25 August 2021
By TON Research Section
The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan maintains healthy relations with its neighbour India. The diplomatic relations between both the countries were established in 1968 but before that the treaty of friendship and cooperation was signed in 1949 between both the countries, which was later revised in February 2007, which served as a basic framework for relations. Since then Bhutan has been an ally of India but on the other hand India has not maintained cordial relations with its other neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Nepal and China. In recent times, India has been using hegemonic methods in diplomacy to handle international relations that is slowly driving-away its neighbours.
The relations between India and Bhutan have been sustained by the regular visits, meetings and other high level dialogues however, India is playing a key role in the socio-economic transformation of Bhutan and on the other hand Bhutan is also serving interests of India. India’s policy for Bhutan is focused on cooperation based on its needs and requirements and India does not want any other country especially China to build its sphere of influence in Bhutan. India has strong hold on Bhutan politically, economically and socially therefore, Bhutan also cannot completely ignore India. India is Bhutan’s largest development partner and has funded Bhutan’s entire first (1961-1966) and second (1967-1972) five year plans. Between 2000 and 2017, Bhutan received total of $ 4.7 billion in grants from India. There are various ongoing development projects in areas such as trade transit, economic, hydro-power, development cooperation, water resources, security, border management and other areas between both the countries.
Recently, on 28th June, 2021, the Third India-Bhutan Development Cooperation talks were held in a virtual mode. According to India’s Ministry of External Affairs statement, “Government of India has committed Rs. 4500 crore for the implementation of development projects and Rs. 400 crores for the transitional Trade Support Facility during Bhutan’s 12th Five Year Plan (2018 - 2023).” It added that, “77 large and intermediate projects and 524 Small Development Projects (SDPs)/ High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDPs) are at various stages of implementation under the 12th Five Year Plan.”
Bhutan is a pivotal to two of the India's major foreign policies, "Neighbourhood First Policy" and the "Act-East Policy". However, it could not be denied that India consider Bhutan as a necessary piece for ensuring its economic and strategic hegemony in the region. Despite the development projects and economic progress in Bhutan under India’s umbrella the government of Bhutan is facing major challenges of rising foreign debt to India and unemployment in country. Now, even though the cordial relations between both countries, Bhutan is in heft to pursue its own strategic interest, pushing its own economic agenda and is now seeking to mend its relations with China. Now the Bhutan’s government and majority population seeks shift towards Chinese investment in the country for better future but India remains as a hurdle in shifting Bhutan’s foreign policy.
Earlier, when the Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigme Thinley met with his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao in 2012 on the side-lines of Rio+20 Summit, India retaliated by withdrawing all fuel subsidies, which resulted in huge crisis in landlocked tiny Himalayan kingdom. Undoubtedly, this subsidy cut was just to give a picture of domination and diplomatic overkill. However, after this low point of relations between both the countries, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bhutan in 2014 and then again visited in 2019 to keep the relations even. On one hand India is investing in Bhutan but on the other hand Bhutan is also of the largest beneficiaries to India. Bhutan is also exporting surplus electricity to India. So far, Indian government has constructed three Hydropower projects (HEPs) and most of the power is directed to India because it is control over them.
Moreover, the geographical location of Bhutan is also a key factor, as India's policy is concerned. The geography of the border and India’s policy towards Bhutan clearly shows that India wants to takeover Himalaya’s tiny kingdom to defend its border from any northern threat. However, India’s strategic thinking has certainly a continental outlook and is struggling hard to build its alliance with the smaller South Asian states, as parts of its aspirations are to be a dominating power in the region but due to these policies, all the neighbours have turned hostile against India. India needs to review its foreign policy from a wider perspective. Today, Bhutan’s foreign policy is clearly revealing India’s hegemonic role. Somewhat it also seems that the sovereignty of Bhutan is foregone idea because India has strong grip over Bhutan’s economy and military therefore, it will be difficult for Bhutan to gain diplomatic independence. Albeit, despite these tactics of India there are assumptions of changing stance and it seems that India is losing ground.