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External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj welcomed Bhutan’s king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, queen Jetsun Pema and their son, prince Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck, at the Delhi airport on Tuesday. Photo: PTI
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj welcomed Bhutan’s king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, queen Jetsun Pema and their son, prince Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck, at the Delhi airport on Tuesday. Photo: PTI

Why Bhutan royal family’s four-day India visit matters

The four-day India visit by Bhutan's royal family is seen as significant in light of the recent India-China Doklam standoff

New Delhi: The king and queen of Bhutan—Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Jetsun Pema Wangchuck—began a four-day visit to India on Tuesday, their first since India and China ended a 73-day-old standoff on Doklam plateau in the Himalayan kingdom two months ago.

At hand to receive the Bhutanese royal couple was Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj.

“The visit would provide an opportunity to both the sides for reviewing the entire gamut of bilateral cooperation, including plans for befitting celebrations of golden jubilee of establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries in the year 2018, and to advance the special bilateral ties of friendship and cooperation," an Indian foreign ministry statement said on Monday.

“India and Bhutan enjoy unique ties of friendship, which are characterized by deep understanding and mutual trust. The visit of His Majesty the King of Bhutan is in keeping with the long standing tradition of regular high-level exchanges between the two countries," it added.

That Bhutan and India have a special relationship is commonly accepted. Bhutan is known to be closer to New Delhi than Beijing. Thimphu does have diplomatic ties with China, something Beijing has been trying to rectify in the past few years.

Analysts say the visit of royal couple is significant for many reasons.

For one, the king and the Bhutanese royal family are held in very high esteem by the people of the country. It is common knowledge that the king influences decision making in the government though the head of the government is Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay.

“The king’s visit at this juncture will help India underline its special relationship with Bhutan—a signal that Bhutan’s India first policy is intact against the backdrop of China trying to make inroads into a country seen as firmly within India’s sphere of influence in South Asia," said Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at the London-based King’s College.

“In the aftermath of the Doklam standoff, the king’s visit could help an exchange of views on the matter at the highest levels in India and Bhutan," he said.

The face-off between India and China took place after Bhutanese troops registered a protest against Chinese military building a road on the plateau. Indian troops—stationed in the area under a special security pact between India and Bhutan—intervened after the Chinese troops ignored the Bhutanese warnings. The Chinese road construction plans also had India worried that Beijing could cut off the Indian mainland’s access to its northeastern states.

According to India, the area falls in a tri-junction i.e, between Bhutan, India and China. India and China who have yet to settle their 4,000km long border, had agreed in 2012 to consult third countries while settling such disputes in the case of a tri-junction. Bhutan and China too are in talks to settle their borders. The king is not directly involved in the negotiations but is understood to influence policy making in the country including foreign policy.

Given that Prime Minister Narendra Modi started his tenure in May 2014 with a “neighbourhood first" approach, analysts say it is only natural that there is an exchange of high level visits. Bhutan was the first country Modi chose to visit after taking office. As the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or Saarc, regional grouping has been rendered ineffective thanks to tensions between India and Pakistan, New Delhi is pushing an alternative—the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or BIMSTEC. It comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, and brings together 1.5 billion people or 21% of the world population and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of over $2.5 trillion.

Bhutan is also key for India’s plans to push subregional cooperation. A transport agreement among Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal was mooted in 2014 but is yet to take shape given Bhutan’s worries about the impact of pollution and loss of businesses if trucks and cars from India, Bangladesh and Nepal roll into the country. A discussion with the king covering all these issues could help assuage some concerns and help accelerate regional integration within BIMSTEC, say analysts.

Besides these is another factor—Bhutan’s hydel power potential that New Delhi is keen to tap. The Himalayan country has a hydel power potential of 30,000 megawatt (MW) of which 23,000MW can be tapped. India is involved in developing a number of hydel power projects in Bhutan already and is keen to deepen the cooperation.

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