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