For most Bhutanese the foreign ministry and foreign policy has always been a less than interesting news subject. All that one hears and sees in Bhutan are visits by delegation A or delegation B, a few photo ops and then some closed door discussions where we don’t really know what is happening.
As a result, a harsh but unfounded criticism of the ministry is that it is not as important like in other countries as Bhutan is a least developed and landlocked country.
However, on closer examination this is one of the most critical ministries of Bhutan if not the most critical one. The fact that Bhutan is an LDC and landlocked country puts even much more pressure on our country to have a much stronger and detailed foreign policy and for our diplomats to execute them with efficiency. This is because bigger and more prosperous countries can afford to make mistakes but Bhutan cannot.
Bhutan perhaps has the best track record and probably also the most realistic approach in this region in foreign relations especially in dealing with the big powers. During the times of the British, it was His Majesty the first king that worked out a strategic and working relationship with the British Empire as partners when much bigger neighboring states were losing their independence.
Not long after the British left, this region became one of the most unstable in the world with events in Tibet, Sikkim and other areas. During these uncertain times, His Majesty the third King wonderfully managed the visit of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in the critical year of 1959 that not only saw the strengthening of Bhutan’s sovereignty but also laid the foundations of Bhutan’s rapid development. September 1971 was another crucial year for Bhutan when it acceded to the United Nations as a sovereign and independent nation whose status was further strengthened and accelerated under His Majesty the Fourth King.
Today Bhutan has formal diplomatic relations with around 25 foreign countries and the European Union and it is growing. Bhutan also has links with a host of international bodies like the United Nations, WHO, FAO, WFP, JICA, DANIDA etc. It is a member of regional organizations like the SAARC, BIMSTEC etc.
What use some may still argue is the benefit of diplomatic relations and membership of such forums?
The first and most important role will be visible if you take a look at our annual budget and also the five years plans. Virtually all the capital works that is the building of hospitals, schools, farm roads etc is undertaken due to mainly foreign aid, grants and even soft loans. Even most of our income generating projects are from foreign help.
So most of these countries and nearly all the agencies play and active role in Bhutan’s development process. One effective example of our diplomacy at work is the recent LDC conference in Istanbul. When most other LDC countries plagued by poor governance where complaining that enough aid was not secured for them Bhutan was among the few that through bilateral negotiations and diplomacy had already secured the required aid and also achieved most of its developmental targets for the last decade.
Bhutan’s embassies in India, Bangladesh, Kuwait, Thailand and Brussels and missions in New York and Geneva are the first points of contact for aid mobilization, aid sensitization, information gathering and also protection of our national interests. The foreign ministry in Thimphu is the mother ship that does analysis, research, gives inputs, formulates policies and plans and makes informed moves for Bhutan on the world stage. Its complex negotiations at various forums and with varied organizations in cooperation with agencies like the GNHC brings the bacon home.
For Bhutan’s foreign policy one of the key factors is its geo strategically important location nestled between the two upcoming superpowers of India and China. As Bhutan grows in international stature and confidence and is less reliant on the outside world its foreign ministry will play an increasingly important role in dealing wisely with these giant neighbors in our national interest.
The main corner stone of Bhutan’s foreign policy is India with whom ties seem to be getting better and stronger with every passing year and our relation is gradually evolving from aid giving and receiving and to that of more equal partners. The ministry here to will be playing an important role along with other agencies.
The ministries’ actions are not visible to us as it is done outside Bhutan and so the traditionally shy and secretive ministry as a whole needs to open up more. The ministry is hampered by limited budget and manpower that at times constrains diplomatic activity.
In this new and globalized era our diploamts will have to contend with increasingly complex and crucial climate, aid, trade, security, regional, security and multilateral negotations at the international fora that will decide the future course of Bhutan.