Modi mends delicate ties with Bhutan

By Barun Das Gupta

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has proved his diplomatic mettle in his first foreign trip to Bhutan by restoring trust in the   tiny Himalayan kingdom about Indian sincerity in protecting the interests of that country. Modi was quite candid in underlining that Bhutan can depend on India for both political and economic support and it should not feel insecure as a result of domineering attitude of China.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to Bhutan, on the invitation of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel, has to be seen in the perspective of China’s efforts for some time past, to increase its presence and influence in the tiny Himalayan kingdom as a part of its ‘string of pearls’ policy to encircle India. That explains the inclusion of the National Security Adviser in the team accompanying the PM, besides the Minister for External Affairs and the Foreign Secretary.
In a bid to make its presence felt in Bhutan, China has been asking the country to allow the opening of a diplomatic mission of China in capital Thimpu. In April, 2012, Zhou Gang, a former Chinese ambassador to Delhi, was sent to Bhutan as a special envoy of the Chinese Government. He carried a terse message from Beijing: if you want to settle the boundary dispute with us, allow us to open our mission here. At present, apart from India, only two other countries have their embassies in Thimpu – Bangladesh and Kuwait.
Bhutan has a 470 km long border with China. It is forty-four per cent of the country’s total border length. As a buffer State between India and China, Bhutan is of immense strategic importance to both the countries. Chumbi Valley which lies at the trijunction of India, Bhutan and China is 500 kms away from the so-called ‘chicken’s neck’ in north West Bengal that connects mainland India to its north-east.
Bhutan’s border dispute with China involves 4500 sq. kms of land on the northern and western parts of the kingdom. Bhutan’s total geographical area is just 38,394 sq. kms. Beijing has been demanding that Bhutan cede to China some of its territory which lies close to the Chumbi Valley in north-west Bhutan. In June last year, troops of China’s PLA entered Bhutan through the Sektang region in the east and the Pang La region in the north. The Chinese set up three posts in Bhutanese territory.
China’s border talks with Bhutan, as with India, are dragging on and on, endlessly. The 21st round of talks was held in August last year, with no sign on the part of the Chinese for a quick settlement of the dispute once for all. No one knows when the next round of talks will be held.
All these developments have been a source of constant worry for New Delhi. Prime Minister Modi’s visit has to be seen against the background of these developments. Bhutan needs India’s help and cooperation not only to accelerate the tempo of its economic development but also to insure its safety and security against its strong northern neighbour.
The Manmohan Singh Government is perceived to have taken a ‘soft’ approach to both China and Pakistan.  When Dr Singh visited Bhutan in September last year, India announced a financial assistance of Rs. 4500 crore for Bhutan’s 11th Five Year Plan. In addition India also extended help of another Rs. 500 crore for a special Economic Stimulus Package (ESP).
There is immense scope for developing hydel power in Bhutan. Three hydel projects including Chukha are already supplying about 1500 MW of power to India. New Delhi is also studying the feasibility of a few more hydel projects. This includes the 540 MW Amochu project which will generate 540 MW of power. Security and environmental considerations have held up its clearance so long. But the NDA Government is expected to expedite a decision on Amochu as it has decided to clear big projects at home also. The project has been found to be technically feasible and financially viable. Bhutan’s goal is to generate and supply to India an additional 10,000 MW of hydel power by 2020.
Indo-Bhutan cooperation is going on at different levels. During his two-day stay in Bhutan, Prime Minister Modi unveiled the foundation stone of the 600 MW Kholongchu hydel project, inaugurated the new Supreme Court building and addressed a joint session of the Bhutan Parliament, besides calling on the King and holding extensive talks with his counterpart Tshering Togbay. The visit was not only a re-affirmation of India’s friendship for Bhutan but also a message to China that India’s historical bonds with Bhutan are indissoluble. Feeling insecure as she is from her northern neighbour, Bhutan needed an assurance from India that not only will her independence be respected but her territorial integrity will be defended against possible designs of her aggressive northern neighbour.
China has been trying to drive a wedge between India and Bhutan. Last August, just on the eve of the last round of border talks, a researcher at the government-controlled Shanghai Institute of International Studies wrote in the Global Times that India had manipulated the parliamentary elections in Bhutan and was treating Bhutan as its protectorate. Beijing’s anger at the outcome of the elections is quite understandable. The defeat of the overtly pro-Chinese ruling Peace and Prosperity Party put paid to Beijing’s hope of having a bigger slice of Bhutan market at India’s expense. (IPA Service)

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