PM’s visit to India reinforces status quo, strengthens old ties – Kinley Tshering

As the tradition is, India has been the first call abroad for all the elected Prime Ministers of Bhutan. Given India’s significance as a traditional ally, development and trading partner, close neighbor, and above all, the biggest donor for Bhutan, Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering’s maiden visit to India this week is therefore no mere coincidence. Clearly, it is a strategic decision, one that reinforces the status quo of Bhutan’s unchanging foreign relations with India.

This state visit has already allayed unwarranted fears ruffled up by Indian media and foreign policy pundits, who, following Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa’s (DNT) ‘surprise’ victory in the 2018 elections, predicted a deviation in the way Bhutan’s new government might conduct its foreign policy with India vis-à-vis China.

The premise for such bizarre conclusions was based on DNT’s election campaign pledge to diversify Bhutan’s economy, which was again misinterpreted as Bhutan’s design to slip away from India’s control. Bring in China into the picture, and all hell is let loose. Such fear and loathing revved up by Indian media is distastefully immature at best and obnoxiously ignorant at worst. Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering’s first foreign call to India should lay all fears and paranoia to rest. At least for now!

In wake of this visit, it might be also necessary to take a deeper look at Bhutan’s foreign policy toward India from our own perspective, historical and contemporary.

Bhutan’s relation with India runs much deeper than what appears to the eye. The established position is that Bhutan’s relation with India is based on mutual trust and cooperation.

Indo-Bhutan relation is a strategic alliance with common security interest. And this common security approach has been a defining hallmark of Indo-Bhutan relation since the 1950s. This is also largely the reason for Bhutan’s southward orientation in the context of geopolitical dimension and Bhutan’s national security and sovereignty.

India’s contributions to Bhutan’s socioeconomic development have been tremendous. In fact, India fully funded Bhutan’s first two Five Year Plans (FYP). India has been Bhutan’s major donor, with financial assistance increasing from Nu 17.47 crores in the first FYP to Nu 50 billion in the 11th Plan. During the visit of Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering to India this week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has agreed to offer Nu 45 billion financial assistance for the 12th FYP.

There has been a gradual shift in Bhutan and India’s relationship in recent decades. The revision of the 1949 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 2007 was a major breakthrough, particularly removal of the archaic clauses on foreign policy and defense matters where Bhutan had to consult India. Symbolically, the revision of the Treaty on India’s part was a validation of the coming-of-age of Bhutan as an equal partner.

While there is genuine gratitude among Bhutanese people for India’s assistance in all spheres of Bhutan’s socioeconomic development, there are also voices within the country that are critical of the way India handles its foreign policy with Bhutan. Those voices are valid as well and it must be heard.

India has been rather harsh when it comes to Bhutan’s affairs with China. And for no substantial reason as such. India has diplomatic relations with China and trade volume between these two superpowers run into billions of dollars. And yet India can get unreasonably alarmed, even miffed, by any friendly overtures, real or perceived, between Bhutan and China. It is Bhutan’s sovereign right to establish diplomatic relations with any country, more so with a powerful and often aggressive neighbor.

In this respect, Bhutan has given so much to Indo-Bhutan friendship, to protect India’s security interest in the region, and quite often, at the risk of its own. Bhutan shares some 470km of disputed border with China yet it has been holding onto a plateau that is of no geopolitical interest to Bhutan. Last year’s stand off at Doklam between Indian and Chinese military should be a stark reminder of where Bhutan stands and with whom, and it must be followed with greater reciprocity of trust and confidence. Not otherwise.

The most important of all, Bhutan’s foreign policy is guided by the enlightened wisdom of our Monarchs. The foundation of Indo-Bhutan relation has been long established and the coming and going of elected governments will have little effect on how the foreign policy is managed. In fact, that has clearly been DNT government’s position. Bhutan’s foreign policy with India will not change overnight, or with every election. And Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering’s visit to India must be a reminder of this.

The writer is a former newspaper editor and currently media & communications researcher and consultant.