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India–Bhutan Relations after Prime Ministerial Visits

Ms Sneha M. is a Research Analyst in the South Asia Centre at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi.
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  • March 28, 2024

    Overseas visits by heads of state and governments help countries recalibrate their bilateral relations. These engagements play a pivotal role in reinforcing mutual trust and understanding, thereby establishing the groundwork for enduring diplomatic relations. Such high-profile visits provide officials the opportunity to reshape bilateral relationships to the advantage of their countries. Additionally, these interactions serve as catalysts for policy adjustments and political engagement, often garnering considerable attention from the media.

    A notable instance of such diplomatic exchange was the visit of Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, from 14 March to 18 March 2024.1 His delegation included various dignitaries from Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Ministry for Industry, Commerce and Employment, and other senior officials from the Royal Government of Bhutan.2 Prime Minister Modi undertook a reciprocal visit to Bhutan three days later on 21–22 March 2024. These visits signify the importance both countries attach to bilateral relations, which has stood the test of time.

    Historical Aspects

    The enduring friendship between India and Bhutan is rooted in mutual warmth and goodwill, reinforced by frequent high-level exchanges. This bond assumed a lot of significance after India gained independence. India–Bhutan relationship traces its roots back to the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in March–April 1947, when Jawaharlal Nehru, then Vice-President of the interim Viceroy's Executive Council, extended an invitation to the Bhutanese delegation, which marked the beginning of formal engagement between the two nations.

    Subsequently, when Nehru became the first prime minister of India, he developed an extremely cordial relationship with Bhutanese King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. Under their watch, bilateral negotiations ensued, culminating in the signing of the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship in 1949. All the succeeding governments in New Delhi have regarded this relationship as important and invested heavily in it. In fact, keeping Bhutanese sensitivities in mind, in 2007, a new treaty of friendship was signed, supplanting the 1949 Treaty as the cornerstone for cooperation and bilateral interactions between the two countries.3 These milestones underscore the historical significance of India–Bhutan bilateral relations, shaping their camaraderie till today.

    Prime Minister Modi's visits to Bhutan in 2014, 2019 and now in 2024, have further deepened bilateral cooperation across sectors like hydropower, trade and education. The visit by present King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck's to India in September 2022 and subsequent engagements in April 2023 and November 2023 underscored the robust nature of bilateral relations. Additionally, the King's visits to Assam and Maharashtra further strengthened ties between Bhutan and these Indian states. Such high-level engagements continue to shape the strategic partnership between India and Bhutan, fostering regional stability and prosperity.

    Geopolitical Dynamics

    Bhutanese PM’s visit to India holds a particular significance against the backdrop of Bhutan's economic challenges and its complex relationship with China. PM Tobgay's inaugural visit after assuming office following his party’s success in the 2024 elections proved very useful, with both governments reaffirming their commitment to increased collaboration across various sectors. A joint announcement emphasised its importance for regional stability and prosperity.4

    Undoubtedly, India is Bhutan's primary ally for development and has played a pivotal role in Bhutan’s socio-economic progress. India has supported several projects as well as contributed substantially to Bhutan’s developmental aspirations. In early March, just before PM Tobgay’s visit, Bhutan unveiled a 15 billion Bhutanese Ngultrum (Nu) economic stimulus package, with India's backing, which is aimed at alleviating economic slowdown in key sectors such as tourism, technology and small enterprises.5

    Hydro-power collaboration is a significant cornerstone of the economic partnership between India and Bhutan. In the joint statement issued after Tobgay’s visit, both parties expressed contentment with the advancements made in the construction of the 1020 MW Punatshangchhu-II hydro-power project and anticipated its commissioning in 2024.6 Furthermore, both countries also agreed to broaden the current India–Bhutan energy alliance to encompass non-hydro renewables like solar and wind energy for enhancing energy efficiency and conservation measures.7

    Interestingly, PM Tobgay’s visit took place amid speculations that Bhutan and China are engaged in negotiations concerning their border dispute, which is reportedly at an advanced stage. This has sparked a lot of interest in India due to its implications for regional security. During his first term as prime minister from 2013 to 2018, Tobgay had initially tried to restore stability in bilateral relations after his predecessor, Jigme Thinley, faced accusations of pursuing anti-India policies, leading to India suspending subsidised LPG supplies to Bhutan.

    However, as his tenure drew to a close in 2018, PM Tobgay had made a pledge before the National Assembly to cultivate a strategic and enduring relationship with China, aimed at safeguarding Bhutan's national interests, which had raised concerns in India.8 His March 2024 visit to India, immediately after assuming office, is expected to assure New Delhi of his intent to pursue a path of deeper engagement and take bilateral relations forward.

    As for Bhutan–China discussions on the border issue, in October 2023, Bhutan's former Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji met Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing.9 China's statement on the meeting suggests that Bhutan emphasised adherence to the One-China principle and expressed its willingness to collaborate on resolving the boundary issue.10 Earlier, in October 2021, China and Bhutan had agreed on a three-step roadmap to resolve their boundary dispute, four years after the Doklam standoff. India was apprehensive about the potential implications of any such settlement on the status of the Doklam plateau, situated near the Bhutan–China–India tri-junction. Nevertheless, India had urged China to adhere to a 2012 agreement stipulating that tri-junction points between India, China and third countries should be determined in consultation with the relevant nations.

    The deliberate Chinese trespasses into Bhutan's northern regions, considered sacred by Bhutan but not by Beijing, along with the claim over Sakteng in eastern Bhutan in 2020, detract attention from China's clear aims in the western area.11 According to Professor Ian Hall of the Griffith Asia Institute, these objectives primarily revolve around resolving the border dispute by acquiring the Doklam plateau. Such an acquisition would bolster China's territorial jurisdiction and apply further pressure on India's Siliguri Corridor, potentially providing leverage for Beijing in future crises with New Delhi.12


    The back-to-back visits of Bhutanese Prime Minister to India and the Indian Prime Minister to Bhutan serve as strong reaffirmations of the enduring economic and developmental partnership between the two nations. Prime Minister Modi doubled India's support for Bhutan's Five Year Plan from Rs 5,000 crores to Rs 10,000 crores, showcasing India’s unwavering commitment. India and Bhutan exchanged several MoUs and signed agreements in the fields of energy, trade, digital connectivity, space, rail links and agriculture. Additionally, Bhutan’s King honoured PM Modi with the country’s highest civilian award, acknowledging India’s support during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Following the national elections in January 2024, PM Tobgay's tweet, stating ‘Bhutan is open to Business’, indicated that he considered his visit to India as a positive development for both his government and the nation. However, this statement can have multiple interpretations. For instance, it suggests Bhutan's political leadership's interest in forging diplomatic relations with China and embracing Chinese investments. Bhutan also refused India’s proposal for a motorable road from Bletting in Tawang to Doksum in Bhutan, citing concerns about potential disruption to ongoing boundary negotiations, at a time when it is awaiting resolution of its border dispute with China.13  

    Therefore, numerous questions remain unanswered. Early in the 1980s, Thimphu quietly relinquished its claim to the 154-square-mile Kula Khari area on its northern border with China, describing that claim was due to ‘cartographic mistakes’.14 Could another territorial concession be made without alerting India? Alternatively, should this visit be seen as a period of tranquillity preceding potential challenges in the bilateral relationship? Or perhaps, it is just Bhutan’s national interests at play.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.