All Weather Friends?

An ex­ten­sively cor­dial bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship be­tween Bhutan and In­dia has earned the former the stamp of a ‘satel­lite state.’

Southasia - - Bhutan Regional Relations - By Dr. Moo­nis Ah­mar

“Indo-Bhutan re­la­tions date back in his­tory. There is a solid foun­da­tion for the re­la­tion as mu­tu­al­ity of in­ter­ests. And the re­la­tions are very warm and friendly. So it is some­thing I would seek to build in be­cause, af­ter all it may be warm and friendly, but we need to keep it that way. So, that will be my ef­fort.”

No coun­try in the South Asian re­gion has been as con­sis­tent in sup­port­ing In­dia and its for­eign pol­icy moves, as Bhutan. Like Nepal, Bhutan is land­locked and sand­wiched be­tween In­dia and China. Although blessed with nat­u­ral beauty and enor­mous hy­del and min­eral re­sources, the King­dom of Bhutan has main­tained a rel­a­tively iso­la­tion­ist pol­icy.

The mo­men­tum in Indo-Bhutan re­la­tions re­cently built up when the King and Queen of Bhutan, Jigme Kh­e­sar Nam­gyel Wangchuck and Jet­sun Pema, vis­ited In­dia as the Chief Guests for the Repub­lic Day cel­e­bra­tions. The Bhutanese Prime Min­is­ter, Jigmi Y. Thin­ley, also paid an of­fi­cial visit to In­dia in early Fe­bru­ary 2013. His visit aimed to strengthen bi­lat­eral re­la­tions with In­dia, par­tic­u­larly re­lated to hy­dro-elec­tric projects. Ear­lier in Jan­uary, In­dian Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs Min­is­ter Sal­man Khur­shid paid a two-day of­fi­cial visit to Bhutan and held talks with Ly­ongo Khandu Wangchuk, the Bhutanese Min­is­ter for Eco­nomic Af­fairs and Min­is­ter-in-Charge for For­eign Af­fairs. Back to back vis­its of high pro­file In­dian and Bhutanese per­son­al­i­ties sig­nal a ‘leap for­ward’ in deep­en­ing New Delhi’s in­flu­ence in Bhutan.

In 1949, In­dia and Bhutan signed the Treaty of Friend­ship and Co­op­er­a­tion, which was rene­go­ti­ated in 2007. In­dia is also Bhutan’s largest trad­ing part­ner. Ma­jor ex­ports from In­dia in­clude pre­pared food stuff, chem­i­cal prod­ucts, veg­etable oil, plas­tic and rub­ber prod­ucts, tex­tiles, wood and wood prod­ucts, fruits, nuts, ce­re­als, base metal and metal prod­ucts. Bhutan’s ex­ports to In­dia con­sti­tute mainly of gyp­sum, cal­cium car­bide, elec­tric­ity and Port­land ce­ment. A free trade regime be­tween Bhutan and In­dia makes for con­ve­nient trad­ing and stronger eco­nomic re­la­tions. In­dia also pro­vides devel­op­men­tal aid to Bhutan by ren­der­ing eco­nomic and tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance to im­prove its in­fra­struc­ture. In or­der to fur­ther con­sol­i­date Indo-Bhutan re­la­tions, the

- V. P. Haran, Am­bas­sador of In­dia to Bhutan

In­dia-Bhutan Foun­da­tion was es­tab­lished in Au­gust 2003 to aug­ment co­op­er­a­tion in ed­u­ca­tion, en­vi­ron­ment and pro­mote cul­tural ex­changes.

