The South Asia Channel

Modi’s Friendly Bhutan Visit, In a Volatile Neighborhood

The recent June visit of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bhutan was significant in ways more than one. It was the first foreign visit of the new Prime Minister who has entered office with an unprecedented mandate and huge hopes on his shoulders from the Indian populace.

India’s difficult relationship with most of its neighbors, rooted in history and contemporary politics, has proved a major hindrance to India’s great power ambitions. The relative failure of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to take wings is mostly attributed to the animosity between the two largest countries in the region: India and Pakistan. However, the onus for reinvigorating SAARC falls largely on India, as it is the largest and most prosperous country in the region.

In a diplomatic coup of sorts, Prime Minister Modi successfully gathered high-level representatives from all SAARC countries at Raisina Hill -- the seat of the Government of India -- and the recent visit to Bhutan could not have come at a more opportune time for the new leadership in New Delhi, as concerns abound on the rising influence of China in South Asia.

Coming just ahead of China-Bhutan Boundary talks scheduled in Beijing in July, the visit proved a primer to the importance accorded to the relationship in New Delhi, and a signal to Beijing that New Delhi was not in a mood to take things sitting down as the former increased its economic footprints, hence political influence in the region.

There seems to be some real concern in India that a small country like Bhutan could face intimidation from an aggressive China to settle the boundaries on Chinese terms, which could lead to real-time security concerns in India’s critical Siliguri corridor, the gateway to India’s northeast.

However, China’s efforts to establish diplomatic relations with Bhutan have failed to bore much result until now. Even after the 2012 meeting between then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and his Bhutanese counterpart Jigmi Y.Thinley on the sidelines of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development at Rio De Janeiro, Thimpu has not shown much enthusiasm to step up efforts for diplomatic ties. Official statements after the recent Modi meeting shows Bhutan still wary of taking ties with China beyond reciprocal visits and the boundary talks. Talking to NDTV, Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay categorically ruled out the possibility of allowing China to set up an embassy in Thimpu.

With the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between the two countries first signed in 1949 already revised in 2007 to reflect the need for a more symbiotic relationship, India has made efforts to dispel concerns regarding its hegemonic tendencies in its neighborhood. And that the Prime Minister was accompanied by the high-level officials, including External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, attested to the importance of the Prime Minister’s first state visit. India has remained Bhutan’s largest development partner with a large chunk of India’s development assistance in the forms of loans, grants and lines of credit committed to the Himalayan state.

India has been a reliable partner in ensuring the socio-economic and political development having funded most of its landmark projects, and also welcoming and wholeheartedly the democratic transition in the erstwhile monarchy. India’s assistance package to Bhutan amounts to Rs. 4,500 crore for the latter’s 11th five-year plan from 2013 to 2018, covering areas from infrastructure, information and communication technology, to health, agriculture, human resource development and tourism.

While expressing satisfaction for India’s reassurance on uninterrupted food export to Bhutan, the latter also committed to meeting the deadlines on hydroelectric power generation. “Fund flow from India is not a problem in executing these projects,’’ Prime Minister Tobgay said.

In fact, one of the prime issues of focus during the two-day visit was cooperation in the hydropower sector, wherein Modi laid a foundation stone of the 600 MW Kholongchu Hydroelectric project, a joint venture between India and Bhutan and expressed his desire to expand the existing hydropower cooperation between the two nations further. Both countries have already signed a framework agreement on four more JV-model Hydro Electric Projects totaling 2120 MW in 2014. Such a joint venture, besides strengthening economic cooperation, brings export revenues to Bhutan, while offering clean and affordable electricity to India. India and Bhutan also reiterated their commitment to achieving the 10,000 MW target in hydropower cooperation.

In what is almost an untainted relationship between the two countries, the security of the porous border has been of concern to India. However, Bhutan has already showed its willingness to act against anti-India interests on its soil, and has walked the talk of not allowing ‘each other’s territory to be used for interests inimical to the other’.

Earlier in 2003, Bhutan had launched 'Operation All Clear' to dismantle the camps of United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), Bodo insurgents and Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) from southern Bhutan, with the Indian military playing a critical role in the Operation. And, Bhutan has assured India of a soon-to-be-a-launched operation to flush out anti-India insurgents — active in West Bengal and northeastern states — operating from its territory. During the recent visit, speaking to a joint session of Bhutan Parliament, Modi said, “Terrorism Divides, Tourism Unites,” flagging an initiative of combining the northeastern states of India and Bhutan in a web of development and tourism linkages, also proposing a joint sports festival between India’s northeastern states and Bhutan.

One month into office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to be making the right noises and the right moves, his emphasis on South Asia and India’s growth being prominent. With increasing capabilities and rising aspirations at the regional and global arena, an India surer and more confident of its power parameters is imperative. There is no doubt that India lives in a volatile neighborhood that is often seen as its Achilles heel. This is where India’s cordial relations with Bhutan assumes all the more importance, a relationship India should leave no stones unturned in cementing and further strengthening.

Manish Vaid is Junior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation, India.

Dr. Monish Tourangbam is Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, India.

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