Foreign Secretary visits Bhutan amidst a number of moves by the government in the neighbourhood

Meetings with new Bhutan Prime Minister, Bangladesh Foreign Minister, and Sri Lanka President on the cards; India and Pakistan exchange visas for diplomats 

January 29, 2024 09:24 pm | Updated 10:32 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra with Foreign Secretary of Bhutan Aum Pema Choden during his official visit to Bhutan, in Paro.

Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra with Foreign Secretary of Bhutan Aum Pema Choden during his official visit to Bhutan, in Paro. | Photo Credit: PTI

Close on the heels of the appointment or “Dakyen” ceremony for Bhutan’s new Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay and his Cabinet members on Sunday, Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra arrived in Thimphu for a three-day visit. The visit comes amidst other moves by the Modi government within the neighbourhood, including hosting the new Bangladesh Foreign Minister in Delhi next week, hosting the Indian Ocean Conference with Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, issuing visas for Pakistani diplomats ahead of elections on February 8 in Pakistan, as well as External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s visit to Nepal earlier this month.

Mr. Kwatra is expected to discuss bilateral ties with his counterpart, meet Prime Minister Tobgay and the newly appointed Foreign Minister D.N. Dhungyel, and call on King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.

Mr. Tobgay, who was last in office from 2013-2018, was elected with a big majority in elections this month, when his People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won 30 of the 47 National Assembly seats. In particular, the Foreign Secretary will discuss how best to take India-Bhutan cooperation forward on the Gelephu mega ‘Mindfulness City” project, the site for which Mr. Kwatra had previewed in July 2023. Discussions on the progress expected between Bhutan and China on the border talks, after they signed a ‘Cooperation Agreement’ on the delimitation and demarcation of their boundary in October 2023, are on the agenda, and Mr. Kwatra is also expected to invite Mr. Tobgay to visit India in the next few weeks.

“The visit is in keeping with the tradition of regular high-level exchanges between Bhutan and India,” the Ministry of External Affairs stated, announcing Mr. Kwatra’s visit on Monday.

A view of the Bhutan Cabinet

A view of the Bhutan Cabinet | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

New Delhi is also expecting a visit from Bangladesh Foreign Minister Hasan Mahmud on February 7, the first high-level visit from Dhaka since the re-election of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League for a record fourth term. Senior Awami League leaders, including Minister of Road Transport Obaidul Quader, have “appreciated” India’s support to Bangladesh during the elections, and Mr. Mahmud is expected to discuss new connectivity projects, the recently inaugurated Akhaura-Agartala rail link, and cooperation for electric buses with External Affairs Minister Dr. Jaishankar during the visit. They are also expected to discuss security issues along the Bangladesh-Mizoram border as well as the situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine province and the future of Rohingya refugees taking shelter in Bangladesh.

After the visit, Dr. Jaishankar will fly to Perth, Australia for the Indian Ocean Conference, organised by the India Foundation and hosted by India, Sri Lanka, Singapore and other regional countries, where Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Fiji Prime Minister S.L. Rabuka, and several Foreign Ministers are among the speakers. 

Meanwhile, sources confirmed that India and Pakistan exchanged assignment visas for dozens of diplomats, diplomatic staff and family members to serve at each other’s High Commissions in Islamabad and Delhi on Monday as well. India had sent its Charge D’Affaires (CDA) Geetika Srivastava to Pakistan in August 2023, and has now accepted the appointment of Saad Warraich as Pakistan’s CDA, to replace Aizaz Khan, who is currently officiating as the Deputy High Commissioner and CDA, given that India and Pakistan had recalled their High Commissioners in August 2019, and have so far not restored their positions.

According to the sources, Pakistan issued about 35 assignment visas for Indians to travel and India issued about 20 that were pending as part of the exchange that comes a week before elections in Pakistan on February 8. While India and Pakistan have frozen most contact between them, during the run-up to elections that have seen imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan cut out of the campaign, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party has promised to send a “message of peace” to India. Mr. Sharif, who is seen as the front-runner in the race, has pointed out in his speeches that it was during his tenures as Prime Minister of Pakistan that former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and PM Narendra Modi visited Pakistan.

Finally, New Delhi is watching the political turmoil in Maldives closely, where the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) coalition that has a majority in the Majlis (Parliament) has proposed a No Confidence Motion against President Mohamed Muizzu.

India is also expecting a “high-level core group” delegation from Male to Delhi in February to work on a series of thorny issues, including the Muizzu government’s demand that India withdraw all military personnel from the archipelago by March 15. Despite the current tensions, Mr. Muizzu and Maldives Minister of Foreign Affairs Moosa Zameer, who met with Dr. Jaishankar earlier this month, congratulated India on its Republic Day.

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