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THE CONTEXT: Recently, the Indian Prime Minister and Bhutan’s King held discussions on the entire gamut of bilateral cooperation and regional and global issues of mutual interest. This comes amid growing concerns over China’s efforts to forge a bond with Bhutan. The two countries also announced several measures to expand trade and connectivity.
MORE ON THE NEWS:
- The decision by India and Bhutan to focus on infrastructure and connectivity during talks is an important marker towards more bilaterally-driven regional initiatives.
The joint statement mentions about:
- Both sides agreed for completion of surveys for the 58 km cross-border rail link between Gelephu and Kokrajhar that connects Bhutan to Assam.
- Both sides agreed to explore a second rail link for about 18 km between Samtse in Bhutan and Banarhat in the West Bengal tea gardens area. India also decided to allow Bhutanese trade items to be carried further on from Haldibari in West Bengal to Chilahati in Bangladesh.
- India and Bhutan agreed to designate the Darranga-Samdrup Jongkhar border crossing between Assam and Bhutan’s less developed southeastern district as an immigration check post.
- The two sides agreed to strengthen trade infrastructure with the upgradation of an existing land customs station at Dadgiri (Assam) to a modernised “Integrated Check Post” (ICP) at Gelephu (Bhutan). It indicates India’s support to the Bhutanese SEZ project.
IMPACT OF THE DEVELOPMENT:
- Connectivity with the Northeast: Rail connectivity could, in the future, assist air connectivity for Indians in the Northeast as well. As Bhutan plans to build an international airport at Gelephu as part of the larger Sarpang district Special Economic Zone. This would also power New Delhi’s attempt at bridging the economic gap with the northeast.
- Boost economy: Bhutan’s economy has been particularly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The new project proposed to build a Special Economic Zone at Bhutan’s southern border with Assam and an airport at Gelephu are expected to drive growth and investment to the kingdom.
- Regional development: These developments tend to work for the regional development of the region including West Bengal and the northeast, Bhutan’s south and east dzongkhags (districts).
ISSUE IN INDIA-BHUTAN RELATIONS:
- China angle: The recent normalization of Bhutan and China relations with the visit of Bhutan’s foreign minister to China has raised concern for India. These are also raising security concerns for India as their discussion covered the trijunction near the crucial Siliguri Corridor that connects India’s Northeast with the rest of the country.
- Sovereignty: There are chances of Bhutan Joining the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which can cause friction given Bhutan’s strategic location. India is concerned about the BRI and its impact on the region, particularly in terms of sovereignty and debt implications.
- Big brotherly attitude: Though, India sees Bhutan as equal partner in relationship. Younger Bhutanese feel that Indians are using security issues as an excuse to keep Bhutan under India’s control and are conscious of relationship. Also, Bhutan has been seeking greater access to the Indian market for its products to reduce the trade deficit.
- Rising Debt: Bhutan is concerned about low forex reserves and a major public debt, with an estimated 125% Government Debt to GDP ratio in 2022 which is largely made up of debt to India.
THE WAY FORWARD:
- Timely completion: For successful implementation of the projects, there is a need for efficient and time-bound execution of such ambitious plans. It will help in the maximum utilisation of the project and strengthening relationships between both the countries. Easing travel between the two countries can raise Bhutanese opportunities for trade and travel and bring in much needed tourism revenues.
- Economic Assistance: India is Bhutan’s leading development partner. Since the launch of the First Five Year Plan of Bhutan in 1961, India has been extending financial support to Bhutan’s FYPs. There is a need of continuous economic support to Bhutan to alleviate the Chinese influence as well.
- Cultural Cooperation: India and Bhutan can promote cultural exchange programs to foster greater understanding and appreciation of each other’s culture, art, music, and literature. A visa-free movement of people from both countries can strengthen sub-regional cooperation. Mutual trust and cooperation need to be continued by reaching out to younger generations.
India and Bhutan enjoy long-standing and exceptional bilateral ties characterised by “utmost trust, goodwill, and mutual understanding at all levels. India and Bhutan cooperation and collaboration can lead to the development of the region and can alleviate the concerns related to China.
PREVIOUS YEAR QUESTIONS
Q) The time has come for India and Japan to build a strong contemporary relationship, one involving global and strategic partnerships that will have a great significance for Asia and the world as a whole.’ Comment.
Q) In respect of India — Sri Lanka relations, discuss how domestic factors influence foreign policy.
MAINS PRACTICE QUESTION:
Q) Examine the significance of the India – Bhutan relations in the light of growing proximity between China and Bhutan.
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