Indian dance performance — to build up trust and sustain peace and prosperity in and beyond the Himalayan region. Mr Namgyal’s reference to “security” (unusual on such occasions) and Bhutan’s strategic geopolitical position recalled Prithvinarayan Shah, the 18th century founder of the Nepalese monarchy, describing his newly-unified kingdom as a yam between two boulders.
Nepal’s is an example to be avoided. In London last month, I watched groups of men with banners reading “Don’t Blockade Nepal” picketing Mr Modi’s Wembley Stadium jamboree. Whether or not there is any truth in the charge, it must have pained the Prime Minister to hear it hurled at him by people from the only other country that shares the faith that is his principal political asset. Every nation enjoys the sovereign right to a foreign policy that best serves its national interest, but reports from Kathmandu suggest the ruling Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is trying to play off India against China.
Statesmanship lies in rising above tensions that are endemic in geopolitics. This is something the Bhutanese excelled at even before Ugyen Wangchuck was crowned the first King in 1907. An instance cited is that of King Ugyen agreeing in 1910 to replace the 1865 treaty of Sinchula with the treaty of Punakha under which he agreed to be “guided” by the (British) Indian government’s “advice” in external affairs. The stipulation allayed British suspicions about Chinese and Russian influence.
It was left to Ugyen’s great grandson, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, now called K4 with irreverent affection, to replace “advice” in a new treaty signed in 2007 with “abiding ties of close friendship and cooperation”. By committing both governments to not allowing their territory to be used “for activities harmful to the national security and interests of the other,” the new treaty — yet another demonstration of Bhutanese statesmanship — seeks to ensure Bhutan doesn’t go Nepal’s way.
Mr Namgyal’s party celebrated the 108th anniversary of Ugyen Wangchuck ascending Bhutan’s Dragon Throne. But Mr Ma’s “celebration of 65 years of diplomatic relations between India and China” might have provoked argument if it hadn’t been for the saving clause “based on the five Panchsheel principles.” It referred to K.M. Panikkar being sent to Beijing in 1950 as ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. K.P.S. Menon had previously represented New Delhi in Chongqing and Nanjing, first as British India’s agent-general and then as one of Independent India’s first two ambassadors, the other being Asaf Ali in Washington. Robert Payne, the English academic who interviewed Mao Zedong, wrote in his China Diaries, 1941-46, that the Chinese “love and admire Menon… the most beloved” of all the foreign representatives. But Menon was accredited to Chiang Kai-shek, and Communist history begins with the revolution.
But China is changing. Or so I gathered from the effervescent Willy Tsao who runs three major modern dance companies in China, and had brought one of them — BeijingDance/LDTX — to Kolkata. He told me private dance companies are now permitted, and that artistic commitment and professional competitiveness are triumphing over the ideological restraints of China’s past.
I could believe that having seen the Shanghai Ballet’s London debut with an imaginative rendering of Charlotte Bronte’s classic Jane Eyre. Rebutting Western criticism that he wasn’t sufficiently Chinese, the America-trained Willy, who was choreographer and manager of the 14 or 15 Chinese dancers, exploded to the Los Angeles Times, “Western critics sound exactly like our government! ‘You must always do something Chinese. You should not follow the Western style.’ I say no. Do whatever you want. The essence of modern dance is freedom. When an artist has total freedom to do whatever he wants, this is modern dance.”
Without that freedom, his BeijingDance/LDTX wouldn’t have been able to partner the Rhythmosaic-Sengupta Dance Company (Ronnie Shambik Ghose and Mitul Sengupta) to produce an hour of fluid movement. Dance is a powerful medium and the two groups did justice to the contemporary mood in the two Asian giants. According to Willy, they borrowed from yoga and taichi, acrobats one moment, ballet dancers the next, seemingly without a single bone to inhibit the body’s flexibility. Oindrilla Dutt, scriptwriter and narrator, explained the grand finale as a fusion of Chinese and Indian art.
If the artistic freedom Willy mentioned is translated to other fields, it could signify the “White Lotus” of future cooperation rising out of the “Black Sand” of past disagreement. Joining both countries, its border settlement with one depending on the goodwill of the other, especially in the sensitive Chumbi tri-junction, geography gives Bhutan a role in facilitating that outcome.
The Asian Age, December 22, 2015