Bhutan and Japan are among the few countries in the world that offer euphoric, trouble-free summitry to Indian leaders. Narendra Modi’s visit to Bhutan, his first abroad as prime minister, went off well as expected. The visit had the requisite combination of symbolism, pomp, high-minded rhetoric and a measure of substance that will satisfy both sides. Mr Modi headed to Thimphu to underline his interest in devoting attention to India’s neighbourhood, which New Delhi has neglected in recent years.
Bhutan has always been important to India because New Delhi has both material aspirations and strategic anxieties concerning the kingdom — it sees Bhutan as a vital source of hydroelectric power, but it is also interested in its foreign policy choices as it shares a 470-km border with China. Mr Modi’s visit was then about drawing the small neighbour into a tighter embrace. Bhutan reciprocated by rolling out the red carpet. The PM was feted by the royalty, he addressed Bhutan’s Parliament and inaugurated its Supreme Court building that was built with Indian funding.
Both countries will now strive to achieve the 10,000 MW target in hydropower cooperation. Three power projects are now operational, three others will be commissioned in 2017-18, while a framework agreement for four more projects was signed in April. India will build Bhutan’s capacity in IT and education, including through the doubling of scholarships for Bhutanese nationals and developing an e-library network in the country. These will be built on India’s assistance package of Rs. 4,500 crore for Bhutan’s five-year plan from 2013 to 2018, which covers a range of areas from infrastructure, IT, health, agriculture, tourism to human resources.
The PM’s high-profile visit is an important reminder for Thimphu to be mindful of New Delhi’s concerns as it mulls Beijing’s overtures. There are concerns in New Delhi that Bhutan may in time choose to cede areas adjoining Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in exchange for gains in the north. There is no indication that will happen anytime soon, but New Delhi wants to avoid giving Beijing the kind of toehold in Bhutan that it has gained in Nepal. The joint statement’s reference to “not allow each other’s territory to be used for interests inimical to the other” is a barely veiled reference to Beijing. Mr Modi has done the right thing by signalling to all that he intends to nurture relations with small neighbours. He should now ensure that his bureaucracy will be as sensitive to them as he hopes to be.