A ma­jor area of bi­lat­eral co­op­er­a­tion in Indo-Bhutan re­la­tions is in the sec­tor of hy­dropower, which got an im­pe­tus with the in­au­gu­ra­tion of the 60MW Kurichhu Hy­dro­elec­tric project in April 2006. Like Nepal, Bhutan has enor­mous po­ten­tial to gen­er­ate hy­dro­elec­tric­ity. But un­like in Nepal, where In­dia is blamed of de­priv­ing the coun­try of de­vel­op­ing hy­dro­elec­tric po­ten­tial, sim­i­lar anti-In­dian feel­ing and an­i­mos­ity is ab­sent in Bhutan. In­dian Prime Min­is­ter, Man­mo­han Singh also vis­ited Bhutan on the oc­ca­sion of 16th SAARC sum­mit in April 2010. On the oc­ca­sion of his visit to Thimphu, the Min­is­ter of Eco­nomic Af­fairs of Bhutan and the In­dian Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs Min­is­ter signed im­ple­men­ta­tion agree­ments for the Pu­natsange­hhu II and Mangdechlu Hy­dro Elec­tric Projects. Apart from de­vel­op­ing Bhutan’s hy­dro­elec­tric po­ten­tial, In­dia also pro­vided as­sis­tance to Bhutan in the ar­eas of ed­u­ca­tion, in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, air ser­vice, med­i­cal sci­ence and preven­tion of il­licit traf­fick­ing in nar­cotics drugs. The depth and com­pre­hen­sive na­ture of In­doBhutan re­la­tions was ex­pressed by the In­dian Am­bas­sador to Thimphu, V.P. Haran, “We need to work on some of the is­sues where there is mu­tual in­ter­est. For ex­am­ple, Bhutan is con­cen­trat­ing on the so­cioe­co­nomic sec­tor and pri­or­i­ties to pro­vide elec­tric­ity, water, health care, ed­u­ca­tion in ru­ral ar­eas. In­dia has worked with the government of Bhutan to see how best it could be pro­gressed. Th­ese are mega projects and th­ese are eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion projects.”

The cen­tral ques­tion then is why are Indo-Bhutanese re­la­tions so cor­dial and how will the King’s re­cent visit to In­dia im­pact ties be­tween the two South Asian neigh­bors? Cor­dial­ity in Indo-Bhutanese re­la­tions has much to do with the ageold in­flu­ence that New Delhi wields in Bhutan to the ex­tent that some cir­cles de­scribe Bhutan as In­dia’s satel­lite neigh­bor. Cer­tainly, the Bhutanese monarch and his peo­ple may not like to be dubbed as a “satel­lite” state but a pol­icy of to­tal con­so­nance with New Delhi does send a dif­fer­ent mes­sage to the world re­gard­ing Bhutan’s sovereignty. While high rank­ing vis­its clearly il­lus­trate mu­tual trust and con­fi­dence, the asym­me­try in the coun­tries size, pop­u­la­tion and re­sources cer­tainly pro­vide a clear edge to In­dia in de­ter­min­ing its in­ter­ests and the ac­com­plish­ment of its ob­jec­tives in a weak and small South Asian state.

Bhutan’s ad­her­ence to In­dia’s poli­cies can be gauged from the fact that Bhutan has of­ten voted in fa­vor of In­dia in the UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly and other in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions. Whether it was the is­sue of declar­ing South Asia a nu­clear weapon free zone or con­demn­ing the Soviet mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in Afghanistan, Bhutan sided with In­dia. As a re­sult of Bhutan’s sub­scrip­tion of In­dia’s for­eign pol­icy stance on dif­fer­ent is­sues, Bhutan is con­sid­ered a vi­tal ally, if not a satel­lite state. While Bhutan can­not in­flu­ence In­dia’s domestic pol­i­tics, In­dia cer­tainly plays a cru­cial role in shap­ing things in Bhutan. In­dia’s ap­pre­hen­sion vis-à-vis China’s proac­tive pol­icy in South Asia also com­pels New Delhi to ac­cord spe­cial at­ten­tion to Bhutan.

Although, Bhutan is a con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy with its first par­lia­men­tary elec­tions held on March 24, 2008, the royal fam­ily has ac­cel­er­ated the process of par­tic­i­pa­tory democ­racy. In­dia also pro­vided tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance to Bhutan for hold­ing elec­tions. It seems the two coun­tries will sus­tain the high level of an all weather friend­ship and co­op­er­a­tion in the years to come. Dr. Moo­nis Ah­mar is a Pro­fes­sor of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions at the Univer­sity of Karachi and Di­rec­tor, Pro­gram on Peace Stud­ies and Con­flict Res­o­lu­tion.

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