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Bhutan has decided to boycott the second BRI forum, which is scheduled to be held later this month in Beijing, China. Thimphu gave no specific reasons for this decision. Bhutan had boycotted the first BRI forum held in May 2017 as well. Bhutan had explained then that the BRI was a new project and it did not have sufficient information about that, and therefore, Bhutan would choose to wait and understand the dynamics of BRI before joining.
Bhutan took the decision three days after India decided not to take part in the second BRI forum, while other South Asian countries including Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have confirmed their participation in that event. India reiterated its position on the BRI that the “connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality, and must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Bhutan’s decision on BRI indicates that there is a coincidence of views between India and Bhutan over this issue. It also suggests that there has been no major change in Bhutan’s foreign policy under the new government in Thimphu. Immediately after assuming power, Bhutanese Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering emphasized that “Bhutan’s foreign policy cannot change in every five years,” which indicated that India continues to in the centre-stage of Bhutan’s foreign policy.
Ever since diplomatic relationship was established in 1968 between Bhutan and India, the ties between the two countries has emerged as one of the most successful stories of cooperation in South Asia, which is characterized by mutual trust and understanding.
Given India’s special relationship with Bhutan, Prime Minister Tshering’s maiden visit to India in December 2018 was accorded high priority by New Delhi. During the visit, both sides deliberated on a wide range of bilateral and regional issues. Since this was the first high-level visit from Bhutan after the change of guard in Thimphu, New Delhi used it as an opportunity to advance exemplary ties of friendship between the two countries.
Besides, the Nu (Bhutanese currency Ngulstrum) 45 billion assistance for Bhutan’s 12th Plan; India also agreed to provide a five-year transitional Trade Support Facility of Nu 4 billion to strengthen bilateral trade and economic linkages. The implementation of ongoing hydro-power projects in Bhutan was reviewed and it was agreed to expedite their implementation. Both countries reiterated their commitment to jointly develop generating capacity of 10,000 megawatts in Bhutan.
Bhutan does not have any diplomatic relations with China. Thimphu’s ‘status-quoist’ foreign policy and the new economic diversification and tourism policy of the ruling centre-left Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT)must have encouraged China to explore possibilities of offering BRI as an alternative to India’s development projects. In this regard, China has so far sent two important diplomatic missions to Thimphu to convince the new government to join the BRI.
In July 2018, China’s vice foreign minister Kong Xuanyou visited Thimphu. He reportedly discussed the whole gamut of the bilateral disputes with the Bhutanese leadership, which included the situation along the China-Bhutan-India tri-junction in Doklam. During the visit, Xuanyou also extended Chinese invitation to Bhutan to join the BRI and offered financial aid for Bhutanese hydropower projects to reduce its dependence on India.
Chinese Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui was the second Chinese dignitary to visit Bhutan in February 2019. He led a cultural delegation from China, which performed on the occasion of the Chinese spring festival. On the sidelines, Luo reportedly asked the Bhutanese leaders and officials to join the BRI and to allow China to open a trade and economic affairs office (if not an embassy) in Thimphu.
That Bhutan has withstood all pressures and decided not to join the second BRI meet shows that it still considers, in its long-term interest to synchronise its foreign and economic policy with that of India’s. This would add further strength to India-Bhutan bilateral relationship.
Script: Dr. Nihar R Nayak, Research Fellow, IDSA