NEW DELHI: “A very good conversation on our unique bilateral ties”. This is how External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar summed up the bilateral discussions that he had with visiting Bhutanese foreign minister Dr Tanday Dorji here on Monday evening.
While this is all that India officially said about the meeting between the two foreign ministers, the word “unique” captured the essence of ties between India and its much smaller but geostrategic neighbour.
Dr Dorji tweeted that he had “fruitful and constructive meetings” with his Indian counterpart as well as Home Minister Amit Shah.
During the meeting, the two sides are learnt to have discussed the security situation in strategic areas too, indicating that Doklam figured in the talks. Located in Bhutanese territory, Doklam was the scene of a 73-day confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops close to the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction in June-August 2017.
The standoff saw the armies of India and China move additional infantry battalions, tanks, artillery and missile units towards the border. Even after the faceoff ended following hectic diplomatic parleys, Indian anxieties remain as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has constructed military infrastructure and helipads as well as permanently stationed some troops in north Doklam.
Nestled between India and China, tiny Bhutan finds itself in the midst of their battle for strategic influence in the region. While Thimphu does not have diplomatic ties with Beijing, the latter has been seeking to bring the Himalayan kingdom under its sphere of influence.
What has added to New Delhi’s concerns are growing Chinese exports to Bhutan, making the land-locked country less dependent on India. There’s also the perception among many Bhutanese youth that their country needs to look at nations other than India.
While India and Bhutan have had close and cordial ties for long, New Delhi has redoubled its efforts to engage with Thimphu. The Bhutanese foreign minister is here on his first official visit to India on the government’s invitation after his party of which he is co-founder, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), won the parliamentary elections in October last year.
Bhutanese PM Dr Lotay Tshering has already made two visits to India since he took charge—in December last year and for the Modi government’s swearing-in in May this year.
Like Dr Tshering, the 51-year-old Bhutanese foreign minister is also a medical doctor, a paediatrician to be precise. He also has a strong India connect, having done his schooling from St. Joseph’s School, Darjeeling and MD in Paediatrics from the Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC), Pune.
For New Delhi, maintaining close ties with Thimphu are of utmost importance, given that Beijing has been seeking to increase its imprint on the Himalayan kingdom.
It was, therefore, no surprise that Jaishankar chose to make Bhutan his first port of call barely after a week after the BJP won a second term in May this year. Ahead of that visit, New Delhi emphasised that India and Bhutan share a unique and time-tested bilateral relationship, characterised by “utmost trust, goodwill and mutual understanding.”
Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Bhutan in August was yet another attempt to indicate the importance New Delhi attaches to bilateral relations with Thimphu. As many as 10 pacts in areas such as IT, power, education and aviation was also signed.