Strengthening Relationship Between India and Bhutan

Col SK Shahi,


Bhutan was the first foreign country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi  chose to visit on 15-16 June 2014 after being sworn-in as Prime Minister . During his visit he met His Majesty The King of Bhutan, His Majesty The Fourth  Druk  Gyalpo  and the Prime Minister of Bhutan. PM addressed a Joint Session of the National Assembly and National Council of Bhutan and met the Leader of the Opposition. He also inaugurated Supreme Court building that was built with Indian funding.  Modi was accompanied by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, NSA Ajit Doval and foreign secretary Sujatha Singh.

 Bhutan being a buffer state between India and China, has strategic consequence for India’s neighbourhood policy. China’s increasing influence and efforts to improve its connectivity and enhance trade with South Asian countries is a matter of concern for India.Our cultural linkages make us natural friends and partners. While Bhutan, has taken care of India’s security interest, India has been proactive in ensuring Bhutan’s developmental and economic needs. Bilateral engagements between two countries have increased manifold. In the last three years there have been four visits by the fifth king of Bhutan,  Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk and PM of Bhutan has visited five times after 2008.

The key document guiding relations between both the Governments is the Treaty of Friendship signed in 1949 which has been revised in 2007. This was a landmark development as Article – II, which enforced Bhutan foreign policy to be guided by India was revised. The revised treaty of 2007 strengthens Bhutan’s status as an independent and sovereign nation which were absent in earlier version.

In 2003, Bhutan King Jigme Singye Wangchuk himself lead his troops from the front and risked his life' to protect the sovereignty and security of the Himalayan kingdom by 'leading the troops into the hostile jungles' to flush out the anti-India insurgents.

 Since 1962, Indian military Training Team (IMTRAT) with 1,000 troops fully budgeted by India has been providing assistance to RBA on operational matters and advising Government of Bhutan on all defence matters. They have been assisting RBA/RBG personnel in training in their locations and in running of the Wangchuk Lo Dzong Military School.

Project Dantak raised in May 1961 at Samdrup Jongkar in Eastern Bhutan has contributed to economic growth of Bhutan by not only developing roads and tele-communication networks but also other prestigious works throughout Bhutan.  Over the years, Project Dantak has constructed 1500 Km of roads, airfield at Paro, tele-communication network in Bhutan, Indo-Bhutan Microwave link, Bhutan Broadcasting Station, the prestigious India House Complex, Chukha Hydel Housing Complex, Hydel Sub-stations, river training works, Schools and Colleges etc. 

The slow progress on talks between Nepal and Bhutan over the issue of South Bhutan refugees has been a cause of concern. However, as India enjoys friendly relations with both Nepal and Bhutan, it does not want to be seen as taking sides on this contentious issue. Hence, the issue has been viewed as bilateral issue wherein India has remained neutral so far. There are about 27,000 floating Bhutan refugees in Siliguri corridor in North East region, who could be exploited by vested interests and vitiate the internal security profile therein.

There have been minor irritants in India – Bhutan relations during the previous regime. India had withdrawn the subsidy on cooking gas and kerosene sending prices soaring in Bhutan which led to some criticism. Subsequently, India had to revoke the order.

China’s interest in Bhutan is quite evident in recent years. China does not have any formal diplomatic ties with Bhutan, although visits and trade between the two has significantly increased in the recent past. Previous Prime Minister Mr Jigme Thinley had shown inclination towards China and was actively pursuing the boundary settlement. In fact, he was the first Head of State to meet Wen Zia Bao on sidelines of Rio+20 summits. Some sections of Bhutanese people also want to improve relations with China .This could be due to Bhutan’s initiative to liberlise its foreign policy for economic aid and trade development without compromising its conservative religious and cultural traditions. Since 1984 China has been trying to settle boundary dispute with Bhutan .There have been 20 rounds of bilateral talks over the boundary dispute. China has been making concerted efforts to demarcate the border by offering package deal to Bhutan. Settlement of boundary dispute will facilitate trade and establishing formal diplomatic relations between China and Bhutan. In fact China has been insisting that resolution of border dispute is secondary and both countries should focus on improving trade and bilateral relation. Bhutan and China have agreed to carry out a joint survey of disputed border during the 21st round of expert group meeting. China’s effort has been to conduct Joint Technical Field Survey in the disputed areas in the North western sector in close proximity to the Chumbi Valley. However, the deep rooted bilateral relations and strong mutual trust between India-Bhutan relation, Bhutan has refrained from playing China’s card.

China has settled its land border with 12 out of 14 countries with which it had border disputes mostly accepting loss of territory, so as to achieve favourable permanent settlement. But not with Bhutan and India. The reason to its vulnerability in Bhutan lies in the strategic importance of the Chumbi valley. China is also rapidly developing infrastructure opposite Chumbi valley including plans to extend railway network from Lhasa to Zangmu, and Shigatse to Yadong right at the tip of Chumbi valley, a vital tri-junction. Settlement of border dispute in the North western sector and infrastructure developments by China in this region will have grave security implications for India. Bhutan understands the strategic importance of Chumbi valley, and therefore underplays the settlement of boundary dispute in Northwest due to its vulnerability for India. As per Arun sehgal of “Forum for Strategic Initiative” China-Bhutan reconciliation can only come with the settlement of boundary dispute where China seeks the Doklan plateau overlooking Chumbi valley while making tradeoffs in the grazing grounds in North Bhutan.

  It is very important to have frequent visit and extensive exchange of views at the highest levels to sustain good bilateral relations between the countries. Towards this end, PM’s first foreign visit to Bhutan is seen as right step towards strengthening bilateral relation with immediate neighbour and closest ally in South Asia. Both countries have committed to achieve the 10,000 MW target in hydropower cooperation. Three power projects are now operational; three others will be commissioned by 2017-18. The Indian PM called for greater economic ties and a more responsive Indian financial assistance to Bhutan. He suggested doubling the scholarships provided to Bhutanese students in India and offered help in setting up a digital library of two million books and periodicals in the Himalayan nation. These will be built with India’s assistance package of Rs 4,500 crore for Bhutan’s five-year plan from 2013 to 2018, which covers a range of areas from infrastructure, IT, health, agriculture, tourism to human resources. Improving cultural exchange by increasing people to people contact especially from Himalayan region between the two countries will further cement the strong bonding between India and Bhutan. Also, India has stepped up economic and trade linkages, including exempting Bhutan from restrictions on export of milk powder, wheat, edible oil, pulses and non-basmati rice.

B2B (Bharat to Bhutan) ties as described by the PM have been natural due to our historical linkages, culture and tradition. PM’s visit to Bhutan has been most successful and will give boost in improving diplomatic relations with our immediate neighbour. With China on mind and accounting for the possibility of anti-India insurgents making use of the neighbour’s territory, India and Bhutan decided to continue with their close “coordination and cooperation” on issues of national interest. Both countries have re-affirmed their commitment towards enhancing development cooperation and economic aid and not allow their territories to be used for interest “inimical” to each other. PM assured that ties between India and Bhutan are very strong and a change of government in New Delhi would not alter the dynamics of their bilateral ties. Strength of a democracy is very important for the region and its people. The stronger India becomes, the better will be for Bhutan and other SAARC (South Asian Association for regional cooperation) nations. A strong and stable India is needed to make sure that we can help our neighbours with their problems. Prime Minister`s visit reflects the high priority that the Government of India attaches to its relations with Bhutan and to our South Asian neighbourhood.


Colonel SK Shahi is Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation, USI.

(Article uploaded on June 30, 2014).

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI.


MacGregor Medal