Bhutan’s fifth king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s visit to India this week had both substance and subtext. After talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Droupadi Murmu, the joint statement detailed cooperation in many areas. India has agreed to support Bhutan’s next development plans and extend additional standby lines of credit. Hydropower, the “cornerstone” of India-Bhutan ties, also received a boost, with the government agreeing to consider Bhutanese requests for expediting long-delayed projects (Sankosh and Punatsangchhu), revising upwards the tariff on Chhukha, the oldest project, and buying power from the Basochhu power project. New infrastructure projects include an integrated checkpoint for trucks at Jaigaon, a checkpoint for third country nationals and a cross-border rail link from Kokrajhar to Gelephu. Future partnerships could include space research, skilling, startups and STEM education, and a new Internet gateway for Bhutan, in keeping with the Bhutanese king’s new “Transform Initiative”. The Bhutanese government is also worried about the number of Bhutanese migrating overseas as youth unemployment in 2021 reached 21%. India too needs to pay more attention to this brain drain, as, in the past, Bhutan’s elite would have been educated in India. India stands to lose its edge in Bhutanese policy making and public narrative, and thus the projects outlined stand to benefit Delhi and Thimphu in keeping the talent within.
However, it is the visit’s subtext — after recent comments by Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering indicating progress in China-Bhutan boundary talks — that must cause concern. In an interview to a European paper, he had said that Bhutan and China hope to agree on demarcating their northern boundary dispute in the next “1-2 meetings”. This must set alarm bells ringing as China has offered this demarcation as part of a “package deal” with Doklam, the area near the trijunction with India, and strategically sensitive given its proximity to India’s Siliguri corridor. While Bhutan is clear that all talks about the trijunction would be “trilateral”, India’s concerns extend to any change in the area surrounding it, so there needs to be full clarity on the issue. New Delhi must also not allow hyper-nationalism and its antagonism with China to pressure Bhutan. India’s time-tested ties with Bhutan have been predicated on not seeing each other in terms of the difference in their size but in counting each country’s prosperity as a win-win for both. More importantly, they have always anticipated the other’s interests before taking any step that could affect their long-cherished partnership.