Modi’s Bhutan Sojourn: Why China Reads Between the Lines?


On May 16, 2014, the world’s biggest democracy and Asia’s rapidly rising power, India announced results of history’s longest and biggest multiparty democratic elections. Held in nine phases spreading across April-May 2014, the country chose to bring in power the government of Narendra Damodardas Modi, leader of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)- known for his unconventional but successful policies.


When the hugely popular Modi administration came into power, which has promised alluring changes in governance, economics and the military, all eyes were on what steps, big and small, the leader would take- most of which are unusual including the choice of his first foreign visit to Bhutan on June 15-16, 2014. His actions are treated as insight into how one of Asia’s rising powers is about to change.


Nestled in the far east of the gigantic Himalayan range lies the blissful, aesthetic, quiet Kingdom of Bhutan landlocked between India and China. Why the leader of a fast growing nation chose Bhutan to be his first foreign trip could be interesting to politics in Asia and the globe and has had political analysts reading between the lines. To understand what significance Modi’s first trip has and what it means for the region, it is essential we dive a little into the history and geography of the two nations.


Geographically, it is understood how Bhutan can be dependent on India due to being landlocked from all sides- China from the North and India from the West, South and East. It has merely 2.5% of arable land and extremely limited access to potable water. With no waters to claim its own either, the Land of the Thunder Dragon therefore has only India and China to vastly depend upon for its development- not to mention that maintaining friendly relations with both at the same time can be tricky.


Historically, the British Raj in India had signed treaties with the Kingdom from as far back as 1865, when British India offered subsidy to Bhutan on the condition Bhutan would secede some border land to British India, which would later be returned post Indian independence. Few know that the Bhutanese monarchy is also the work of British India influence- being established in 1907. Later on, British India decided to abstain from involving with Bhutan’s internal affairs and only took control of its international affairs- the role of which independent India took over in 1947. Formally, India took over control of its defence and international affairs and formalised annual subsidies in 1949.


Accompanied by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, and National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Kumar Doval, and a small group of media persons, Modi discussed with King Jigme Wangchuk and Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay the development cooperation programme and bilateral relations between the neighbours in areas of hydropower, education and the youth specifically.


With a population of only a little over seven hundred thousand people, stricken widely with unemployment and debt, why is the peace loving kingdom of Bhutan strategic to Indian interests?


For one, the kingdom is the closest 'ally' India has in the region known for abundant political and historic rivalry. Modi said of his visit that it was a 'natural choice' since India and Bhutan were 'forged with ties of geography, culture and history' and that relationship with Bhutan would be a 'foreign policy priority'.


Strategically located between India and China, Bhutan has key control over several Himalayan mountain passes. Bhutan can act as buffer zone in case of a Sino-India conflict breaking out. It is also strategically important to the security of the Silguri corridor- the narrow stretch of land which connects India to its north-eastern states.


The visit has been seen worldwide as a move to assert India’s influence in South Asia where neighbouring China is swiftly making inroads. Regional relations had suffered under the Congress lead UPA government which cost them the precious mistake of allowing China to forge stronger regional ties in the neighbourhood. Modi clearly wants to make amends.


Modi’s acceptance of Bhutan’s invitation is an addition to his international policy of reasserting the Indian subcontinent’s position in the region. As previously noticed, Modi had smartly sent out invitation letters of his inauguration to Heads of State of several South Asian nations, also going the extra mile to exchange friendly letters with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of its arch rival Pakistan, which also happens to be China’s ‘all weather’ ally.


China meanwhile evaded questions regarding Modi’s visit with diplomacy intact stating that they were “happy” about Modi’s Bhutan visit and were also “full of confidence” about future relations with India. Regarding the same, analysts in China claimed that they were “happy to see the development of friendly, cooperative, mutually beneficial relations between our other neighbours”. It is a known fact that Bhutan and China presently share no diplomatic relationship despite exchanging delegations of politics, trade and culture.


While the Indian economy was pacing slowly, battling internal scandals and undergoing a policy handicap, the determined Chinese have made swift progresses this year that Modi will have to catch up with in the due course of time. It is no secret that China has built ports, both military and commercial facilities, in Sri Lanka (Hambantota) and Pakistan (Gwadar)- both of which are not just nations with a maritime border, but co-incidentally also geographically 'containing' India.


In the first quarter of 2014, China also overtook India as the biggest foreign investor in Nepal which was a first for India and extremely unsettling as India has been historically known to be Nepal’s big brother and largest foreign investor.


Meanwhile Beijing has also attempted to forge closer ties with Thimpu. Seen as retaliation by some analysts, India cut fuel subsidy ahead of Bhutanese elections only to restore them after the results which caused a slight rift in the relations. However this did not go down well with the Chinese as it was seen as a blatant move to influence election results in favour of Indian interests. Therefore the Bhutan move can be symbolic of India trying to maintain its position as an indispensable benefactor to a state that is almost a protectorate to India.


Modi’s government aims to make India the largest foreign investor in the region for infrastructure, similar to what China has done in Asia and Africa. India went ahead and assisted Bhutan in constructing their Supreme Court, that Modi also inaugurated on this visit. A greatly power starved India also needs Bhutan’s rich capacity for hydropower generation. He laid foundation to a 600 MW hydropower project that will feed demand in both Bhutan and India.


There is more to India-Bhutan relations that meets the eye. As China and India both compete for regional dominance, only time can tell how successful Modi’s unconventional ways of handling foreign policy matters are going to be.

Author Note
The writer is a researcher at the Department of International Relations, School of Liberal Studies, Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, Gandhinagar.