The Sino-Indian Competition over Bhutan and Nepal: Small State Responses to Great Power Politics


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date17 Apr 2019


China and India compete over Bhutan and Nepal for influence in the Himalayan sphere. Any shift in the geo-political alignment of either of these two small states will have major ramifications for the wider Sino-Indian competition for regional and global status. It is only by seeking to navigate the traditional rivalry that either small state can ensure its future; even as, the traditional rivalry, security, and strategic mistrust between the two great powers shape their policy space.

For Bhutan and Nepal, their mutual foreign policy priority is to protect their independence and sovereignty. But while their policy choices are heavily constrained by the great power competition surrounding them, they are not without options or influence. However, despite the similar foreign policy environment, their approaches to managing relations with their great power neighbors differ. Bhutan remains disposed toward India, while Nepal tries to balance its relations. Such strategies have created different foreign policy pathways and outcomes. Nepal has developed relations with both China and India, while Bhutan remains the only country in Asia without diplomatic ties with China.

Through a combination of neorealism and small state diplomacy literature, the thesis investigates the influence and impact of the competition on the two small states’ foreign policy responses. While the two small states face similar security, geopolitical, and strategic compulsions, their responses to structural constraints are simultaneously similar and divergent. Although neorealism largely explains their foreign policy responses to the competition, it fails to expound the motivating domestic factors. This poses a challenge for utility of neorealism as it applies to small states’ foreign policy formulation and implementation. Further, within the tradition of neorealism, upon evaluation, Walt’s balance of threat theory’s propositions of balancing and bandwagoning in the realms of threats are unable to explain Bhutan and Nepal’s responses to the Sino-Indian competition. The thesis argues that the theory needs to include the concept of hedging to gain better theoretical utility and explanatory power. Hedging strategies explain Bhutan and Nepal’s responses to China and India’s overtures. In other words, the thesis claims that even small states have the capacity to not only balance and bandwagon but also to hedge.

This dissertation fills an important gap in the study of Bhutan and Nepal’s individual and comparative relations vis-à-vis China and India. Not only does it push the theoretical frontiers, but also provides rich primary empirical findings on the two sets of triangular relations.