India remains the cornerstone of our foreign policy: Bhutan Foreign Minister

India remains the cornerstone of our foreign policy: Bhutan Foreign Minister

Bhutan’s new Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji reiterates the country’s policy of not having full relations with any permanent member of the UN Security Council, including China 

Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering is expected to visit Delhi in late December, in the first high-level exchange between the Modi government and the newly elected government of the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) party that won a surprise victory last month. Ahead of the visit, Bhutan’s new Foreign Minister, Tandi Dorji, speaking over the telephone, said the change in government would not alter the Himalayan country’s foreign policy focus.

In the run-up to the election, the manifesto of your party, the DNT, had not focussed much on foreign policy issues. Many are hence curious about what your government’s foreign policy agenda is?

The foreign policy of all parties in Bhutan follow the policies already established [by the monarchy], and I think whoever would have come to power would have the same policy in place. We will continue to build on that policy, with India as the cornerstone of our foreign policy. PM Dr. Lotay Tshering has said he would like to take India-Bhutan friendship to greater heights. His visit to India towards the end of the month will be his first call abroad, and we will hope to finalise India’s assistance for the 12th Five-Year Plan. The government hopes to establish its ties with the Government of India and would like to invite Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi for his long-awaited visit to Bhutan.

There have been some divergences from the past policies however. In the campaign, for example, one party (DPT) made “Bhutan’s sovereignty” its plank. Another concern was reducing Bhutan’s indebtedness to India. Will you discuss these issues with New Delhi?

We are always grateful to India for its assistance, and it is only natural that as a land-locked country, we will continue to harness our needs from India. Yes, we are concerned about the issue of debt, but most of those debts are incurred from hydropower projects, which we believe will be paid back in time, once the projects are completed.

On non-hydropower projects, we are doing some rethinking. Bhutan will graduate from an LDC (least developed country) to a middle-income country by 2023. So we will have to look for ways for our domestic revenues to meet our current budget at least.

Those are serious issues for us, and we are very happy that India continues to assist us through this process.

But there have been serious differences over the rate of hydropower that India pays. How important will resolving this be?

I don’t think this is a difficult issue. [Foreign Secretary] Mr. [Vijay] Gokhale had assured us that India will look at our requests very favourably. Eventually, what is good for Bhutan will also be good for India to a large extent, and we hope to discuss these issues during the PM’s visit.

More than the hydropower rate that India pays, we are concerned about India’s revised policy on cross-border trade of electricity (CBTE) that will certainly impact Bhutan’s ability to sell power to India. We would like to see reforms in this policy.

India has been very keen on the passage of the BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal) Motor Vehicles Agreement that was shelved by the Bhutanese Parliament. Will your government try to revive this, given the opposition from local Bhutanese transporters to freeing access for vehicular traffic?

We are definitely looking at it, and we will reconsider the BBIN agreement.

The arrangement has advantages and disadvantages, but we know that some of the outcomes will benefit Bhutan, and we will reconsider the agreement.

The former Prime Minister, who had to deal with the Doklam crisis, spoke of Bhutan being one of the smallest countries sandwiched between two Asian giants. How does your government hope to navigate ties with China?

We have a very cordial relationship with China, but we do not have diplomatic relations with them.

This is not because we don’t want them, but because it has always been our foreign policy not to build full relations with any of the permanent member of the UN Security Council, like China, U.S., etc. I don’t think that will change. We have people-to-people interactions and we cannot wish away China as our neighbour to our north.

How do you hope to strengthen people-to-people ties with India? In the past few years, we have seen more Bhutanese students making the shift to colleges in countries such as Thailand, Australia and Singapore, instead of India…

There has always been a great interest from our students in India. I myself am a product of an Indian education: I went to St. Joseph’s school at North Point, Darjeeling, when I was four years old and then later studied at the Armed Forces Medical College in Pune.

We would like to explore how more Indian universities can come to Bhutan and attract more students, because 70% of Bhutanese students would still prefer to study in India as it is more affordable and gives better value for them.

The rest may be wealthier and able to send children abroad to study, but we hope to step up India-Bhutan exchanges for all.

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