Beautiful mountains in Bhutan. [Image: INDIA Trotter / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)]

America’s Vaccine Diplomacy in Bhutan

Asia India

Strategically located in South Asia between India and China, few are aware of the Kingdom of Bhutan’s importance to the United States government.

In fact, since Bhutan does not have any formal diplomatic relations with the United States, and instead maintains relations through diplomatic missions at the United Nations in New York and through the US Embassy in New Delhi, India, one may wonder at the importance of this small landlocked Himalayan nation to the U.S. government.

Given the US government’s priority in limiting Chinese influence in Asia, and especially in South Asia, overtures to Bhutan have long been overdue. Like India, Bhutan has territorial disputes with China, and has been engaged in negotiations with Beijing for almost four decades to settle their 477-km border.

In addition, Bhutan’s disputes with China have broader implications, including major concerns for India, an important ally for Washington D.C. In 2017, Indian and Chinese troops faced off in Doklam, an area that borders India, China, and Bhutan, which is claimed in its entirety by China.

With a population of less than 870,000 people, Bhutan recently played host to Patricia Lacina, the US Chargé d’Affaires in New Delhi, who visited the country from September 26th to October 1st, 2022.

Lacina, paying a rare US diplomatic visit to Bhutan, brought along a special gift from the US government, providing 51,480 doses of Pfizer shots, in partnership with the COVAX facility and the Bhutan Foundation. The United States has provided Bhutan with 680,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines in total. In 2021, China donated 50,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccines to the Kingdom in response to donations from India, Europe and the United States.

Lacina’s visit was aimed at celebrating the US-Bhutan partnership in health, especially during the worst times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the US Embassy in New Delhi, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has collaborated with The Royal Center for Disease Control (RCDC) of Bhutan’s Ministry of Health for over a decade, building capacity for influenza surveillance, pandemic preparedness, and influenza vaccine introduction, which greatly benefitted the Kingdom during the COVID-19 pandemic. USAID has also partnered with the Royal Bhutanese government on clean energy, and disaster resilience, and in the recent past, on forestry management, biodiversity conservation, and water security.

US-Bhutan relations are progressing in a positive direction. Through collaboration in health, clean energy, and biodiversity conservation, ties between the two countries face few challenges.

For the United States, maintaining relations with Bhutan would be beneficial to the United States’s larger goals in the Indo-Pacific region of restricting Chinese influence. Even though Bhutan is not mentioned in the latest US Indo-Pacific Strategy report, the importance of maintaining relations should not be underestimated by Washington D.C. Bhutan certainly matters to the United States.

Aryan D’Rozario is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington D.C. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz, Aryan received his master’s degree from the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, studying Modern South Asia.