Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck commenced his eight-day trip to India by touching down at Guwahati late on Friday (3 November) morning.
This is the monarch’s second visit to India this year. But this visit holds great significance because it comes immediately after the visit of the Himalayan kingdom’s foreign minister, Tandi Dorji, to China.
The Bhutanese king will meet President Droupadi Murmu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and many senior officials in New Delhi.
The Bhutanese king, accompanied by his wife Queen Jetsun Pema and their two sons, were received at Guwahati airport by Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. The royal family visited Kamakhya Dhan later in the day and will travel to Kaziranga National Park.
The royal delegation will fly to Delhi on Sunday. After their official engagements at the national capital, they will visit Maharashtra.
The visit is significant because it is aimed at delivering a “reassuring message” to India that Bhutan accords prime importance to its ties with India. The need for such a reassurance arose because of concerns in India over Bhutanese Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji’s recent visit to China.
Dorji’s China Visit
Dorji was in China in end-October to participate in the 25th round of bilateral (Bhutan-China) border talks that had remained stalled for over seven years.
Dorji’s visit to China created considerable unease in India. Apart from that being the first-ever visit by a foreign minister of Bhutan to China, what also sent alarm bells ringing in New Delhi was Dorji’s enthusiastic endorsement of Chinese President Xi Jinping's Global Security Initiative (GSI), the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the Global Cultural Initiative (GCI) that are aimed at furthering Beijing's strategic initiatives.
The Bhutanese Foreign Minister met Chinese Vice-President Han Zheng and the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. A Chinese Foreign Ministry release said that Dorji concurred with Yi’s position that “conclusion of boundary negotiations and the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between China and Bhutan will fully serve the long-term and fundamental interests of both the countries”.
Bhutan does not have direct diplomatic relations with China. Dorji also “strongly reiterated” Bhutan’s adherence to ‘one-China’ principle and acknowledged that President Xi’s triple initiatives (GSI, GDI and GCI) “have delivered benefits to all parties, especially its neighbours, including Bhutan”.
New Delhi is wary of these initiatives and feels that they are designed to increase China’s global footprint by undermining the sovereignty of other nations.
India’s Stake In Bhutan-China Border Dispute
India has a strong stake in border talks between Bhutan and China. There are two disputed areas on the Bhutan-China border. One is in Bhutan’s north (Jakarlung and Pasamlung valleys that span an area of around 500 square kilometres) while the other is the Doklam region in the kingdom’s west.
It is the 270 square kilometre Doklam region that India is concerned about. That area is in the India-China-Bhutan trijunction and China lays claim to the strategic Doklam plateau that overlooks the vulnerable ‘Siliguri corridor’.
India and China were locked in a tense military standoff for 76 days in 2017 after China attempted to construct a road in the Doklam plateau. The Chinese action was interpreted as an assertion of Beijing’s claims over Doklam.
Since the Doklam plateau overlooks the slender ‘Siliguri corridor’ which is northeast India’s sole and vulnerable land link with the rest of India, Chinese presence on the plateau that belongs to Bhutan will pose a grave security threat to India.
Beijing has been leaning hard on Thimpu to resolve the border disputes in its north and west through what China says is a ‘land swap formula’.
China wants Bhutan to surrender its claim over the Doklam plateau in exchange for China giving up its claims over Jakarlung and Pasamlung valleys in the country’s north.
But Bhutan has categorically told China that a resolution of the dispute over Doklam would also involve India. China has been unwilling to accept that. Chinese leaders, diplomats and officials have been telling their Bhutanese counterparts that Doklam is a bilateral issue between China and Bhutan and India should be kept out of the dispute.
In order to force Bhutan’s acquiescence, China has been indulging in its infamous salami slicing — surreptitiously advancing into small bits of Bhutan’s territory and annexing them. China has also been making fresh claims on Bhutan’s territory like the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Bhutan bordering Arunachal Pradesh (read this).
Though Bhutan has, so far, resisted all that pressure from China, a section of politicians and intellectuals in the kingdom feel that Thimpu should move away from India’s exclusive sphere of influence and chart an independent course. That raises consternation in India.
Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering has consistently said that India will be part of the discussions that his country holds with China over Doklam.
“Doklam is a junction point between India, China, and Bhutan. It is not up to Bhutan alone to fix the problem. There are three of us. There is no big or small country; all are three equal countries, each counting for one-third,” Tshering told a newspaper recently.
However, Tshering has also said that Bhutan and China were “inching towards the completion of a three-step road map on boundary delineation and demarcation”. Though he was quick to add that Bhutan would ensure that no agreement with China goes against India’s interests, New Delhi is wary.
China’s Growing Influence In Bhutan
Though China and Bhutan do not have formal diplomatic relations, the two sides have established close informal ties through visits of politicians, diplomats, academics, students, civil society leaders and others.
Beijing has instituted scholarships for Bhutanese students to study in China and regularly sponsors visits by academics, politicians and others to China. China has also promised huge investments in various sectors in Bhutan. The pro-China constituency has, thus, been growing in the Himalayan kingdom.
New Delhi fears that once the two countries establish direct and formal diplomatic relations — this is inevitable — Bhutan may go into China’s sphere of influence.
How India Is Countering China
In order to preclude that possibility, India has stepped up its engagement with Bhutan. During the Bhutanese king’s last visit to India in early April this year, New Delhi offered to step up its support for Bhutan’s 13th Five-Year plan (February 2024 to February 2029) and fulfil its commitment to that country’s ongoing 12th Five-Year Plan (FYP).
India’s contribution of Rs 4,500 crore to Bhutan’s 12th FYP constituted 73 per cent of Bhutan’s total external grant component. The focus areas of India’s assistance are agriculture and irrigation development, ICT, health, industrial development, road transport, energy, civil aviation, urban development, human resource development, capacity building, scholarship, education and culture.
Now, India is offering Bhutan partnerships and know-how in space exploration, cutting-edge technologies, enhanced and easy connectivity and power purchase and export agreements.
According to senior officers in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), New Delhi will offer Bhutan more help in education, incubating startups, skill development and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and in capacity building in key sectors.
MEA officers who have prepared for the Bhutan monarch’s visit told Swarajya that New Delhi will offer fast-track connectivity and power projects.
“All our help is aimed at making Bhutan a self-sufficient and prosperous economy,” said a senior officer of the MEA’s Northern Division that deals with Nepal and Bhutan.
In return for all that help and assistance, New Delhi seeks to be assured that Bhutan will keep India’s interests in mind while dealing with China.
MEA officials pointed out that though Bhutan has an elected government, the King wields enormous powers and is a highly revered figure. Thus, keeping the King in good humour makes a lot of sense.
Also, the current government’s term ends later this month and elections to the 47-member National Assembly will be held in January next.
In the 2018 elections, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) which was considered pro-India lost power to Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT). The DNT, headed by Lotay Tshering (who is also the outgoing Premier), tried to steer Bhutan away from India’s exclusive sphere of influence. But it has not been very successful in its attempts to do so.
MEA mandarins feel that apart from maintaining good ties with incumbent elected governments in the kingdom, keeping the monarchy in a warm embrace is crucial to safeguarding India’s core strategic interests.
That is why the King’s visit on the eve of the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Bhutan assumes significance.
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